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The Reeler Blog

The Story's In the Setting

Lillian Gish in The Wind, one of 15 films in MoMA's series A Sense of Where You Are (Photo: MGM)

By Mat Newman

There are movies that are set in New York and there are the movies that couldn't exist without New York -- the stories that wouldn’t work in another setting because, in short, the setting is the story. Whether it's New York or Tokyo or Fargo, N.D., there are some films whose souls live in the landscape.

A Sense of Where You Are, a new series opening Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art examines that profound affect of geography on film. Anne Morra, assistant film curator at MoMA and creator of the series got the title from an unlikely place -- John McPhee's famous, 40-year-old profile of then-Princeton basketball standout (and future Democratic presidential hopeful) Bill Bradley. "It's actually not about his actions as a player, but how he intuitively knew where he was at all times in relation to the hoop and the parameters on the floor," she told The Reeler. "It's really about place and individual. So I started thinking about why certain films and books are set in specific places, asking why authors and directors select certain environments. I have a good friend who's a geography professor and for years we've been talking about this."

Morra combed the museum's permanent film collection with four guiding principles; how place affects narrative; how place and environment drive the structure of a narrative; how place and environment affect characters within the narrative; and finally, place as a character itself. The final product will be a month-long series featuring films from Victor Sjöström's Texas-based 1928 silent The Wind to the Coens' northern noir Fargo to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

"I'm interested in exploring the collection here at MoMA and looking at classic works or contemporary works and thinking about them in new ways," Morra said. "Sort of turning them on their ear and saying to myself, 'OK, we understand what the film The Grapes of Wrath is about, we know the primary sources, we've seen this movie so many times ... But are we really looking at the phenomena that cause the dust bowl effect?' "

Morra was quick to add that few places have inspired as many films as New York. Three of the series' 15 films were shot locally, with Mean Streets on the schedule Sept. 14 and Woody Allen's Manhattan screening with the Morris Engel short One Chase Manhattan Plaza three times before the end of the series.

"Manhattan is perfect," she said, explaining how the geography of film affects our perception. "It's the Manhattan that people who don't live here imagine Manhattan as being. It's so specific to Woody Allen and so specific to New York City, and it's a different New York from Martin Scorsese's. I really liked the counter-balance between the two of them."

Posted at September 6, 2007 6:13 AM

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