Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sliding Behind the Curtain

Living in Metro Vancouver, I've been told, has that aspect of always looking behind the curtain. So many movies and television shows are filmed here that even if you don't stumble into an open-air shot, like Underworld 4 on Granville last week or the one they Brooklynized Front Street for over the weekend, all you need is a bit of attention to let the walls of suspended-disbelief come crashing down. The first time this happened to me, I didn't even live in New Westminster yet - I saw The A-Team in the theatre while I was on vacation, and even that handful of days was enough for me to pick out "Frankfurt" as just being downtown Vancouver. I don't think there's a Fairmont Pacific Rim in Germany.

This is one of the things that makes it even more distracting - when the camera includes blunt evidence that the city it's actually in is not the city it wants you to think it's in. Like how on an episode of Castle a few weeks ago, when a foot chase on a busy street in Manhattan inexplicably had a Los Angeles Metro Local bus in the background - noticeable because they're painted a rather distinctive orange color that tends to capture the eye. Sure, I didn't notice a lot of this while I lived in Ontario... but for that fraction of the audience familiar with the filming zones, which now includes me, the ride has got considerably bumpier. You're telling me that this is unfamiliar place X, but the evidence you've prevented demonstrates that it's actually familiar place Y.

This might be one of the scourges of the motion picture industry if more people than me actually cared. Thinking about it, though, there are some circumstances where this sort of thing is actually worthwhile - and far from being an interruption, could actually shore up the foundation. I'm thinking specifically, since I've been going back through the first two seasons on DVD recently, of Sliders.

Sliders, probably the single most mainstream appearance of the alternate history concept on the North American airwaves. Every week the four Sliders found themselves on a parallel Earth in a parallel San Francisco, but thanks to tax incentives most of those San Franciscos were in fact Vancouver with San Francisco establishing shots between scenes. When I first started rewatching the episodes after moving here, I thought the new familiarity might be distracting - but it's not!

It actually subtly advances the whole concept of the alternate history.

In a world where corporate hired guns are literally that: San Francisco, Texas. Vancouver's just on the other side of the street, though.

What I always disliked about Sliders was a reflection of the necessities of the medium: its alternate histories always seemed too artificial. You have a world where Texas not only remained independent but absorbed what would have become the Western United States, and yet Lyndon Johnson and George Bush not only still existed but still became Presidents (of Texas, that is). You have a world where J. Edgar Hoover became President and buried the Constitution, but the Internet nevertheless exists. You have a world where dinosaurs survived to the present day, and yet you still have humans. No concept of the butterfly effect at all. It's a far more simplified setup, wherein pretty much everything that isn't explicitly and directly affected by the departure from familiar history is unchanged.

It's in the filming that they get around this, even if they weren't trying to. Having never been to San Francisco, I can't say whether Vancouver looks anything like it - but what I do know is that Vancouver can't ever look exactly like it. The San Franciscos that the Sliders visit contain sights that you'd never find if you went to our San Francisco - and why should you? These are worlds with decades, centuries, or millennia of different history, that in some cases developed along entirely different (and entirely CRAZY) paths! While it's most likely that a sufficiently alternate San Francisco would resemble neither San Francisco nor Vancouver, using Vancouver can take advantage of that blunt evidence - that this is not the city they're telling you it is.

Even though pretty much every San Francisco they visit still has the Transamerica Pyramid on the skyline.

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