Transformers: The Last Knight was being filmed in Oxford last month. In a franchise where mega-robots and casual sexism dominate, it might seem incongruous that Michael Bay’s latest assault found its temporary home in a city known for learning and prestige. However, the fact that Bay used Churchill’s old home as Nazi HQ reveals a trend in how blockbusters use Oxford: its beautiful buildings are easy props. For a lazy director, there is no need to engage with their actual history or current purpose. Instead, Oxford is useful visual shorthand, its iconic look signalling history and status. However, films using Oxford for their own creative backdrop are always simultaneously re-shaping public perception, and not necessarily in a true or constructive way.
Back in 2011, X-Men: First Class used the city to develop the character of their protagonist. We get as much of a sense of James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier from the Turf-esque student pub he frequents and the external view of the Sheldonian as we do from the script itself. By showing the mind-reading superhero as a part of this environment, it is made clear that he is intelligent, talented and deeply immersed in the comfortable world of academia. However, the flipside of the dreaming spire is the ivory tower, beautiful yet blithe. Oxford helps to portray Xavier as extraordinary but wilfully detached from the world around him. Direction that utilises ‘impact’ shots to lazily deploy Oxford grandeur is harmfully short-sighted in its’ depiction of the city. It shows snippets of ‘impact’ Oxford, rather than carefully considering its complexity. It seems that our university is uniquely effective in indicating personal brilliance alongside being happily oblivious about real life. Although not an unfair point, ‘embracing’ this presentation cultivates and justifies Oxford as the impenetrable tower of the intellectual rather than the diverse city it is and the accessible institution it needs to be.
Sweeping shots of the city are also employed in a 2011 hit you are less likely to be familiar with, the Hindi spectacular Desi Boyz. Equally as ridiculous as a Transformers film but with more dancing, Desi Boyz uses Oxford to illustrate the zero-to-hero path of a former male escort—Bollywood never disappoints. However in Desi Boyz, as with X-Men, Oxford’s image is one harmfully stuck in the past. The extras used as the ‘backdrop’ of Oxford are swathes of Caucasian figures in bland clothing. Diversity at the institution of Oxford is an issue—such subconscious re-enforcements of it allows it to go uncritisized. The implication is that, however well-regarded Oxford is, it is ultimately a place of tradition, and this makes sobriety and staidness inevitable, perhaps discouraging the large majority from finding a place for themselves at the University.
This reaches its nadir in Lone Scherfig’s 2012 film The Riot Club, which returns the Bullingdon club to its ancestral playground. The Riot Club has good intentions, engaging with legitimate issues of classism and elitism in Oxford, but executes this intent badly, as it is completely out of touch with the reality of how these problems form. Perhaps the university itself needs to change, before we can start looking at it from a new angle? But perhaps it will only begin to evolve when we aim the camera towards the more honest every day corners of the university and the city at large, to see it from a perspective that places it as a part of a larger world – rather using its traditionalism for grand symbols and gestures.