Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Celluloid Reality

Today's Metro Section prominently displayed an article on filming movies on the Metro. The story was interesting to me not merely because of the transit angle; but rather because of one of my pet peeves with the movie industry and because I felt that the article left out the public relations opportunity for Metro and transit offered by film.

According to the article, in order to allow Hollywood to film in Metro's awesome cathedrals as opposed to their own subway, they have to follow rules. The same rules as Metro riders, as a matter of fact. After all, why should Ben Affleck get a free pass?

The article points out an example of actors portrayed as eating and drinking as a recent example of breaking the rules (for filming). Actually, even though it means that perhaps fewer movies are made here, I like this rule. It adds a bit of reality to cinematography. It's important to maintain some sense that actors are acting in the real world, otherwise what's the point?

Image is also important. The New York Subway is an excellent example. Many think of that city's subway as a graffiti-covered, crime-ridden hive of scum and villainy, or some such nonsense. In reality, the subway is safe and almost graffiti free. Yet movies filmed there portray it as a place where gangs team up on poor, innocent vigilantes like Charles Bronson who just want to reduce their carbon footprint.

WMATA seems to understand that Hollywood actually does have an impact on behavior. In the past, portrayals of actors and actresses smoking cigarettes led to more Americans doing the same thing. If WMATA wants the image of the Metro to be the clean, efficient one that most Washingtonians see everyday,* then they have an obligation to make sure that Hollywood films that image.

Of course, I think that Metro might go a little over the top. After all, Nicole Kidman escaping into a subway tunnel (actually filmed on the Baltimore Metro) is a little different than someone eating a Boston Creme at Metro Center (after all, Boston Cremes should be eaten at Government Center). After all, when Hollywood is representing a truly extraordinary event (like aliens taking over the world), it is clear that it's not a normal thing that happens on the Metro. Her attempts to fare evade (at Cleveland Park), however, were filmed along with a rebuke from a transit cop.

All in all, though, I think filming on transit is good for the transit industry. Look at The Fugitive, for example. It seems like half the movie was filmed on the L, including the climactic scene where Janitor, in his cunning role as a transit cop, is shot by the bad guy. And it was logical to film the movie on the L. You're a fugitive on the run, no major funds to speak of, and you need to get around Chicago. What's more realistic than taking one of the cheapest rides there is to get where you're going?

And I understand Hollywood's need to compromise. Chicago is one of the main characters in The Fugitive, and the L is an iconic and well-known part of Chicago, more so than even our Metro. What would have happened to the film's sense of realism if Harrison Ford was seen tooling around on BART? You wouldn't expect to see the Golden Gate Bridge from Lake Shore Drive either.

But it's not always possible to film where directors want to. That's why the conclusion of The Jackal was filmed in Montreal. Metro objected to the film's violence and wouldn't let them film here. Still it would be nice to have some accuracy. Even though the Montreal Metro looks nothing at all like the Washington Metro, I could forgive the filmmakers if they had just checked their facts.

The makers of The Jackal did a lot to dress up Montreal's subway to make it look like DC's system, including proper station names and the characteristic name pylons. And even though you can't fake a monumental vaulted train room like those characteristic of the Metro, you can use geography to your advantage.

In the final scene, Bruce Willis' character (the Jackal) runs into a Metro Station after trying to assassinate the First Lady. To escape the authorities, he runs down the tunnel to the next station, where he has a shootout with the other, less-bad bad guy. Since the assassination attempt and shootout took place in fictional locations, it doesn't matter which station pair was used. If, instead, the assassination attempt had taken place at, say, the Smithsonian Castle, it would have needed to be Smithsonian Metro that Mr. Willis escaped to. But that was not the case. Therefore, the filmmakers could have picked any two station names they wanted. The names are irrelevant to the plot. There were 83 names to choose from**. So they chose two of them. Columbia Heights, and it's neighbor Metro Center. Except that Columbia Heights isn't next to Metro Center. They aren't even on the same line!

Not only do I have to deal with that gross inaccuracy, the station name plaques used for Columbia Heights listed it as a Blue Line station (it's actually on the Green Line). And the name pylons on the platform included the 'M'*** at the top, found only at entries outside of Metro stations.

If Hollywood could have picked any two names in the system, why not neighboring ones? It can't be a budget reason, if they wanted to save on characters, there are shorter station names that Columbia Heights. And they certainly didn't use surplus pylons from Metro because Metro's pylons wouldn't have had a blue stripe, they would have had a green dot. And it doesn't seem logical to assume that they picked Columbia Heights' name because it was under construction at the time, because Metro Center has been open since 1976 and Georgia Avenue/Petworth would have been a more logical choice had that been the case because it was under construction at the same time and actually does neighbor Columbia Heights.

But enough of my soapbox.

For movies filmed in Washington, it makes sense to use the Metro. And whether it's Nicolas Cage's sidekick from National Treasure or 'Congressman' Affleck, it makes sense for the Metro to be a place shown in celluloid. After all, it is the second busiest rail system in the nation (after only New York). Washington would be a different place without the Metro, and anyone who lives here has probably encountered it at least once. And that's why it is important for Metro to be portrayed as a normal part of life in Washington. It is a part of normal life in Washington.

And as long as a movie is portraying 'normal' life, the rules should apply. I do think, however, that Metro should allow more leniency for shots that take place outside of the realm of normality. Still, I can live with those limitations, as long as transit still gets to be a player on the silver screen.


*I know Metro has its problems, but it's still one of the best systems in the country, and anyone who says otherwise, needs to live in Atlanta for a year, so shut it! I mean no offense to MARTA, but if you think Metro has breakdown issues.... I've come to the conclusion that no matter how good a city's transit system is, people complain about it.

**The Jackal was released in 1997, when there were only 75 stations open, including Franconia-Springfield, which opened that year. However, all of the stations appeared on maps as future stations and were named already, except for those stations not in the original system, New York Avenue, Morgan Boulevard, and Largo Town Center.

***For those of you not from DC, I have provided photos to clarify the pylons. See below.

Outside, with the 'M'

Inside, without the M, no stripe either


Steve D said...

It's sad that I know this, but the station used in The Jackal was actually Capitol Heights, which doesn't even exist (which is probably worse than two real stations that aren't next to each other). We've got a Congress Heights station, but no Capitol Heights. Didn't know that was Montreal, though. I thought it looked a little like LA. It was a depressing interior to say the least.

Thought that was a great article in the Post. Satisfied a lot of curiosities, especially since I was just watching them film "State of Play" in Mt. P on Saturday night.

Matt' said...

If it was Capitol Heights, forgive me. I thought it was Columbia Heights, but I suppose I'll need to watch the film again.

Incidentally, we do have a Capitol Heights. It is on the District/Prince George's County border on the Blue Line.

Brett T. Israel said...

Hey Matt, I saw this on Skyscraperpage forum and it reminded me of this post I read a while back. They used MARTA trains and stations in the director's cut of Escape From New York!