The Comfort of Real Places

Genuine locations were the place to be at the movies this year.
Columbus Movie
By  · Published on December 22nd, 2017

Genuine locations were the place to be at the movies this year.

This should have been a time for escapism. The year 2017 will be remembered as a bad one for the real world, but there weren’t a lot of easy distractions on the big screen. We traveled twice through Marvel’s cosmos, became immersed in Roger Deakins’s vision of 2049, and revisited the magical, fanciful 18th century France of fairy tales, but the places I found most enchanting in the movies this year were actual locations: Columbus, Indiana; Sacramento, California; Kissimmee, Florida; and Atlanta, Georgia.

We tend to see a lot of Atlanta these days because so many movies and TV shows are shot there, but most of the time the Southern city and its suburbs are standing in for other settings. And often when Atlanta is playing Atlanta, it’s for lazy reasons with no narrative significance, as in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. That’s why it was so refreshing to see the Georgia capital used properly in Baby Driver. Even better, the musically charged crime film seems to respect the layout of Atlanta, to the point where even the big chase scene can be replicated in real life, in real time, with only a couple geographical jumps.

Of course, anyone from Atlanta (well me, anyway) would argue that the route would take much longer because of there being heavy traffic always. Also, there’s a case to be made that Baby Driver‘s story doesn’t need to take place in that particular city, outside of maybe the way it pays slight homage to Smokey and the Bandit. Edgar Wright originally set the movie in LA (home of its influences The Driver and Heat) but reworked the script for Atlanta when the production relocated there for its financial perks, availability, and accommodations for what he needed to do authentically.

Wright’s movies, even when they’re not so synched to the soundtrack, tend to be choreographically blocked in such a way that there’s a proper sense of their locations being tangible physical spaces. That’s appreciated, especially nowadays when so much setting is digitally created or manipulated. He points out in interviews the extra work that would have been needed to fake the appearance of another city. It’s quite common and has become relatively cheap for Atlanta-shot films set elsewhere to feature digitally composited skylines and other environmental flourishes as required.

While such effects are more and more impressively seamless each year — last summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming feels like a genuine New York movie, despite having been mostly filmed in Atlanta — the illusion makes me uneasy, even if I’m not consciously aware of it being there. In fact, the imperceptibility of the trick is what really makes me anxious, as it means I can no longer believe my own eyes. Visual effects are best when not entirely real-seeming, so we don’t lose the trust in our own perception of or literacy for what we’re seeing in media, regardless of whether it’s just for the purpose of entertainment.

Greta Gerwig didn’t have to set Lady Bird in her hometown of Sacramento, but the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie has a greater sense of authenticity and authority because of the choice, and actually filming there makes it seem even more honest. Not that I know what suburban Sacramento looks like, but the montage of homes in the upscale “Fabulous Forties” neighborhood wouldn’t be there if they weren’t genuine. That honesty of place is fitting to the honesty of the characters and their story. It’s more than Gerwig just wanting to showcase or pay tribute to the city she grew up in, though it certainly translates to the intended theme of taking the value of one’s place for granted until viewed from the outside.

There’s a similar kind of montage of genuine locales in The Florida Project, which was shot on location in Kissimmee, just outside of Orlando, where the movie is set. Sean Baker tracks his young characters walking past kitschy spots like Orange World (“the world’s largest orange store”) and Jungle Falls Gift Shop (the one shaped like a wizard head) on their way to the Twistee Treat ice cream stand or Waffle House or home, to the Magic Castle Inn and Suites, all actual sites along Route 92 near Walt Disney World, just as he wrote in his script. They might be a bit out of geographical order in the movie, but I’m not certain about that.

It’s amazing that the movie is able to employ such an authentic space given that it’s both a tribute to that fabulous stretch of highway and ultimately a depressing portrayal of its residential “welfare motels,” all situated in the shadow of “The Most Magical Place on Earth.” Of course, negative depictions of places aren’t always bad for business (tourism was booming in the Big Apple in the ’80s in spite of how it was exaggeratedly represented in cinema), and I can imagine the real, purple-colored Magic Castle becoming a tourist spot itself for fans of The Florida Project, even if it’s neither precisely as it is as seen in the movie nor an ideal place to stay (according to online reviews) — the loud helicopter traffic next door is apparently legit.

The genuine setting of The Florida Project gives it an honesty similar to that of Lady Bird‘s use of Sacramento. For us to become truly immersed in the story and its world and believe in how simultaneously wonderful and bleak it is for the little characters inhabiting the space — like the way we view Gerwig’s hometown as both beautiful and unremarkable through the filmmaker and her protagonist’s perspective — we have to assume a physical identification with the locations and how they’re navigated. The Florida Project is based in reality, and it comes across that way.

Most notable of all for its incorporation of real places this year is the more obscure indie Columbus. The title itself is the name of its setting, and for those unfamiliar with the city’s significance as a mecca of modernism in the Midwest it’s a perfect introduction. Video essayist Kogonada makes his feature directorial debut with a movie that is abstract and impressionistic in its showcase of architecture that is both cold and comforting depending on the point of view. The featured landmarks include the Miller House, the Irwin Union Bank, and the Quinco Mental Health Center, all of them tending to be overlooked by residents of Columbus but visited by tourists from around the world.

The character-driven movie follows a rare native to the city who is interested in architecture and appreciates the local structures by such prominent designers as James Polcheck and Eero and Eliel Saarinen. She meets and befriends a man from Korea who claims to hate architecture and whose father, recently hospitalized in town, is a renowned architecture scholar. Some writers have referred to the buildings themselves as scene-stealing characters, but that’s ridiculous. They have more importance in how they are what they are, and as such for how they also each represent and reflect something in the actual characters.

Kogonada was interested in having a setting that’s more than just background, and Columbus seems the perfect city for this given the duality of its architecture as being sort of hidden in plain view and for its oxymoronic description in the movie as “modernism with a soul.” Like Gerwig’s affection for the way hometowns are such an unappreciated part of people’s character, Kogonada is, in his cinematic way, as concerned with how environment is integral to the social and the psychological conditions of people as architects are, or should be. Columbus doesn’t offer so much a virtual tour of its eponymous city as a specific kind of sightseeing through the intellectual and emotional consideration and context of its characters.

At a time when Hollywood is creating most of its settings out of nothing, as whole movies are shot on wall-to-wall green-screen sound stages with no tangible interior spaces let alone genuine outdoor landscapes, there’s more emptiness and deception felt in the escapism than there is relief and wonder. So it’s the films committed to natural and concrete palpable spaces that are truly pacifying. And this was emphasized this year with those films that spotlight little-known and seldom celebrated if even noticed places, and that do so with attention to that idea of seeing and recognizing the virtues of one’s surroundings.

Real settings can be cozily diverting because of and in spite of their gravity and familiarity and connection to the real world, which shouldn’t be ignored. Our physical place in these times can be as complex as that of a joyful child in deep poverty, a teenager separating from the roots of her own identity, a young woman finding solace in local modernist architecture, and a perfectionist filmmaker adapting to a necessary change of story setting out of convenience. That is, we can find beauty and comfort in our backdrops anyplace, anytime.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.