Getting from A to B, in various forms, is a strong theme that runs through the Best Picture Oscar contenders this year. Nebraska is the story of an old man who decides to walk hundreds of miles over hundreds of hours, in the hope of finding a fortune that has eluded him his entire life. Gravity features woman who spins hundreds of miles in a few minutes, untethered from a space-shuttle. In Captain Phillips the entire narrative unfolds over hundreds of miles of open water, on a merchant marine vessel, as the journey becomes the destination. 12 Years a Slave tells the story of the darkest side of the word transport, where points A and B and the distance between them, is also the distance between freedom and slavery. Yet, it is the movie Her – winner of the Best Original Screenplay, that truly makes a public transportation enthusiast salivate.
Behind the scenes photograph of Her being filmed on location in Shanghai, from here.
The movie is set in the foreseeable future of Los Angeles. There may or may not be a little irony in the fact that Spike Jonze, the director, chooses present day Shanghai to portray LA of the future. But boy, does that future have public-transportation! There is not a scene in the movie where an automobile figures in more than a backdrop kind of way. No scenes of the main character driving, no traffic-jams (very hard to do when you are shooting on-location in Shanghai) and certainly no car chases. When the main character – a likeable and goofy but also somewhat introverted young letter-writer named Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix – is in panic mode and needs to get from work to home, he does not rush out into the parking lot and get into his car. No, he runs to the subway station, to take the train home. Even the few times automobiles show up, they are public buses running on the Bus Rapid Transport lanes, below the famous upper level pedestrian traffic islands that are so ubiquitous in the newer parts of Asian cities like Shanghai and Singapore. Did I mention that the movie is set in a futuristic Los Angeles? LA and no cars? Pretty radical, huh? To paraphrase the name of my personal blog, Her Takes the Car out of Oscar.
The transportation action in Her is not restricted to subways either. When the two main characters, Theodore and his Operating System Samantha go on their first major vacation together, the travel happens on the brand-new High Speed Rail system of China. In a somewhat incredulous scene the HSR drops Theo off at a station and pulls out of the screen, aerodynamic nose section and all, and Theo walks straight into a field of rural New England looking snow, but then that is what dramatic licenses are all about. If you can fall out of John Malkovich’s head onto the New Jersey Turnpike, then stepping off of the Chinese HSR onto north-American Tundra is tame in comparison.
LA Metro Map of the Future from here.
Many critical scenes of the movie happen in and around public-transportation. Theo takes Samantha to see the beach on a train, she sends (or is it goes with?) him on vacation on a train, they have most of their profound conversations either when he is in bed or taking the subway. Even the one time the LA Metro map appears on film, it depicts a system that is more extensive than today. It includes the famous Subway to the Sea, a corridor that magically appears in the reel, but in real life has had more than its share of political and financial challenges.
I am a film-buff, but not a film-critic. So, this post is not meant to be a review of the movie Her. It is based on an interesting premise but to build a two hour long movie on one interesting premise is hard and needs a lot of detailing; emotional detailing, character detailing and detailing of the physical spaces and landscape in which the story is set. My excitement is not about movie per se, but about that physical landscape of its setting. It is a landscape that I can make common cause with, for it is one where people walk and run past each other, it is one where they trip and others come to rescue, it is even one where they furtively look at potentially pornographic material – all because there are other people at close quarters; others who are joined together as a community through the everyday act of riding public transportation and inhabiting the common space it creates.