Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Celluloid Scavenger Hunt

On Location: Cities of the World in Film

by Claudia Hellmann and Claudine Weber-Hof
Bucher, 2006
192 pages, hardcover
400 illustrations, $45.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

On Location: Cities of the World in Film, from German publisher Bucher, crams a world of information about the filming of 58 movies in 18 cities into one giant maze of a book. Authors Hellmann and Weber-Hof selected eight European cities, six in North America, and four in Australasia to set the stage for this ambitious undertaking. While the cities chosen are hardly exotic locations, they are popular tourist destinations. Roaming through the streets scavenger-hunt style looking to stand in the spot where film stars created memorable moments is an appealing concept.

Organized into chapters alphabetically by city, each section has been given a theme for the films that are covered. For Chicago it’s “Gangsters and the Blues,” Paris is deemed the “City of Love, City of Film,” and for Havana, they’ve chosen the subheading, “Flair of the Caribbean.” As you drill down into each chapter, the authors provide fresh and readable narrative about each film’s storyline, including bits of relatively unknown trivia about the locations, filmmakers and actors. As a bonus, key locations in the text are in bold type, and a subsequent map of the city pinpoints these highlighted areas. Each film has a sidebar listing the director, principal actors and year the film was released.

The page design is clever and allows room for the various content elements, but does get busy looking. Images typically run less than half page, with decent reproductions and useful captions. The illustrations in Location are a mix of stills and memorabilia from the movies, city portrait photography by David John Weber and pick-up shots unrelated to the movie which are used as fillers. In the spreads for “The Last Emperor,” there is a gratuitous snap of a golden lion statue on the grounds of the Imperial Palace and a lackluster overview shot of the Forbidden City. These substitute images work to present a sense of the place but also give the book a travel guide feel. For film buffs, the true moments captured during filming—such as the intimate shot of Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi on the set of “Summertime” in the Venice canals—will be the more compelling photographs.

The most monumental challenge for the entire production must have been deciding which films and cities to include. The process might have been to start with obvious movie-making epicenters (Los Angeles and New York) and then add more sensational places (Rome and Tokyo). Once the cities were determined, there would be the grueling, decision-making agony of selecting films. The editorial team likely engaged in lively discussions prefaced by, “We can’t make a book like this without including…” legendary locations such as: the window at Tiffany’s where Audrey Hepburn sips coffee with gloved hands; Griffith Park Observatory where James Dean’s rebellious life ends; and Mission San Juan Bautista where Hitchcock’s dizzy characters throw bodies off the bell tower.

Regardless of how the book was thrown together, the film selections are varied and showcase big-name directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian De Palma, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Even taking into account that space dictated decisions, leaving out a film by Fran├žois Truffaut for the Paris section is an unfortunate omission. While most of the films are of the wide-release sort, several obscure films are included, extending the book’s appeal to a wider audience. In Berlin, they feature “Run Lola Run” and in Havana, “Strawberry and Chocolate.” Location also manages to bring in a variety of film styles, including thriller (“Mission: Impossible”), romance (“Notting Hill”), music (“Amadeus”), sci-fi (“The Matrix”), documentary (“Buena Vista Social Club), and surreal (“La Dolce Vita”).

Overall, Location is a fun read and a great idea. Even if one of the films fell short at the box office or is not a particular favorite, learning about those involved in the background and the rationale behind filming at a particular location is interesting dinner table chatter. The authors did a solid job in their research and their passion for film, cities, architecture, and history comes together well. Location is a unique and valuable book for readers who are planning visits to any of its featured cities. After this book, readers will certainly look at the places it examines, be it an obscure ice cream stand or a crowded piazza, with newfound appreciation.

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