Real Time Short Stories

Reel Time Short Stories: Cities of Love

Posted on: September 3, 2011

Julie Christie and Shia LaBoeuf in "New York I Love You"

When I floated the idea of examining the relationship between short fiction and cinema, most of the responses followed the path from page to screen. I’ve looked at one example of an adaptation, and will return to others in future, but this edition of Reel Time looks at a film franchise which faces out from the screen towards the short story.

Emmanuel Benhiby and Claudie Ossard’s productions under the Cities of Love banner first announced themselves in 2006 with the cinematic release of Paris, Je t’Aime, which was followed in 2009 by New York, I Love You. Rio, Shanghai and Jerusalem are each due to receive a similar declaration of love in the coming years. The films bring together a coruscating array of directors and actors, as cosmopolitan as the cities themselves, who create a series of loosely-linked vignettes. Paris… has as its organising structure the twenty arrondissements of the city, with a different short narrative in each (only eighteen made the final cut), stitched together with a cluster of transitory images. For New York…, there were fewer stories, more superficial crossover between characters from different stories, and a character depicted as the ‘eye’ seeing the transitional sequences.

Natalie Portman and Melchior Beslon in "Paris, je t'aime"

The smörgåsbord of international directorial visions and acting talent has been witnessed before by filmgoers. Each June during my childhood, I seem to have watched and been engrossed by The Longest Day, and its blend of Hollywood, Ealing and European film-making flavours telling the story of the D-Day landings from multiple points of view. Both the Cities of Love so far depicted have (in addition to their countless other cinematic interventions, appearing somewhere between the moon and before sunset) been backdrops to a small compendium of narratives. New York Stories presented a triptych from local masters, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The result was hit and miss, or rather, respectively, hit, miss, and make it stop. A legend of French cinema, Eric Rohmer, made the beguiling Rendezvous In Paris in 1995, splicing together three contrasting love stories with the city in common. However, it is reasonable to suggest that, above all these, Cities of Love owes something to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, which succeeded in translating the sensibility and distilled short story technique of Raymond Carver into a cinematic language. What Cities of Love owes Short Cuts, to be honest, is an apology.

The cities are more than appropriate crucibles for the multiple narratives, images and characterisations that should form a themed anthology. All of the locations are stylish; most of the cast is gorgeous; in each film, there are diverting passages and exquisite moments. What, however, is gained in a book of short stories – at the expense of a novel’s grander narrative sweep and deeper exploration of ideas and language – is the sense of taking the time to fall into step with the lives of complete strangers, of having that serial absorption in different currents of humanity. Short story pacing slows the reader down and, in adaptation, can slow the film-maker down. No-one is racing towards a resolution. With the NY and Parisian vignettes, on the other hand, each segment feels either abandoned mid-resolution or that it carries, all the way through, an overbearing sense of being about to pull a rabbit from a hat – or, more appropriately, a pack-shot of the product being advertised.

In attempting to pare back the expanse of film narrative into something resembling a series of short stories, the film-makers have ended up with a showreel of adverts and music videos. The contributors parade past and, as stylish as several are, the contributions end up resembling nothing so much as a charity auction selling celebrity-customised t-shirts. The appeal isn’t in the artwork but the fact that someone that famous made a donation.

I maintain that a cinematic language, away from that developed within adaptations, can be found that matches the qualities I ascribe to the short story. In Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, for example, the non-linear narrative allows for a very long and seemingly impressionistic sequence in which Sean Penn’s character is haunted by, or seen to be grappling with, his childhood memories and specifically his and his parents’ unresolved grief over the death of his brother. The moments of childhood and family, particular to this story but fiercely familiar, are depicted with such intense honesty that it’s the viewer who projects a narrative text onto, say, the taut, wounded, burdened stance and facial expressions of Hunter McCracken [pictured here in the background, playing Penn’s character as a boy], the eldest of three children.

As ever, the short story connection is built upon a thirst for detail, not a coincidence of brevity.

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2 Responses to "Reel Time Short Stories: Cities of Love"

Dinesh’s comments, as usual, set me thinking more about writing short stories. Wonder what you think, Dinesh, about Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and the film version?

Thanks for stopping by, Moira. I have a shamefully long list of books and films I’ve yet to get round to and both manifestations of Brokeback Mountain, I’m afraid, are on it. Still, it’s an example of an adaptation I’d be interested in examining for this series at some point. What I’m aware of about the film, and what I know both about Prouix as a writer and Ang Lee as a director, are that they are great documentarians of silence – or more accurately, inarticulacy – and of landscape. And in these two elements – the longeurs between meaningful communication, and the fixity of gaze to which the physical setting is subject – I think we have two very important hinges between routine characteristics of short fiction (or work in any format by writers with an aptitude for short fiction) and particular qualities to be found in films which don’t guide the viewer through the plot with a cattle-prod.

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