Cities have character: 8 Films in Which the City Plays an Integral Part


The Third Man

The city of Vienna, in its post-war bombed out state, is as essential to the tone of The Third Man as any of its key cast (and what a cast it is). Director Carol Reed and his cinematographer Robert Krasker famously shot the city's gloomy alleys, doorways and sewers at a permanently off-kilter angle, always lit for maximum shadows. Vienna is a contradiction here, its funfair and jazz clubs attempting to put a bright cover over a hollow, jaded heart. The city's cynicism is all-pervasive, and Holly (Joseph Cotton), the film's misguided hero, is ultimately powerless to resist it.

Paul Gallagher
Marketing Manager

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Paris Is Burning

If you seek a film which is as much a portrait of a city as of its people, look no further than Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning. A chronicle of New York City’s drag ball scene in the mid-to-late 1980s, it is made up of footage of, and interviews with, the participants in this fascinating subculture.

A time capsule of life in 1980s NYC, the film functions as a means of highlighting both the plight and the resilience of this small but prevailing group of minorities, made up of various ethnicities, sexualities and gender presentations. Livingston tows the line between entertainment and empathy, allowing her interviewees the opportunity to speak about their lives, while also showcasing the spectacle and glamour of the balls which they throw throughout the year. Her very human subjects range from drag ‘mothers’ – the name given to the men and women who preside over the various ‘houses’ depicted – to drag ‘children’ and other people involved in the scene.

It is impossible not to fall in love with the people featured, and there is a real sense that Livingston is giving a group of people long silenced and ostracised the chance to have a voice and for once tell the world about themselves. The marginalisation they face is shown in footage of them on the streets of New York, juxtaposed with the freedom they experience ‘walking’ at a ball. Hilariously funny, dark, emotional, and, at times, absolutely heart breaking, this is documentary filmmaking at its best.

David Rush
GFT Volunteer

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The Conversation

Francis Ford Coppola's San Francisco set thriller is a masterful piece of cinema in which the city plays an integral role. Coppola's locations were deliberately more dirty and seedy than the San Fran tourist snapshot. The city’s desolate and industrial spaces work to highlight Harry's self-imposed removal from normal society. His workshop, an old brick warehouse situated beyond some railway lines, further accentuates this isolation and the difficulty Harry has with socialising. Even the opening scene, set in Union Square, used cameras at high vantage points in order to give an impression of Big Brother-esque surveillance. Additionally, Coppola used the city's architecture and its inhabitants to obscure the view of the subjects in order to demonstrate the difficulty of Harry's task, whilst simultaneously illuminating the ignorance of the recorded subjects.

San Francisco’s recognisable landmarks are missing from the film, allowing the city to take on a more confusing and disorientating feel which helps highlight the pervasive, indiscriminate nature of Harry's surveillance. The Conversation is a fantastic film with superb performances, none more so than from San Francisco itself.

Gavin Crosby
Digital and Design Officer

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Paris, je t’aime

Paris, je t'aime is an anthology of 18 vignettes, with a district/arrondissement of Paris as the setting for each story, and subtitled ‘petites romances des quartiers’. 21 directors were involved including Gurinder Chadha, the Coen brothers, Isobel Coixet, Nobuhiro Suwa, Sylvain Chomet, Olivier Assayas, Wes Craven and Gus Van Sant, and many well-known actors from both sides of the pond. Each scene does involve a little romance and in less than 10 minutes portrays characters at odds with their partners, rediscovering new aspects of their relationships or finding love in unexpected situations. Most of the stories are told with wry humour and/or poignant observations of the human condition. We are led down one path only to find we are somewhere else completely, and this may be due to the magic of the city and how it affects people who are willing to be open to it. In between the stories there are affectionate panoramic vistas of Paris itself, usually viewed from above. The final story is of an American woman tourist, with her voiceover in badly pronounced French, who discovers that she has fallen in love with Paris and Paris has fallen in love with her.  

Marion Cobban
GFT Volunteer

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Fargo

‘…And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day...’ 

To me the topic of films where the city is the character means a film that you couldn’t imagine taking place anywhere else. For this reason, Fargo immediately came to mind. Literally everything about this film is perfect; the script, the characters, the storytelling, the tone, the pace…. as I said, everything. However, for the purposes of this discussion I’ll just focus on the location work. The sense of place is simply brilliant, although the film’s title references the city in North Dakota, the main place of interest is Minneapolis, Minnesota, and as soon as Fargo is mentioned you think of that place (and of course that accent). You also think of the snow; Roger Deakins’ cinematography is so good I’m feeling chilly just thinking about it. The amazing open landscapes in which you can get lost is contrasted really well with the tiny hotel rooms in Minneapolis. The Coen Brothers’ best movies have always had an excellent way of evoking a time and a place (see also: The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing) but I’d argue that it is realised in Fargo in a way that’s unforgettable. Though not what many would think of right away when asked about cities in films, the location is absolutely a character all of its own…. is that a good enough reason to include Fargo? You betcha! 

Peter Wilson
GFT Film Discussion Group

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Of Time and the City

One of my favourite films in which the central character is a city is Terence Davies’ eulogy to my own home of Liverpool in his 2008 documentary Of Time and the City. Davies paints a vivid portrait of the city in which he was born and spent his childhood. He uses newsreel and archive clips of Liverpool: its landmarks, transport, architecture and industry including its vibrant port of a now bygone era. The scenes of deprivation during and after wartime are juxtaposed against the faces of the people of Liverpool whose warmth and spirit is brilliantly depicted in Davies’ words throughout the film:

‘We love the place we hate, then hate the place we love. We leave the place we love, then spend a lifetime trying to regain it.’

Angela Freeman
Senior Front of House Manager

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Death In Venice

Visconti scores Death in Venice with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The music becomes synonymous with the city as it surges and swoons in a haunting elegiac breath struggling against its own glorious decay, and the threat of its dissolution in the surrounding waters.

There is a cholera epidemic in Venice and the authorities and businesses are covering up to prevent the tourists from leaving. The elegant period costumes of aristocratic tourists (Tadzio’s family) and the immaculate tailored suits with white panama hats of Gustav Von Aschenbach contrast with the grimy alleyways and polluted canals. The cinematography portrays the light and sea as composed of rusty oranges and blue greys (reminiscent of Monet paintings) creating an ambiguity as to whether we are seeing Venice at dawn (life-affirming) or dusk (dying). Gustav Von Aschenbach’s obsession with the perfection of young Tadzio can be seen as a metaphor of the idealised worship of Venice by artists and tourists. Yet, behind the veneer of beauty, cities, like flesh, can peel, rot and decay.

Cities are not just places but co-ordinates of time as well as space. Set in the Summer of 1911 the elegiac mood of Death in Venice presages the War which would devastate Europe in 1914. We may not only be witnessing the death of aging Aschenbach, but the future of young Tadzio as he wades into the sea pointing towards the horizon.

Liana Marletta
Development Executive

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Wings of Desire

In Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, post-war Berlin is interwoven with the characters' identities. Aerial shots show a city partially destroyed by WWII, and an old man tries to find the Potsdamer Platz of his memory in an abandoned wasteground. The Wall snakes through the city, dissecting it, and fragmenting its inhabitants' connection to place. As is demonstrated with the old man in the former site of Potsdamer Platz, our very notions of self are intrinsically connected to and shaped by where we live, and our environment has the potential to speed up or slow down time – define what is past, present and future. We see a city in flux, and are reminded that nothing is permanent; our own identities are just as fluid and evolving.

Jane Hartshorn
Marketing and Press Officer


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