Sunday, September 27, 2009


#270, Bruges

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.


Pierre said...

I wandered around London for five days last week and marveled at the monuments and antiquity. I took a bazillion photos of anything that looked old or unique and for a time had an affair with the city. But my attraction has waned and I now long for my true love, Portland.

Radge said...

'Before Sunrise' and 'Before Sunset' does the same for Vienna and Paris, for me. Visited both last summer on a European jaunt.

I also found Bruges. I was struck by how different to the film it was, especially the square where much of the film takes place. Still loved it, though, and I'm going back in November.

Therese Cox said...

Pierre - That's OK. I won't tell Portland. What happens in London...

Radge - Loved 'Before Sunset' for that very reason (I missed the first one) and was ready to hop a train to Paris about ten minutes in. Sadly, the Eurostar hasn't built that trans-Atlantic Chunnel. Yet.

Bruges in November? Mmm. Go for a sunset cycle down some quiet side streets for me. And watch out for falling change from the top of the tower.

Radge said...

Once Luke Kelly starts singing, I'm out of there.

Quid said...

Kudos on this post, from a Belgian man's spouse! I thought In Bruges was a surprisingly good movie. Very good, as far as quirky action movies go.

When we first decided to move to Philadelphia, I remember how heavy and dark the city seemed in my mind because of the movie of the same name. My husband now can't stop making lists of things that we should see that take place's always interesting to see how your own city is portrayed.

Anonymous said...

Movies reinforced Chicago's image as the world's hub of rat-a-tat-tat gangsters, while Paris remained the city of art and culture.
The President, and all the Olympics huh-bub may change Chicago's world image, and New York is now the hub of art and fashion.
But Paris will always top the list for romance, beauty and culture.

Therese Cox said...

Radge - Yeah, that's your Grim Reaper music all right.

Quid - Maybe that's why they cooked up a TV show called 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia?'

Designslinger - Reputations die hard. Between 'Public Enemies' and 'Devil in the White City,' y'all got nothing but murder, madness, and mayhem as far as the eye can see. Proud to call it home.

Julie said...

Paris is AC/DC