How creative should cinematic geography be? Lev Kuleshov showed that it could be very creative indeed, as he "carried out...experiments using editing in which he cut together separate shots of a walking man, a waiting woman, a gate, a staircase and a mansion. When the shots were combined the audience assumed that the elements were present at the same location." (An Introduction to Film Studies) This gave birth to the term creative geography and sat alongside the Kuleshov effect: a blank expression on an actor's face is cut to various things (a child, a bowl of soup, a woman in a coffin) and the audience perceives a different expression on the actor's face each time. This for Kuleshov and other directors of the Soviet school proved that editing defined cinema. Cinema may have been able to record reality but that wasn't where its aesthetic brilliance resided. It rested on montage, on editing. Consequently, capturing recorded reality and the paramountcy of place wasn't important.
Classic Hollywood wouldn't have disagreed but their interest in eschewing location didn't rest on the power of editing but on the pragmatics of suspension of disbelief. Few classic Hollywood films sought out locations: The Adventures of Robin Hood wasn't shot in England but in a forest in California and on the backlots in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman never went to Casablanca: the film was shot mainly at Burbank in LA. Later Hollywood films would film on location, like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Roman Holiday, for example, taking advantage of shooting in Morocco and Rome to give viewers a proper feel for the exotic, while others relied on back projection rather than studio backlots. With rear projection, you have for example the lead actors sitting in a car in a studio while in the background we see images of a given locale as though they are passing through it.
If classic Hollywood was pragmatic and Russian montage experimental, sometimes more modern filmmakers combine the pragmatics with the experimental and arrive at the ingenious. In Local Hero, Bill Forsyth wished to create a magical Scottish village but he had no interest in the sort of sound stage, backlot magic of Brigadoon, which never set foot in Scotland, with the producers feeling Scottish villages lacked the wonderment they sought. Instead, they built one in Hollywood. Forsyth couldn't find his ideal village either but he could with a bit of creative geography. He wanted a perfect beach and a perfect village, finding the former on the West Coast of Scotland and the latter in the North East of the country. The beach and the village were hundreds of miles apart but on screen, they blend seamlessly together. Forsyth insists on location shooting but relies on Kuleshov's innovations to combine them.
Andre Bazin was generally opposed to Russian montage but he probably would have been quite happy with Forsyth's solution. He wanted films to be shot on location where possible, and to rely on longer takes and deeper focus to bring out the specifics of locale. Admiring the Italian film Bicycle Thieves, shot in Rome, Bazin said: "Not one scene shot in a studio. Everything was filmed in the streets," (Bicycle Thief) Bazin added, elsewhere, that in Nanook of the North, "the camera cannot see everything at once but it makes sure not to lose any part of what it chooses to see. What matters to [director Robert] Flaherty, confronted with Nanook hunting the seal, is the relation between Nanook and the animal; the actual length of the waiting period." ('The Evolution of the Language of Cinema')
Bazin probably wouldn't have been especially surprised at Forsyth's solution, yet he might have been a little bemused by how important location shooting would become to the tourist industries of certain countries and perhaps Scotland more than many. "The tourism sector is one of the most important for the Scottish economy with around 14 million people visiting the country each year. Spending by tourists is around 5% of GDP and the sector accounts for more than 7% of employment in Scotland." (Insider.co.uk) Film hasn't been afraid to capitalise on this, with Visit Scotland saying, "Scotland has a wealth of TV programmes, films, and books which are set in Scotland or have links to Scotland in some way. These all play a role in inspiring visitors to come to Scotland. Often, they act as a prompt to visit, particularly for European and long-haul markets. When here, visitors may take part in specific TV, film or literary related activities which form part of the visitor experience." While for Bazin, location shooting was a mark of aesthetic integrity, now it can often seem an example of commercial acumen. Why shoot in a studio if you can film in actual locations that can then become part of a visitor experience?
Tourists might wish to visit Edinburgh New Town after watching three flatmates deciding to carve up someone's body in Shallow Grave, to walk along Princes Street at a more leisurely pace than the shoplifting Renton and Spud in Trainspotting. One may wish to venture into the Rutherford bar on Drummond Street that can be found in 16 Years of Alcohol, or go up to Calton Hill after seeing the same film. A viewer might wish to spend time at the shore, in homage to Sunshine on Leith, or again go up to Calton Hill, this time standing by the Dugald Stewart Monument (rather than the National Monument of Scotland) where two of the characters in this Scottish musical begin to fall in love. You might struggle to occupy the clock tower as the central character in Hallam Foe does, but you could at least venture into the Balmoral Hotel at the top of Princes Street and see parts of the place where it was filmed. You could also take a walk across the Meadows and up in the direction of Bruntsfield, seeing James Gillespie's, the school that was the basis for the educational establishment in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Yet ironically, even paradoxically, the film that perhaps uses more Edinburgh locations than any is the animated work The Illusionist. On the basis of the film, the tourist can go to the Cameo cinema, up the Crags, around Arthur's Seat, down Broughton Street and up the Scott monument. Bazin might have noted the importance of location, and the Scottish tourist industry the significance of films filming here. But The Illusionist shows that location shooting is only a part of it. You can invoke the place with drawing as readily as recording if the film respects the integrity of the city as a space.
This suggests we should distinguish between a film's setting and its location and that was of course what classic Hollywood consistently did when it knew that it was important The Adventures of Robin Hood was set in Sherwood Forest but didn't need to be filmed there, and when it knew the biggest city in Morocco could be shot in Hollywood without damaging the import of Casablanca as a setting. In each instance, you couldn't easily change the setting but you could have filmed that setting almost anywhere. Yet anyone going to Hollywood looking for Sherwood Forest or Rick's cafe in Casablanca is going to be disappointed, while someone who comes to Edinburgh to see Leith shore, Calton Hill, Greyfriar's graveyard or the Grassmarket needn't be disheartened at all. Part of the beauty of The Illusionist is that it wants the hand-drawn to meet the documentative: to see that a carefully crafted work based on Edinburgh as it looked in 1959 can give the viewer a similar sense of lived experience as a live-action film. It might make us wonder whether what matters is the location after all, and yet an important part of The Illusionist is its fidelity to fact when it offers the most fictional of techniques.
Documentary animation is an anomaly very few films risk (Waltz with Bashir about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict a rare instance) and this is because one is seen as iconic and the other indexical. These are semiotic terms from CS Peirce, and they allow us to differentiate from a likeness (the icon) and an index (a direct relationship). Smoke from a fire; a footprint in the snow are indices, while a painting is an icon. Documentary images originating as a celluloid form are thus the former rather than the latter, and animation the latter rather than the former. It is often assumed that if you want to represent something with fidelity, then film as a recording device, and thus an index, is much more accurate than animation, which is iconic. Yet when a film is as carefully respectful of place as The Illusionist, and Casablanca as wonderfully wanton in its attention to the specifics of its Moroccan city setting, we might wonder if such a claim can hold. We really do feel we can go to the places shown in The Illusionist even if they are hand-drawn, as we cannot go to those in Casablanca that were filmed. Equally, Bill Forsyth uses creative geography to join together a beach on one side of Scotland with a village on the other in Local Hero and arrives at an impossible locale, even if we can visit both the beach and the village separately but not conjoined. Fidelity to location can be a strange thing but what we can take from the discussion is that playing around with location needn't underestimate it, and careful attention in the hand-drawn can do wonders at bringing out a place's specificity.
© Tony McKibbin