Spectatin' Where There Ain't No Film
The craze has really developed over the past few years: this desire, inherent to several forms of movie love, to compare the memory of a cherished film to the places and locations where it was filmed. This activity ranges from the specialist tourism of the 'Vertigo trip' around San Francisco and the Before Sunrise stroll through Vienna, to the forensic scholarship of Roland-François Lack at his 'Cine-Tourist' website, and the popular World Film Locations book series from Intellect in UK — not forgetting Filmkrant's own Dana Linssen going, by train and foot, in intrepid search of the ghost of Chantal Akerman's heroine Jeanne Dielman at 23, quai du commerce, Bruxelles...
The least reflective of these exercises simply points to a spot and proclaims: 'Hey, that's the street corner where James Stewart stopped and locked at a clock tower!', or whatever. The more sophisticated studies gaze at these traces for something stranger and more ghostly: such as evidence of a 'creative geography', separate pieces of a city stitched together ingeniously in editing, or the artifice of studio sets blended in with a now-charged and stylised fragment of reality.
I recall, as a guiding light, a remark that the brilliant monologue-artist Spalding Gray made, in his performance piece Swimming to Cambodia (documented for posterity by Jonathan Demme in 1987), about acting while flying aboard a helicopter with no doors during a scene of The Killing Fields (1984): since the movie camera 'eroticises the space' it points at, Gray said, no harm could possibly come to him mid-air — it wouldn't matter if the chopper crashed or if he simply stepped off into the vast nothingness, it would all be OK, because the filming created a protective sheath around him...
For me, one of the greatest lessons of film theory — concerning space, environment, desire, acting, editing, the lot — is contained in a scene of Emir Kusturica's immortally bizarre Arizona Dream (1993). Tear your eyes from the assembled audience in a country barn, which contains (at one table!) Faye Dunaway, Johnny Depp, Lily Taylor and Paulina Porizkova, and look to the tawdry, amateur stage where, for a talent contest, Vincent Gallo is about to give his mimetic impression of Cary Grant.
The object of his re-enactment is the famous 'cropdustin' where there ain't no crops' scene of Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1958) — Cary waiting alone in the middle of a vast, silent field, suddenly menaced by a gun-firing, gas-spraying plane. Gallo does exactly what Grant does in this scene: he stands, waits, checks his watch, and eventually runs, dives...
But the audience members see nothing — they only laugh, derisively. They have no images from Hitchcock's film, no accompanying soundtrack, not even a memory of the original to orient them. They see only incomprehensible, minimalist performance art.
What inspired this scene in the minds of Kusturica and writer David Atkins? My best guess is that it is based on some of Hitchcock's remarks about acting — that directing performance is a matter of telling someone to stand still, look screen-left, move, etc — mixed with an elementary, Kuleshovian lesson about how editing constructs narrative: cut from Cary looking to a plane and, voila! You've got fiction. But that 'scene' happens, literally, nowhere, in no single, integral space.
But Arizona Dream's scene is all about the vision, memory and experience of cinephilia at a far more profound level. Because, all the while, Gallo, like a child, sees and hears the film unwinding, majestically, in his head: he only needs a few pot-plant props to imagine himself in those fields, dodging that magical-mystery aircraft. In his mind, the cramped, artificial space on stage expands into the full Technicolor illusion conjured by Hitchcock. The acting-plus-montage lesson disappears for this fervent cinephile; there is only the imagined supra-reality of a beloved film.