' ' Cinema Romantico: At the Movies: The Eiffel Tower

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

At the Movies: The Eiffel Tower

As the action in “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003) moved to Paris, I made a bet with myself that the Eiffel Tower would appear within 40 seconds. If that sounds too quick, it turned out to not be quick enough, because as soon as Jack Nicholson’s character left his Parisian hotel and walked into the street, right there, looming over his left shoulder, as if he had walked directly into the traditional tourist photo op, was the tour Eiffel, erected in 1889 by Gustave Eiffel for the World’s Fair, and go-to landmark for most any movie (perhaps we should say, most any American movie) to signify it is set in and/or the action has moved to Paris. That’s why in the Rick/Ilsa flashback of “Casablanca” you catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in that glorious rear projection, chilling over the lovebirds’ shoulders, and why when “Star Trek VI” wants to let you know we are in the French office of the Federation of Planets you see the Eiffel Tower out the window.

Those are well and good, sure, but not particularly exciting, not resourceful, which is what a truly great Eiffel Tower cinematic signifier requires. In “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, Tom Cruise’s on-the-lam IMF agent Ethan Hunt is in Havana, or so we think, evading the authorities, only to have the authorities show up right outside his door, only to then have Hunt look out the window where he sees…..The Eiffel Tower, the iron lady functioning as a reveal and a punchline. Even more clever, however, was Julie Taymor in “Frida”, who circumvented the problem of needing to film Paris scenes without having the budget to actually go to Paris by cutting to a shot of the Eiffel Tower…..and then pulling back to reveal the shot as nothing more than a postcard, panning over to Frida (Salma Hayek) at a postcard rack to underline the point. It made me laugh out loud.

Still, no movie has ever introduced us to Paris via the Eiffel Tower better than Francois Truffaut in “The 400 Blows”, its opening shot of the tower peeking up from behind the everyday cityscape bringing to an American mind the way in which the World Trade Center was so intrinsically integral to the NYC cityscape wherever you were, whether you were conscious of it or not.

And the film’s opening credits revel in this idea, capturing the semi-obscured iron lattice tower from various moving vantage points, peeking through trees and occasionally popping entirely into view between buildings before just as quickly vanishing once again. These shots, however, as so many film scholars more eloquent and knowledgeable than myself have elucidated over the years, turn this familiar signifier into symbolism, with the abstract glimpses of the tower meant to approximate the youthful protagonist’s forthcoming emotional journey, where he struggles to get a handle on his Parisian adolescence.

Many more movies, however, prefer not to gaze upon the tower from afar but to get up close and personal, perhaps none more than the silent 1924 short “Paris Qui Dort”, which you can find on Youtube in a highly edited form, which begins and ends on the Eiffel Tower. It’s a sci-fi movie, centered around a magical ray that freezes the city of Paris, but it’s also akin to a travelogue from a time when traveling was more arduous, allowing people inside and on top of Paris’s architectural marvel.

“Superman II”, like the rancid Bond flick “A View to a Kill”, like the turgid Parisian sequel to “An American Werewolf In London”, went into the Eiffel Tower too. In fact, Richard Lester’s 1980 movie might have been my introduction to the Tower, appearing in the movie’s opening, where Superman single-handedly halts an out-of-control elevator carrying Lois Lane. When that movie screened for the ABC Sunday Night Movie, which I watched with a beach towel jerry-rigged to approximate Kal-El’s cape, I must have pretended to halt that same elevator at least two-dozen times.

The tower’s role as a signifier also means its destruction on film is inevitable, ranging from “The Great Race” to “Armageddon.” The last one was a year after “Mars Attacks!” which had fun not only with the Tower Gets Destroyed cliché, but the Tower Is Just Outside The Window cliché, where we know we are in Paris because the Eiffel Tower is seen through the window, as if Élysée Palace is literally smack dab on the Champ de Mars.

That’s truly my favorite, the omnipresence of the tour Eiffel on screen, where it looms outside every window and over every shoulder, whether it’s young chef Alfredo Linguini of “Ratatouille”, who may barely be scraping by but still has a dingy little apartment overlooking the tower, or my beloved “Ronin”, where even a scene of utmost suspense makes room for Gustave Eiffel’s creation just over the shoulder of Robert DeNiro’s Sam.

Noah Baumbach, however, took the over-the-shoulder Eiffel Shot to the stratosphere by twisting it just a bit in his fanciful, fantastic “Frances Ha” when his titular main character (Greta Gerwig) lights out for the city of lights for no discernible reason by putting the whole two day vacay on her credit card only to arrive, pass out on sleeping pills, get up too late to do much of anything, miss the friends she has hopefully come to see, and, forlorn, fail to get the cigarette she so desperately craves lit.

And as she gives up on lighting the cigarette, she moves out of the frame…

…to reveal the Eiffel Tower, which only the camera sees, was looming over her shoulder the whole time, a comical dismissal of the over the shoulder cliché.

That dismissal is even more prominent in Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 French film “La haine” chronicling a handful of aimless French criminals on the outskirts of Paris, that fringe life reflected in the movie’s famous Eiffel Tower scene, where the illuminated tourist attraction is seen not up close but from a long, long ways away, from a rooftop, where the characters are stoned in an ill-begotten attempt to escape from their dismal surroundings. One claims he can switch off the tower on command, which another dismisses as something that only happens in the movies, but when they turn to walk away, sure enough, the Eiffel Tower goes dark, leaving you with the impression that to a local the iron lady is not so much a beacon as just another meaningless speck in the sky.


Alex Withrow said...

Great work here. I love how you detailed that Frances Ha scene. I need to watch that move again, I loved that damn thing. Poor Frances just can't catch a break.

And holy hell, I LOVE your new blog header. Great moment from a great film.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks! I love that movie, I love that scene, I love her performance. Plus, more than anything, I just wanted to make some sort of subtle commentary to show her support in the wake of, well, you know...