Pop Culture Trips
Published: April 2009
By Stephen Metcalf
<p>From <em>Sideways</em> to <em>Harry Potter</em> to <em>The Da Vinci Code,</em> pop culture's glamorizing representations are changing the way we experience real places—for better or worse.</p>
"Hello, I'm Brad." We're standing outside the Mabillon Métro stop in St.-Germain-des-Prés, but Brad could pass for the mayor of Margaritaville. He is tall, with a flower-print shirt, sandy hair, and the toneless accent of an American broadcaster. "Is there anyone here not among the fifty million people who have read The Da Vinci Code?" Brad asks the assembled crowd of around 40. Not a hand goes up. "Well, you'll find this tour very worthwhile today," he says, "because we're going to find the Holy Grail." Personally, I haven't come to find the Holy Grail but am on something of a pilgrimage: I'm trying to puzzle out why so many people, inspired by a movie or an "event" book like The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, travel in search of places that cannot properly be said to exist: Harry Potter's England, the Paris of Amélie, the New Zealand of Lord of the Rings, the Notting Hill of Notting Hill.
The phenomenon is hardly a new one—in Ireland a friend recently noticed an ancient highway sign pointing the way to a bridge used in a 1952 John Wayne movie—but it is growing. The Iowa cornfield seen in the 1989 film Field of Dreams now gets 65,000 visitors a year. Whole tour operations have opened up shop exclusively to service the Harry Potter fan base. Sideways and Lost in Translation have spawned maps and tours and hotel deals. And this month, the juggernaut known as Ron Howard's Da Vinci Code arrives.
Brad has brought us into église St.-Sulpice, the church that figures heavily in The Da Vinci Code. As he gently explains what a Pietà is, I drift away, walking through the hush of the remarkable cathedral. Modest signs calmly implore visitors to remember that St.-Sulpice is a functioning place of worship, with actual parishioners whom tourists ought not to disturb. Then, in the transept, I notice dozens of people—some copying a text word for word—huddled around a series of bulletins, printed in both English and French: "Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling novel," reads the English version, "this is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a 'Rose Line.' It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory, which serves as a reference for maps where longitudes are measured in degrees East or West of Paris. No mystical notion can be derived from this instrument of astronomy except to acknowledge that God the Creator is the master of time."
In spite of the great upheaving excitement surrounding the movie, St.-Sulpice insisted on maintaining its quiet dignity, refusing to allow any filming within its walls. The same cannot be said for the tiny Rosslyn Chapel, just south of Edinburgh, which, like St.-Sulpice, figures prominently in The Da Vinci Code. The chapel's governing trust agreed to let Ron Howard use the building for his film, which only threatens to overwhelm it further. Everything at Rosslyn is intimately scaled, and the mania about The Da Vinci Code has rendered this intimacy absurd. The gift store is packed shoulder to shoulder with camera-toting visitors, and when we all finally file into the chapel itself, we number more than 500. "Well, I usually walk around, but there are too many of you. I'll do the tour from here," says Simon, the chapel's docent, as he begins to speak from the nave. "This is a busy, working chapel. We perform funerals, baptisms, and weddings. In 1997 we had six thousand visitors. This year we're on pace for well over a hundred twenty thousand."
Even as the chapel accepts its immense windfall and plows it back into much-needed refurbishments—"we can't complain," says Simon, "we need the money to do preservation work"—the fabric of the chapel has started to wear away under the waves of tourists, and relic thieves have pirated away pieces of its precious stonework. When the estimate of 120,000 visitors began to appear low—26,000 people crossed the threshold last August alone—a note of panic set in, and the chapel's director, Stuart Beattie, indicated that he might start restricting the flow of pilgrims. Their money will help preserve Rosslyn, but their feet and hands and insatiable acquisitive curiosity may help annihilate it. What better symbol for the places that become fetish destinations?
It's an odd turn of events: to serve as a backdrop for a lavishly produced illusion, a location is dressed up as something it isn't. Tourists then stream in to experience the illusion for themselves, and so to prop up the expectations of its new visitors—and keep the dollars flowing—the location dresses itself up all over again. "The movies we love, they come from a real place," says Jeannie Barresi, whose company, Beyond Boundaries Travel, offers packages built around the Harry Potter franchise. "But film locations don't look like what they look like in the film. And especially now, with CGI, they're so enhanced. If you go to Alnwick Castle, you're not going to find goblins running out from behind the columns." Except that you will: Beyond Boundaries does everything it can to make sure children (and adults) won't be disappointed by reality. The company throws banquets; charters the "Hogwarts Express"; conducts Dragon Slaying, Herbology, and Potion classes; and sponsors falconry displays and treasure hunts.
I'm standing at the bottom of Rue Lepic in Paris. Contrary to the assertions of the hit movie Amélie, no adorable subway stop lies here. Instead one finds smut shops lining a scummy border between Montmartre and Pigalle. Thanks to some clever editing, though, Amélie disappears into the Métro Lamarck Caulaincourt, whose exterior façade, with its twin staircases, is perfectly beautiful. Like most movies, Amélie is a catalog of such visual white lies. Unlike most movies, Amélie has helped transform a neighborhood, by encouraging the gentrification of Montmartre's formerly working-class precincts and drawing Amélie pilgrims from the globe over to its less-touristy byways.
"We still get eighty to a hundred people a day who are here for Amélie," says a waiter at Deux Moulins, the real-life café where the title character made her living as a waitress in the film. Beneath a giant poster of Amélie an American couple have their picture taken by an indulgent waiter, as chain-smoking teenage Parisians look on and titter pitilessly. Amélie is only another in the zillions of pop culture products, from Sex and the City to the Beatles, that have inspired wayfarers.
The film's director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, makes movies that are self-conscious jewel boxes. In their way, they are like Paris itself: they exert powers of exclusion and control, until the world is rendered just so and life made to seem vastly more charming than it really is. But the moral of Amélie is easily lost: that cut off from reality, and from actual human empathy, mischief becomes something darker. So too with actual places, a lesson well learned by hanging around Montmartre. For this is what has happened to the toy village surrounding the Sacré Coeur, where every square meter is a gingham tablecloth and La Vie en Rose cliché for tourists, and to walk five feet is to be accosted by a sketch artist. In this sense, movies and travel are not unalike. Refine away real life a little, and you get respite and magic; refine it away too much, and you get heartless simulacra instead.
In London I stayed with friends up the block from Abbey Road Studios. Amid a frenetic Monday morning commute, a Japanese teenager strides across the zebra walk in bare feet, to be photographed by his girlfriend. Here, it occurs to me, is where the idea that pop culture deserves to remake the universe in its own image really began in earnest. The Beatles saturated the entire planet in their sounds and images and taught two generations of corporate marketers that music and movies aren't music and movies: they are events. Is it possible that the more people are encouraged to relate to imaginative places, the less they will relate to actual ones?That every time we travel, we will expect falcons and banquets?
Pushing north from Rosslyn, I head up toward Aberdeenshire. Now I have become a movie pilgrim myself. Local Hero, a small Scottish curio of a film that came out in 1983, tells the story of a callow American oil executive (Peter Riegert) who is sent by his tycoon boss (Burt Lancaster) to buy up an entire coastal village in the north of Scotland, only to replace it with a massive refinery. The movie was filmed in Pennan, a tiny village lying precipitously between a plunging bluff and the North Sea, and ever since Local Hero first played upon my sense of adolescent unbelonging some 20 years ago, I've promised myself I'd go there. Local Hero has a cult following, and I am a member of that cult. It is the one movie, in short, that exerts its tropic effect on me.
Pennan is a typical coastal village being left behind by the death of the North Sea fishing industry. "Last year they decommissioned another seventy-four boats," says Brenda Kutchinsky, proprietor of the Pennan Inn. (She has since sold the property.) The town's authenticity has been preserved by its poverty; it is off the tourist map, underdeveloped, and one of the least self-conscious places I've ever been. Above an ancient pull-knob cigarette machine at the inn, there's a yellowing picture of Mark Knopfler, who wrote the movie's sound track. The village's one fisherman ekes out a living by taking visitors in his boat to see the area's gannet sanctuaries. Every New Year's there's still a traditional ceilidh. But its life support remains the steady trickle of visitors who cherished the movie. "Some people say it destroyed the village; I say it saved the village," Brenda says. "It's brought people here." The cottages—wave-battered, 300 years old—have been bought up by weekenders.
The sound of the sea here is constant, the air powerfully astringent. Is this the most perfect place I have ever been?Or am I floating along a train of intoxications brought on only by a movie?Indeed, the more pop culture purports to substitute for real experience, and the larger the experience of fandom becomes to the average human life, the more we demand places be what a movie or a book told us they were, authenticity be damned. The people on The Da Vinci Code tour did not care about the Delacroix Chapel in St.-Sulpice, or that it was an active place of worship. They demanded, as a kind of divine right, to know where the albino monk was bludgeoned to death with the candlestick. But as I stand on the coast in Scotland, it isn't memories of an old movie that charm me, but the place itself, in all its shabby, transcendent glory.
Stephen Metcalf writes for Slate and the New York Times Magazine.
Where to Go
Abbey Road Studios
3 Abbey Rd., St. John's Wood, London; www.abbeyroad.com.
Alnwick, Northumberland, England; www.alnwickcastle.com.
Café des Deux Moulins
15 Rue Lepic, 18th Arr., Paris; 33-1/42-54-90-50.
Sixth Arr., Paris; 33-1/46-33-21-78.
Field of Dreams Movie Site
28995 Lansing Rd., Dyersville, Iowa; 888/875-8404; www.fieldofdreamsmoviesite.com.
Pennan, Aberdeenshire, Scotland; 44-1346/561- 201; www.thepennaninn.com; doubles from $70.
Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland; www.rosslynchapel.org.uk.
Beyond Boundaries Travel
Harry Potterthemed trips, among others. 800/487-1136; www.beyondboundariestravel.com; trips from $1,499 per person for four nights.
The Da Vinci Code walking tours. 33-1/48-09-21-40; www.paris-walks.com; $14 per person for a two-hour tour.
What to Read
Fodor's Guide to The Da Vinci Code
$14.95, Random House.
The Sideways Guide to Wine & Life
By Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. $6.95, Newmarket.