taCity

Visualising Cities: Part 3 – “…starring, Sydney as Nowhere in Particular…”

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Carrying on my series of visualising cities (see Part 1 and Part 2), I wanted to focus on one of my specialist cities….

No doubt you have all seen the Matrix films, and no doubt you would have recognised the fact that it was Sydney in the background, playing the role as that anonymous, gritty, futuristic city that the Waschowski Brothers wanted. What is also common knowledge is for that very reason, many of Sydney’s icons were erased from the film, deliberately not shown in order to preserve the placelessness of the city (although, it is easy for those who have spent any prolonged period of time in Sydney to pick out particular buildings and places that are used constantly throughout the film). The script of The Matrix and its subsequent sequels demanded anonymity, and although this annoyed many of the people in the upper echelons of Sydney’s corridors of power, Sydney remained relegated to a supporting role, a paradoxical role of always being in view but never being seen. Trawling the Internet sites and various blogs, it then becomes perplexing when people believe the city on show is Chicago. The reasons for which are the use of Chicago street names, the ‘Loop’ sign on the front of the subway train (referring to a train line in Chicago – even though Chicago has not got much of a subway, only an elevated railway) and the fact that the Wachowski Brothers are from Chicago originally. For some it can be infuriating that Sydney is so hidden from the world in such a successful film, but for others, the brief cameo roles played by the BT tower and the Allianz tower on Market Street, or the fountain on Martins Place, provide them with a sense of pride, a little wink to the world that they know where it is even if the rest of the world does not. Other films have used Sydney as somewhere else – with Kangaroo Jack (with Sydney as New York), and Superman Returns (as Metropolis).

Contrast this situation with that of Mission Impossible 2 which gratuitously shows Sydney in all its glory, with hanging shots of the Opera House and rugged cliff faces of Sydney Harbour. If the rumours are true, this was at the request of Tom Cruise who wanted one of his films to show Sydney to its full potential glory – something we have to thank Nicole Kidman for (although being in the run up to the Olympics helped  – in the same way the Mummy 3 was hastily put together before the Beijing Olympics to showcase Chinse culture). The difference of Sydney’s role in these two films (the Matrix and Mission Impossible 2) is immense, yet for Sydney itself the role it has played in film and the global film industry as a whole has benefited immensely from both these films. The opening of Fox Studios in Moore Park is the reason why these films (among many others) have been shot in Sydney – a move which was controversial at the time, and for many factions of the industry, still very much is.

Sydney is a favourite among Hollywood filmmakers precisely because it can double as pretty much anywhere in the world (you can read my journal articles if you’re interested to know a bit more), but seeing it disappear into the background in many films is testament to the aesthetics and architecture of the city itself. Cities in films are a crucial way in which they can gain popularity, and in fact film maps of particular cities are an important part of their tourism agenda (see Film London’s movie maps – the most viewed item on the website apparently). If a city is ‘erased’ from a film, then so are the emotional, iconic, rhetorical and personal networks associated with them. If a film (or TV series) is set in a city then there are already in place certain assumptions within the viewer, which can either work for or against the filmmakers. If the narrative of film calls for a generic city however then without CGI, the city identity needs to be erased. But can it ever be properly erased? Remember the scene in the Matrix when Morpheus loads Neo into a training simulation near a fountain (the one with the women in the red dress)? That fountain holds a prominent position in Martins Place in the centre of downtown Sydney, and therefore hold certain visual connotations to that city and cannot be truly ‘generic’ (also I distinctly remember seeing large amounts of Chicago in the Dark Knight’s Gotham City). This gives people a sense of place, be it through a personal memory or a recalled image, but links into the visual images of the film.

Cities, or more precisely, the buildings in them can be visually stiking and their skylines make for impressive aesthetics in films. Trying to erase or ‘unidentify’ a city is a perilous task and can only be achieved veneerily; the complexities, networks and chaotic structures of cities cannot be easily hidden.

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Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

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