Posted by Greg Ferrara on October 23, 2013
Late tonight on TCM, in the early morning hours of tomorrow, three movies back to back to back, Trader Horn, Malaya and Macao, feature what were once exotic, unknown locales. Trader Horn is the most famous of the three but still has no official release on DVD, possibly due to the story elements of the time that make for some seriously uncomfortable viewing today. That is to say, the African tribes are portrayed as primitive savages and the white girl they kidnapped as a child is now worshiped as a white goddess. But wait, it gets better (by which I mean, worse). Animals like lions were mistreated, starved to make them attack hyenas and members of the cast and crew got sick and two of them even died. So, yeah, the whole thing feels kind of dirty at this point but it’s a record of those attitudes and methods and, frankly, I always recommend watching things like that because it’s an undeniably important artifact for the very reason it’s also rather distasteful. But here’s what you don’t need to see it for: The exotic locations. Why? They’re not exotic anymore.
There was a time in movie history when just having a story take place somewhere other than a hometown setting was reason enough to make and see the movie. Places like Morocco, Rio de Janeiro, Egypt, Arabia and the Far East all held a mysterious sway over Americans and Western Europeans eager to see those hidden corners of the globe they’d only read about in books and travel magazines. Tall tales about exotic people and tribal customs unfamiliar to the average Joe. Documentaries, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, like Nanook of the North, exposed movie goers to some of these distant customs, even if they had to be faked for the movie. A part of it was curiosity and a part of it was also a way of reassuring the viewers that no matter how hard their lives were, at least they were superior to those primitives living around the globe.
And they made good backdrops for established stars and comedians, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, to play off of in their famous Road pictures with Dorothy Lamour. In other films, like the big budget epics Lost Horizon and The Razor’s Edge, the locale offered an inner peace unavailable to the modern man living in his button down, white collar habitat, too busy working to understand himself. And these kinds of movies are still made today, like Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts, but they no longer hold the big box office appeal of seeing something so exotic it can’t be seen anywhere else. The fact is, technology has rendered the exotic ordinary. Take a trip around Google Maps to see the world. Go to Wikipedia and find out everything you want to know about any country in the world. No historical detail is too insignificant and no spot on earth too remote to not have full explanations, stories and pictures available to anyone who cares to seek them out. And so, the movies have moved on.
And the movies were always about showing the audience that which they couldn’t see anywhere else. Once the audience can see it whenever they want, no need to make a movie around it. Once upon a time there were also movies about going to the moon and breaking the sound barrier but once those things were actually accomplished, well, who needed to make movies about them anymore? Except that there are still very good reasons to make exotic locale movies even if it seems impossible to have an exotic locale anymore. Action movies, especially ones like the James Bond and Jason Bourne franchises, make plentiful use of multiple locations worldwide that may not seem as mysterious as they once were but still provide, at the very least, a change of scenery from the ordinary. Of course, the different locales all seem vaguely familiar anyway, usually populated by the same Starbucks and sports cars evident everywhere else in the world. For a truly different, exotic locale, you really do have to go back in movie history, when exotic still meant box office.
Some of my favorite movies of the thirties were based in exotic locations. Only Angels Have Wings is one of them, that fantastic Howard Hawks romance/adventure taking place in the fictional South American town of Barranca alongside the Andes mountains. And the thing that’s impressive about what Hawks did (and so many other filmmakers of the thirties and forties and fifties) is that he took this entirely studio shot movie and convinced me that it took place in a mysterious and seedy no-man’s land. When I watch it, I honestly get the feeling of being transported to another place and time. Speaking of time, that’s another thing I failed to mention. When Hollywood used exotic locales, it gave them a way to make a story stand outside of time. Despite the airplanes and specific technologies on display in Only Angels Have Wings, it feels like it could take place at any time in history, in some alternate timeline where planes existed hundreds of years ago. Really, it has an almost mystical feel. (Hawks, along with nominal director Christian Nyby, created another amazing and exotic outpost, this time in the arctic, in The Thing from Another World, in 1951)
Other classics from the thirties that truly transport me include King Kong and Lost Horizon. It’s important to note, as well, that all three of these (Angels, Kong, Horizon) are all set in fictional locations. That’s an important key to making the exotic work: make it fictional, then it can never become commonplace. Skull Island still looks and feels the same because it never existed in the first place. Same goes for Shangri-La. Or Dr. Moreau’s island in the Island of Lost Souls. Filmmakers back then even understood how to make towns in Europe feel exotic by, again, taking them out of time, like the backdrops for Dracula and Frankenstein. Old castles and creepy lighting meant that they’d be exotic no matter what decade they took place in.
So what’s the point? This: When technology made the exotic commonplace, Hollywood abandoned it except for tracts on self-discovery and spy movies. What they didn’t (or don’t) realize, is that the exotic can still be exotic. It can still transport the viewer to another time and place and still work even if the whole globe’s been mapped out. It can still work because film artists can still create worlds like those mentioned above, if they’d just let themselves. Look, I’m not asking for every movie to stop using realistic locations and plunge headlong into the mysterious, but would it kill Hollywood to give us a few more castles, jungles and unexplored mountain ranges once in a while? Places where GPS doesn’t work, where Google Maps refuses to go, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. If you need to know how to get there, just ask Howard Hawks. He’ll show you the way.
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