I can remember the first time I watched The Revenant in an empty screening at my local cinema. It was during the height of winter, and I remember making the conscious decision to order a hot chocolate rather than the usual strawberry milkshake from the ice-cream counter. A tactical move. I necked that hot chocolate quicker than I’ve ever consumed any alcohol at university. I’m unsure whether it was the briskness of the January weather or the placebo effect of watching a film about the extremes of the natural world, but less than twenty minutes into the first act I vividly recall enveloping myself in my thick puffer, clinging to it with the desperation of yielding the same warmth that Hugh Glass was getting from the animal carcasses he took shelter in.
Alejandro Iñárritu’s nature documentary (thinly veiled as a revenge thriller) was the first time I’d had a physical reaction to a cinematic experience that wasn’t caused by the broken heating or air con in the cinema screens. Watching Leonardo DiCaprio push the limits of human endurance as he refused to die of hypothermia for a second time in his career was remarkably raw, and I felt every rain drop and every crackling ember as man came to terms with his own existentialism.
Following that experience, the physical profundity of a film’s environment has rarely affected me on that level since (and that includes prompting me to invest in the extortionately priced hot chocolates). I have always found that Quentin Tarantino, the auteur who has become a genre in and of himself, has a spectacular ability to make you feel less like a viewer and more like a bystander, lingering in scenes for an unconventional duration as they unfold with a realistic sense of progression. Both the opening sequence and the bar scene in Inglourious Basterds comprise about 35 minutes of the film’s total runtime, and both are masterclasses in gradual tension and release. There is a beautiful claustrophobia to sequences that feel organically played out and not cut short for time constraints. Conversations are given room to breathe and build like real conversations. The Hateful Eight, the first film I grew out my facial hair for in order to feign the appearance of being eighteen at the cinema, spent nigh on three hours confining its characters to the apparent cosiness of Minnie’s Haberdashery, a location which simultaneously balanced hospitable comforts with an intensifying proximity. Devoting time to locations and sequences make them feel lived in , inhabited as opposed to fleetingly visited. With The Hateful Eight ,Tarantino delivered a narrative that didn’t deviate from its central setting, and consequently graced us with a location that was as equally fleshed out as the octet taking refuge inside it.
Time dedicated to exploring a setting not only contributes to the realism of the place but also the familiarity. Seeing the same sets used episode after episode in sitcoms is part of the reason they attain an unrivalled sense of comfort to watch. The overuse of the word ‘wholesome’ throughout Oxford makes me reluctant to use it here, but I think perhaps it is applicable. I never thought I’d have the sudden compulsion to work behind a desk until I watched The Office, or the resentment of college accommodation after living in the shared apartments of The Big Bang Theory and Friends for over 200 episodes. Sitcoms provide environments that become inseparable from the characters, mise en scène that constantly lingers in the background without ever intruding, yet remains essential in our identification of it. For many, locations like Central Perk will be as iconic as the characters themselves, particularly more resonant when scenes are performed in front of a live audience. A relationship is then forged between mediums as stage and screen clash, with location bridging the gap and audiences actively engaging on the periphery.
Perspective is everything. It is a well worn trope that accessing a new film environment (usually a fantastical or futuristic world) works more effectively when you are viewing it through the lens of a character equally unfamiliar with it (think Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins) because the exposition and world building is justified rather than painfully shoehorned. But we are sometimes quick to forget that locations exist first and foremost for the characters, and as soon as a world has to be lectured to us we are made self-aware of our own position as outsiders.
Location and aesthetics can be subtly intimate, designed to reflect the way a character views their world and operates within it. Take Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby, a film which excessively exploits the CGI trend of the early 2010s to create a stylish, but at times artificial, re-imagining of the Roaring Twenties. In hindsight, it was a perfect decision, adding a sense of superficial and materialistic polish to the film, a sense of modernism which seemed incongruous to the era. Bolstered by the fact that Gatsby is in and of himself a dreamer, a man refusing to take the world as it is and using that malleability to transform it into the romanticised paradise he expects it to be, the film’s colourful gloss is almost tragic. It reeks of a man out of his own time, a man suffering in the fantasy of his own reality as the glamour of the city on screen seems tainted with delusion and falsity. We indulge Gatsby’s colourful lifestyle because we can’t see anything to the contrary.
Setting transports and film surpasses the stage for that simple reason. Characters feel more alive because the world they live in feels like a world, whether that be big or small, real or fictional. The tangibility of a setting allows us to accept that the environment we are watching is no less real than the cinema screen we have planted ourselves in. To quote Frank Underwood in the pilot episode of House of Cards, ‘it’s all about location, location, location’. It can make you feel glad to be detached from the world via the screen, or feel agitated by the fact that the screen stops you from accessing it. It makes you feel like ordering a hot chocolate to counteract the frostbite you’ve diagnosed yourself with. But most importantly, it makes you feel.
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