It's 30 km to Roeselare, 21 to Lichtervelde, and 270 to Paris from the bell tower in Bruges. It's 366 steps to the top, a feat of exercise I'll never see in the same way ever since watching Martin McDonagh's film In Bruges, about two Irish hit men hiding out in the picturesque Medieval Belgian city. They spend most of the film trying to keep from killing themselves -- or each other -- out of sheer boredom while waiting for instructions for their next job. When they receive news they'll be stuck in Medieval Disneyland for two whole weeks, a trip to the tower seems unavoidable. Or two trips. Or ten.
Climbing the steps of the bell tower is basically the touristy thing to do in this tiny town, and the bunch of overweight American tourists in the movie who announce their intention to climb to the top get a skeptical tongue-lashing from Colin Farrell's character, who is, as Brendan Gleeson's character points out, "about the worst tourist in the whole world." As a backdrop, the tower provides the film with some of its best comic and tragic scenes.
I love it when a city plays a major role in either a movie or a book, when its personality becomes so intertwined with the story that the city itself becomes a main character. I think of Carl Sandburg's Chicago in Harvest Poems, Joyce's Dubliners, or Hemingway's Paris in A Moveable Feast. The authors of these books -- this is also true of McDonagh -- make their cities come to life. We see them, feel them, smell them, and hear them. We see beyond the main tourist attractions and simple set pieces -- though these are often included in the stories -- to the quirks and weaknesses of each place. I love Dublin these days, but after living with the emotionally stifled characters in Joyce's Dubliners for fifteen stories, I sure wouldn't have wanted to see it at the turn of the last century. Chicago's changed since the Sandburg called it the Hog Butcher for the World, but I still imagine it as a place of grit and hard-boiled characters. Chicago, to me, is a man and Paris is a woman. Is it my own experience that makes me think this, or does the writing have something to do with it? Has my view of each place been shaped by what I've read or seen about it?
It's possible to fall in love with a place -- or (ahem, Las Vegas) fear and loathe it -- based on a book, a movie, or even a set of photographs. It's also possible to be reminded of the places we've traveled to, lived in, or loved by revisiting it through another's eyes. Bruges would've been the last place I'd have thought to set a movie about two hit men, but now I'll never be able to think of Bruges without them.