Washington through Cinema #2

Select two depictions of Washington, DC using two of the following from class: the conspiracy film, the coming-of-age film, and the romantic comedy.  How does the presence of the city (what it stands for, what it looks like, etc.) differ between these two films?  Are the differences owing to the genres to which the films belong?  Explain.

24 thoughts on “Washington through Cinema #2

  1. Washington, DC as a city is so diverse in symbolic meaning and yet due to it’s status as the nations capital it time and time again becomes strictly associated with politics and the innerworkings of the Nation. I personally find it very important to remove Washington from the loud and bombastic nature of American Politics and peak into the life of the people who make the city run both in politics and outside of it; this is something St. Elmo’s fire does interestingly. St. Elmo’s fire being set in DC but having nothing to do with politics outside of minor details, sets it aside from other more overtly political works such as the American President. The charters of St. Elmo’s fire while yuppies know the city well and navigate it openly; taking place throughout North-west and Georgetown as the heart of the movie. This can be reflected by the photography and cinematography of St. Elmo’s fire. The Director of Photography, Stephen H. Burum, is overtly avoiding the grand sweeping establishing shots of the Mall, or anything vaguely Federal outside of one example which I will cover soon. Burum is more interested in following Canal Street in the beautiful golden autumn wonderland of Georgetown; following a more lived experience away form the hustle and bustle of downtown. This cinematography focused on the streets and alleys of Georgetown helps reinforce the world of young professionals in the outskirts of the capital city with many of the establishing shots from the prospective across the Potomac in Arlington letting the audience look into the lives and drama of these new graduates who have to grow up and face themselves. A great example of the city being utilized in St. Elmo’s fire is the section where Emilio Estevez’s Character Kirby keger is stalking his women of obsession down the streets of NW following her to a party; you get a great scene of the area around where this young Doctor is going to a party and how this would-be lawyer stalks her to the party. I think reflecting the world of the young professional to a world of slightly older people who have already found themselves cements the themes of DC being a place for those who are mature to make a name for themselves and an adult career unlike Kirby who can’t grow past a crush. Looking at the ways St. Elmo’s fire compares to a movie that is all about DC through politics you get to see a different part of the city, that of Pennsylvania Avenue. While Judd Nelson’s Charter in St. Elmo’s fire worked for a senator you only get a brief view of the office which is St. Elmo’s only flirtation with a political landmark and it’s only an interior shot. The American President lives and dies with it’s embrace of the government life within the streets of Washington DC. While it pays lip service to places like DuPont circle and a brief view of Georgetown; the audience is mostly met with establishing shots of the Mall and the view of the Washington monument. If St. Elmo’s fire is about the people who make the city run, The American President is about the people who are at top of the city and the country. The cinematography plays this up in capraesque views of these landmarks and patortism of a new generation one that is obsessed with the big picture and ideas; hence we see sweeping views of the white house, the Capital, and the Mall. DC is merely the place the seat of Government is for many of these folks, hence the scene where nobody know the state flower of VA since they are all expatriates from other states and not from the DMV. The American President plays up the angle of DC as a city for those who need to be there and not those who live their lives there. I think these two Movies are similar in genres since they both have comedic moments and focus on Romance and growing, where they differ majorly is their philosophy on DC and the place and time of their charters: for the kids of St. Elmo’s fire it is a city of opportunity for the cast of the American President is a place they have conquered and want to keep ahold of their castle.

  2. Between All the President’s Men (the conspiracy film) and The American President (the romantic comedy), there seems to be a significant difference in the way D.C. is presented. Fitting its genre, the conspiracy film aims to evoke a sense of suspicion and paranoia towards the U.S. government, which is often referred to as just “D.C.”. Conversely, The American President seems to be trying to re-inspire reverence for the position of the President while criticizing other politicized topics such as fossil fuel emissions, gun laws, and underhanded campaign practices relating to the media. These specific objectives aren’t necessarily to be expected for the romcom genre, but the movie itself is definitely lighter in tone, which impacts its depiction of D.C. when compared to All the President’s Men.

    This difference in depictions is especially clear when comparing scenes from each movie. The cold ending of All the President’s men juxtaposes the President’s speech with the consequences for his duplicity. Meanwhile, the opening for The American President aims to be more inspiring as it fades between images of past presidents with a swelling, romanticized score.

  3. DC in general is often thought of as simply the government or having a higher standing than other places. However, in the conspiracy film the usage of DC is not as important. It is almost like DC is in the backdrop of the whole movie, while the government system is the main focus. For this movie it seemed like the idea of DC was based on the ideals and function rather than the actual location. Throughout the film the characters find ways to pick apart and discredit the President and DC as a result. At the time the film was created, the US was paranoid and recovering from the real events outlined in the film, so the film depicted the kind of DC that everyone as view at the time. A DC that was under scrutiny. The romantic comedy had a similar depiction based solely on the fact that neither used DC as a Staple in the film, unlike “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. They used DC as a way to assert dominance in the relationship between the main characters. The use of DC in the romantic comedy was to show the audience that the President is of higher status and his politics matter. For this specific film they focused on the politics of DC rather than the location. One particular political view that was used in the film was the idea of the charming President, one that would have been familiar at the time in President Clinton. The filmmakers used DC to highlight that the President is of importance, but his charismatic personality humbles him to be like anyone else. The two films, while both were not focused on the location, were very different in comparison. The conspiracy film focused on the dark view of DC as that was understandable because of the time, while the romantic comedy was optimistic. Conspiracy films are designed to fill their audience with paranoia, but romantic comedies are filmed with the purpose of being “feel good” movies. These differences could be a part of genre, but they may be so different because of the times at which they were filmed.

    • DC isn’t exactly in the “background” in the conspiracy film. It’s just that it’s imagined as being only a place of corrupt power that envelops everything.

  4. Although Washington D.C. is a very notable city due to its political, architectural, and historical importance, it may be seen as a city of “higher up” and/or one of corruption. St. Elmo’s Fire is a coming of age movie about uncertainty, while also having ambition and excitement for the future. Washington D.C. is a very desirable city for the younger generation because of the openness and the ability to be whatever you want in the future. This film came out in 1985, a time where women became more independent with themselves and their families. Women started to go to college and this was a time where it became acceptable for women to receive degrees and go to work. The percent for women to go to college and receive their degrees became 26% and relating back to D.C., women were able to start their own living. St. Elmo’s Fire was looking to shoot for a college audience and it was a materialistic movie. This was also a time where divorce rates reached its peak. Although D.C. is known for starting fresh and making your own mark, it is also a symbol for transformation and growth. We have seen recently, even with presidents, that if there were to be conflict, we as a community would find resolution. The American President is a romantic comedy that tries to aim for a more mature audience than compared to St. Elmo’s Fire and there is a little bit of political drama involved. In the movie, the president falls in love with a lobbyist and due to this sudden infatuation comes a conflict of interest. The president is a very well known figure who can help further anyone’s goals and aspirations in life and the timing of this love could honestly not be any worse.

  5. The two films I have selected are St. Elmo’s Fire and The American President. The differences in DC’s depictions in these films are very apparent. Primarily, St. Elmo is mostly isolated to Georgetown, somewhere The American President visits but does not stay for long. I think it is at the very least interesting that both of these films have a shot of people eating in a Georgetown restaurant shot from outside of the window. I think the different locations reflect the different types of movie quite well: the coming of age film is isolated to a familiar, lived-in area while the locations in The American President are at times ostentatious, representing the position of power it’s lead male occupies, but is at other times very soft and homey, lit warmly in scenes taking place in the more intimate corners of the white house. These choices show the dichotomy in the film between the romance and the political drama, as well as the public spaces and private spaces of Washington.

    • Interesting focus on restaurants. In “St. Elmo’s” it’s certainly a place of public entrance for young people. In “The American President” a more upscale and forbidding place. And both Georgetown–good link.

  6. When looking a the presence of Washington DC in a conspiracy film, like All the President’s Men, it is important to take note of how much of the presence of the city is still rooted in politics. Although the protagonists that we follow through the film are not directly considered to be associated with politics, the path that Woodward and Bernstein set out on through DC makes it out to be some kind of seedy underworld that just happens to be tied to the capital of the United States. If you were to look at the romantic comedy The American President, it becomes more apparent that DC is used as a political backdrop that this one is set to. Rather than explore the darker side of DC and all of its shadiness, The American President rather chooses to use the overtly political side of DC to its advantage, by building up much of the tension that surrounds to public opinion of President Sheppard and Sydney with the idea that their relationship will have political repercussions. I feel as though these films can credit their genre’s as to why their use of DC works so well, as the conspiracy film uses the power and corruption that DC had begun to be associated with at the time to make up its presence, while The American President has used the public opinion that comes with being a lawmaker in DC and the constant scrutiny that they are under to endow DC with a watchfulness that comes with working in the city. Without trying to make use of the city’s inherent darkness and seediness, or by potentially isolating the experiences of the president from the media and scrutiny that the city is under, neither of these movies work as well as they did.

    • Great point about the “seedy underbelly.” By contrast, “The American President” seems to want to reinstate faith in the government.

  7. In “St. Elmo’s Fire”, DC is more of an idea, a goal for some of the characters – namely Alec – but is not somewhere the characters go often. Instead, the movie is in Georgetown, a college-centric town that the characters have yet to leave. This make sense for the film, seeing that it is about the characters’ coming-of-age and how they need to mature from their college days and get ready for the real world ahead of them. They aren’t quite ready to enter the more face-paced, serious world that DC represents.
    However, in “The American President”, the city is a staple for the power that the characters hold in their adult life. Both Shepard and Sydney are well-versed in the political sphere, Shepard as the president and Sydney as a budding and headstrong lobbyist. Instead, the city and the politics it stands for a mirror of the relationship between the two characters. Their relationship and the tension within it doesn’t stem from personal issues, but from their political disagreements. In turn, the movie ends with a State of the Union instead of a wedding, or a union of the couple. It shows how the politics are the real importance in the relationship between Shepard and Sydney.
    In conclusion, both films use DC as a metaphor for personal and political growth but do so in different ways.

    • You wrote: “personal and political growth.” A good way to think of this. Coming of age of both people and the nation in varied and even contradictory ways across the two films.

  8. Washington DC represents so many different things to so many different kinds of people. It can represent the United States as a whole, political aspirations, corruption, etc. When it comes to placing a film in DC this representation changes depending on the motivations of the film. When it comes to a coming-of-age film such as St. Elmo’s Fire, which in and of itself is a story about the change and evolution of young people, DC makes sense to me. If Washington represents the US as a whole, its depictions (and reality) changes and evolves all the time. We get new representatives, new scandals, we learn new things about what goes on in Washington everyday. This can also be seen as a sort of uncertainty, which also makes sense in the context of St. Elmo’s Fire. There is also something to say about the fact that this film, while taking place in Washington, really only takes place in Georgetown. Georgetown is an area which costs a lot of money to live in, and coincidentally this movie is about rich pretty people. In the context of the materialism of the 80’s which we discussed in class (even though Madonna was decidedly not a material girl in the end), this also makes sense. People would want to watch movies about rich pretty people because that’s what they wanted for themselves.

    This is all different than the use of Washington as the setting for something such as the Romantic Comedy- The American President. In this case, DC as the background represents politics, which in the case of this movie is the essential conflict which causes the boy and the girl to lose each other. The political narrative is also used to join them back together in the end. Unlike St Elmo’s Fire, this film relies so much on DC that it genuinely could not have been set anywhere else in the US, whereas it seems like St. Elmo’s Fire could have been moved elsewhere and still achieved its goal as a coming-of-age film.

    These differences do not necessarily have to do with the genre. I feel as if a coming-of-age film could have absolutely been made about DC and included much more representation of DC and done much more with the setting. The differences may be due to the time which they were made and what their goals were. All the Presidents Men follows a huge scandal in US politics and wanted to shed light on it but also profit from it, while St. Elmo’s Fire did not really try and shed light on a specific issue at all it seemed. In the end, I think both films did what they set out to do, but it was just different.

    • I wonder if doing more with DC settings in “St. Elmo’s Fire” may have become too political. This may have risked alienating the audience. In other words, the omissions are by the director/producer’s choice.

  9. (I am so mad because I typed this out and when I posted it, it was not showing up. Also, I apologize if this is actually showing up and I just can’t see them. This is my third attempt.)

    D.C. has an inherent dichotomy in what it represents. While there is a Kapra-esque hope in American Patriotism and the citizen’s influence on the city, there is also a feeling of something hidden within the city, and a feeling of corruption within American politics.

    This corruptive nature to D.C. is best represented in the conspiracy movie, All The President’s Men. D.C. in this movie is shown as grandiose throughout. Whenever the two main characters are shown driving, there is a panning shot using a wide-angle lens that makes the city around the car look huge. As well as these many shots, there are also the scenes in the parking garage that also use wide-angle lenses that make the parking garage behind the journalist seem like an empty cavern-like he and Deep Throat are the only ones in the city that are truly “there.” A final notable shot is when they are in the library, and the overhead shot shows them looking smaller and smaller, more and more surrounded by information and not enough time to find what they need. The movie portrays the commonality of the conspiracy genre; David versus Goliath, the government being an adequate and intimidating adversary to the two journalists. To show this difference, the movie ensures the audience see the scale of the two characters both physically and mentally.

    To oppose this view of Washington, The American President, the romcom, shows D.C. in its more humble locations. A strange observation, seeing as the most common setting in the movie is within the White House, the most influential building in D.C., but because every major scene is indoors, it brings the idea of D.C. to a smaller, more humble scale. To not get many establishing shots of D.C. defies this vision of D.C. and instead lets the audience focus on the characters, their choices, and their differing positions in the world. Without these establishing shots, why is D.C. the setting? Because the characters themselves represent D.C. D.C. is not only its landmarks but the people fighting for/within it, as the characters do. The characters fight for both themselves and for the good of the country. With this, how D.C. is portrayed is smaller, and more “humbling” (as humble as the white house can be). The fact that this is also a lighthearted romantic comedy also brings to light the fact that such a focus on how powerful D.C. wouldn’t fit the genre despite the subject matter.

    Maybe it is because one subject matter is based on a true, grim story, and the other is leftist idealism, that is why there is such a stark difference in portrayals, but both movies still represent Washington D.C. fully and surely.

    • Some great points here. The idea that “The American President” wants to present a more humble place by not overdoing scenery is interesting. The film certainly wants to balance between symbolic grandeur and friendly leadership.

  10. In St. Elmo’s Fire and The American President, DC is represented in two very different ways regarding the genre and the films themselves. In St. Elmo’s Fire, the film focuses more on Georgetown, which is in DC, but not the inner city itself. The inner city is connected to business and work while Georgetown is shown to be a fun, experimental place. This reflects the coming-of-age film’s genre in the representation of DC with the two mindsets of growing up. There is a carefree nature to the film that describes growth and change in a testing manner when coming to one’s friends. Throughout the film, the friend group does not leave the DC area until the very end, symbolizing growing up. Showing a different side of DC, The American President, is in the heart of the city, primarily in the White House. While the previous movie was not as political, politics are center stage here. The President leaves the city frequently but it is always in a rush and for business. In the city, the President is a personable guy who wants to connect with the people. Though this film is a romantic comedy, it focuses more on the rush of the city. In the film, DC stands for the heart of the nation and is a reflection of American values. This differs significalntly from St. Elmo’s Fire which does not represent the nation but a small fraction of the country. Both these films have a unique take on the DC and provide interesting lenses to look through.

    • It’s true that no one would watch “St. Elmo’s Fire” and think this somehow is a national statement, or in any way politically wide-reaching. Good point.

  11. Washington D.C. is a location that has several locations within the district and allows for a broad interpretation of what Washington D.C. represents. In the case of St. Elmo’s Fire, the location is Washington D.C. but more specifically the location in the district is Georgetown. Georgetown is one of the more expensive places to live in Washington D.C. and the story of St. Elmo’s Fire is centered around the story of wealthy white individuals who are clearly privileged. With this in mind the connotation of Washington D.C. when viewing this film can be very negative as it does not represent the entirety of Washington D.C. and transversely it does not represent the entirety of our country. Having a proper representation is very important within a film and can even go as far to say that in many films, purposefully provoking groups of people and challenging the thoughts and viewpoints of the viewer is very crucial to a films success and meaning.
    In the romantic comedy The American President. The representation of Washington D.C is not focused on location but rather the political representation and the inner-workings of the government are on full display. Washington D.C in my opinion is not necessarily represented as a whole because most of the movie takes place within the White House. This would almost be an international viewpoint as most of Washington D.C is not represented as a location. To many international countries and individuals, Washington D.C. is the capital of our Country and the White House is the home of our President. It is very easy to understand that someone may believe that Washington D.C’s purpose is solely to be home to the national government. Yes this is true but in todays world, Washington D.C. is a representation of many different cultures and groups which we have grown to see especially with the recent protests and political issues that have gone on.

    For both of the films I do believe that they are owing to their genres because if Washington D.C. was not the location of either of these movies, St. Elmo’s Fire would still be a coming of Age film, and the American President Would still be a Romantic/Drama. In some ways I think that we can almost over analyze the representation of Washington D.C in film, even though it does have a specific purpose and was chosen by the film teams but for the essence of the movie the location is not necessarily the most important aspect.

  12. Looking at The American President and St. Elmo’s Fire, you see two completely different films with different characters and different plots but they share similar settings. In the latter, there’s a group of 7 freshly college graduated D.C. natives who are all trying to navigate life together in one way or another. One could probably get away with calling the group “kids” and that shows in the different places that we see the characters in the main setting of the film: Georgetown. For example, they attend a Halloween costume party at the bar they would frequent as college students where Billy, an alcoholic, gets into a bar fight with his wife’s new boyfriend. This highlights my point; mature adults don’t go to the bar they went to as college students and get into bar fights. Compared to St. Elmo’s Fire, The American President exudes maturity in terms of its characters and settings. This film takes place mostly in the White House where the most important work in the country takes place. These are grown ups with grown up jobs; established adults with clear hopes and dreams. It’s not even a question that the scene at the state dinner where Andrew and Sydney share their first dance and kiss exemplifies the contrast between the two films. This is definitely owed to the genres of the films: a coming of age, dramedy and a romantic political drama.

  13. “Dark underbelly” indeed. “The American President”, by contrast, seems to want to stress some hopeful sense of democratic transparency (although there is backroom dealing, hopefulness and sincerity wins the day).

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