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Water droplet Part 1 - Book-ends   Part 2 - Pull-focus   Part 3 - Reflections   Part 4 - Left to Right is Right   Part 5 - Pan left to the past

PURE CINEMA -  a look at moments of cinematic technique that epitomise the unique, artistic and poetic quality of film-making.

In this series freelance film-lecturer Derek Wilson writes about magic moments from cinema old, and new.


Part 6 - Washington D.C.

The eyes of the world are never far from Washington D.C. whose buildings and monuments have a symbolism which film directors and cinematographers have often used. The inauguration of Barack Obama on 20th January 2009 at the U.S. Capitol will, among other as yet unknown consequences, alter the way these familiar symbols are perceived. The idealism of the Lincoln Memorial for example and his words “that all men are created equal” will at last be justified.

In Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962) the credit sequence featured a Saul Bass graphic of the Capitol building, the dome being lifted like a lid, a metaphor for the revelatory aspect of the film. The corridors and exterior of the Senate building were used to give authenticity while the chamber itself was the accurate mock-up created for Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939).

Advise and Consent concerns a Senate Committee’s questioning and investigation into the appointment of a nominee for Secretary of State, played by Henry Fonda. Although much of the film plays like a courtroom drama, Washington locations feature, never more tellingly than when a crucial witness is asked by Charles Laughton to be honest about past events - with the Washington Monument standing as a symbol to truth and democracy in the background.

In All the President’s Men (Alan J Pakula, 1976) Washington locations are used early in the film to suggest a vast city or dark labyrinth as Woodward and Bernstein, the two young reporters, take on the herculean task of uncovering the truth. There is a memorable shot of the two in the Library of Congress checking through file cards. A bird’s eye shot above the two slowly zooms out up into the dome of the building making them an ever tinier part of a pattern. Other locations include the dark of the garage where “Deep Throat” keeps Woodward on the right path, the darkness contrasting with the authentic looking and brightly-lit replica of the Washington Post.

More recently Rendition (Gavin Hood, 2007) had two locations: ‘North Africa” (actually Morrocco) and Washington, D.C. Clever colour-coding (including wardrobe) contrasts the warmth of the former with the cold - literal and metaphorical - of the latter. Washington’s landscape, those iconic buildings are seen at a distance: mistily from across the river or glimpsed, floodlit, through a hotel room window. Darkness is used too in scenes where the truth is deliberately hidden or distorted. Politicians operate in modern offices where a cool blue is the dominant colour. The modern Washington is pragmatic; individual freedoms can be ignored or denied for the greater good; ‘Old’ Washington, the film implies, is mere scenery, distant, of no help in the problem with which the film is concerned. That problem is basically one of the human right to freedom so the use of location is most apt, a paradox with which the new President will have to grapple.

Internet Movie Database entry for Advise and Consent   |   Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations entry for Advise and Consent   |   filmsite review and synopsis of Mr Smith Goes to Washington   |   Washington Post article about All the President's Men   |   New Line information and trailer for Rendition   |  

Pure cinema: Part 1 - Book-ends   Part 2 - Pull-focus   Part 3 - Reflections   Part 4 - Left to Right is Right   Part 5 - Pan Left to the Past


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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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