Developing a sense of place

I’ve noticed a few common threads in the books, movies, and songs that I like the most. For whatever reason, I tend to respond to media that describes place well. It wasn’t something that I did on purpose, but something I notice in retrospect. These can be book-long meditations on stark landscapes like Desert Solitaire, The Worst Journey in the World, or Wind, Sand, and Stars, or simple phrases in songs and poems that get stuck in my head. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the reasons I was drawn to the earth sciences, not only do you get to experience a variety of landscapes, but you actually study the things that specifically make landscapes unique.

I’ve been lucky to be able to travel as much as I have. I’ve lived in all four time zones in the continental U.S., spent lots of time in some of the more remote and barren parts of America, and visited China, Europe, British Columbia, and Alaska. Most of the traveling has been for work, which means that large chunks of this time have been in places not often frequented by tourists, but of course full of rocks.

So, let’s combine these two things: I pay a lot of attention to places and landscapes, and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience a nice amount of them. This is all as a prelude for a rant: Turns out that what drives me nuts more than most any other absolutely trivial thing is this: when T.V. shows and movies are “set” in a place that is obviously not where they are filmed. Let me explain:

I first noticed this with the classic mystery series Murder She Wrote. I remember watching this show with my mom as a kid, and it turns out now that my wife absolutely adores it (You can stream it on Netflix, and she loves having shows on in the background while she works, but she’ll wonder why I need to explain this because it is the GREATEST SHOW EVER). Now, Murder She Wrote was set in Maine, but the outside shots were all filmed in Northern California. When I was a kid, I didn’t know that Maine looked different than Northern California, but then I started traveling a bit. So now, every time you see the sun setting over the ocean, or a big honkin’ redwood tree in the background of the scene where people are being run down by a remote controlled car, I can feel my blood pressure rise a little. Murder, She Wrote is of course not alone, most shows are not shot on location. One of my current favorites, Justified, uses the Southern California coast ranges to fill in for rural Kentucky, something I am compelled to point out every episode (trust me, people love this). The “coal mine” in Zoolander was actually filmed in a hard-rock mine in New Jersey that is famous for its fluorescent minerals, Toronto often doubles for New York City in cop dramas, and of course any trip to the Alabama Hills includes a discussion of how many times it turned up in westerns as some not-California place.


Generic western setting, Alabama Hills, California. Picture by Thermochronic using Kodachrome 64, something I miss.

I am not a stickler for accuracy in most other respects. I can even enjoy how weird labs look on TV, or how terribly academia is usually portrayed. I typically watch things because I like the story and the social/ethical/moral/human questions that they explore, and I don’t care that much if things aren’t portrayed exactly “right,” it all depends on the purpose of the story. For some reason this thing bugs me, but it also interests me. What makes a place “close enough” to pass? I am sure it depends on the budget and the story, but how do you go about choosing a location? That is why I was so interested when I came across this map, published by Paramount Pictures in 1927.

The map was intended to convince financial backers that the industry could film damn near anything within a short drive of the studios. And check it out, 57 years before J.B. Fletcher started solving murders the studio executives already knew the coast could pass for New England. I grew up in a place that could pass for the Mississippi River, just a few hours drive from the French Alps and Siberia! I wonder though how much this matters now, with the inexpensive ubiquity of CGI technology, perhaps all of these places can now be mapped inside some green screen studio in Burbank. For me, when you go CGI your attention to accuracy should improve, you no longer have the excuse of location. If you need help with the details, perhaps you should just hire a rant-prone geologist? We are very affordable.

This entry was posted in earth science, Rants, science and society, The Woods, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Developing a sense of place

  1. Lab Lemming says:

    Don’t get me started on the non-Wyoming setting for Brokeback Mountain…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s