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.