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Book Review: Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image, Edited by John David Rhodes and Elena Gorginkel

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The emerging interdisciplinary field of Place Studies concerns itself with the ways in which people across locations and cultures connect and interact. This goes beyond geography to consider how the natural, built, social, and cultural environments that house us shape our notions of the world and influence our understanding of history, art, economics, politics, etc. In short, our place in the world can completely determine our reality. The essays collected by John David Rhodes and Elena Gorfinkel in Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image (2011, University of Minnesota Press), cover new ground by turning the critical lens of place studies on to the art of the moving image. Collectively, these essays make a compelling case that understanding location, (including the story location, the actual place of filming, as well as the location of the viewer while watching) is crucial in critically examining television, film, and installation art in order to situate these documents in the greater cultural landscape.

Divided into four sections (“Cinematic Style and the Places of Modernity,” “Place as Index of Cinema,” “Geopolitical Displacements,” and “(Not) Being There”), the fifteen original essays contained herein are historical portraits of locations no longer in existence, illuminations of fraught political relationships, and examples of real municipalities making policy and development decisions based on Hollywood’s demands, to name a few in the wide range of topics covered. The span of time and geography is broad: from Venice, CA to Mason City, IA to Rome, Italy and from silent films to twenty-first century television.

The two stand-out essays, in my opinion, are Ara Osterweil’s deconstruction of Dennis Hopper’s second film, The Last Movie and Linda A. Robinson’s look at how a small city in Iowa remade its image in an attempt to recapture the nostalgic hype experienced when The Music Man debuted there decades before.

Following on the heels of his counter-culture success Easy Rider, Hopper’s film sets out to answer the self-reflexive question of what happens to a place after location shooting is finished and indigenous populations are left to deal with the abandoned sets and the aftermath of Hollywood’s occupation. Osterweil rather brilliantly argues that Hopper offers a harsh assessment of Hollywood’s cultural colonialism, but falls prey to the same production practices and abusive behavior that he is attempting to critique. An eloquent offering to add to the ongoing discussion of Third Cinema practices of Latin America.

Robinson’s essay, meanwhile, deftly looks at the “confusing circular dance” of identity as contemporary Mason City, IA has made itself over to more closely resemble the fictional River City of the 1962 film The Music Man, which itself was based upon a nostalgic version of Mason City. Trying to cash in on modern nostalgia for an imagined quaint everytown of yesteryear, Mason City’s efforts seem to have come years too late, as today’s generation no longer has access to the references that inspire such nostalgia. The pains taken to revitalize this small city’s downtown with the creation of a tourist draw verge on the tragic.

The pieces in this volume are filled with historical nuggets, making them engaging and fun for the casual reader. For those who watch movies for a living, this is exciting new critical work that forges a bridge between the study of place and film studies.

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