Photo: Majestic movie theater India

Reel travel: Join a movie audience for a glimpse into the local culture.

Photograph by Chris Protopapas

By Daisann McLane

Go to the cinema in a distant land, and you just may see the destination with new eyes.

The room is dark, bathed in gently flickering light. This place is exotic and thrilling to me, yet deeply familiar. Men wearing fezzes are whispering conspiratorially to men in white dinner jackets. A piano player tinkles idly in the background. I can almost, but not quite, smell musky Chanel perfume evaporating from the bare arms of women in satin evening gowns.

Ceiling fans spin slowly overhead in the tropical languor. But I'm shivering. These Hong Kong movie theaters really overdo it with the air-conditioning.

I wrap my shawl around my arms and drift back into the Moroccan intrigues of Casablanca.

I had ducked into this movie theater impulsively. When I'm on the road, especially at the finish of a busy day of exploring, I always seem to end up retreating into a movie theater. This bewilders friends who travel with me. "Why do you want to waste time seeing a movie? Didn't you get to watch enough movies on the plane?" Then they add the kicker: "We should not spend our travel time doing the same things we do back home." That's when I sigh and give up all hope of catching Daniel Craig in the new James Bond flick while I'm in Berlin.

When I first began to travel, I craved experiences that were totally different from what I already knew. But as I got more mileage under my belt, I discovered it was more interesting to follow my regular routines and see how my familiar furniture was rearranged by being in another place. When I travel by myself, I steer myself to places and activities I enjoy anyway, such as movies, and wait. Some of the most interesting experiences I've had have been watching films "out of context." Like the time I was the only American in a youth club in Croatia that was showing Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing and ended up explaining all the slang. On my first trip to Paris I was feeling uneasy. I'd heard all the cliches about haughty Parisians, and my French is beyond atrocious. So what better remedy than sharing a few hours of laughter with a theater full of Parisians watching that quintessential New York City tale, Woody Allen's Annie Hall? Walking out afterward, my heart was lighter, and I no longer felt like a stranger in a city where people seemed so fond of—and knowledgeable about—my own.

India's movies are such an important part of the culture that I can't visit that country without seeing at least one. To be honest, I can't recall the plot or the title of the movie I saw in Chennai with hundreds of other local fans in an old theater downtown. (Actually, the film, like most Bollywood epics, had several plots, overlapping, merging, and sometimes vanishing abruptly in midstream.) What stayed with me was the rustling of silk saris in the Ladies section of the theater, licking the oily residue of cumin-fried chickpeas from my fingers (could I ever be happy again with just popcorn?), unabashedly shouting instructions and advice at the hero, and booing the bad guys.

I have been a movie fan since before I could read, especially of films that carry me away to exotic locales (family legend has it that my mother started going into labor with me in the middle of a showing of Three Coins in the Fountain). Long before I actually traveled, I was traveling through films. What books were to armchair travelers in the 19th century, movies are to most of us who were born in the 20th.

Movies and travel make a great match. There are enough travel movies by now to merit a separate genre, although which movies belong in it is open to debate. Movies solely about traveling and travelers encompass a lot—everything from Walter Salles's film The Motorcycle Diaries, about a young Che Guevara's coming-of-age journey through Latin America, to the backpacker thriller The Beach, to the classic 1950s drama, Summertime. In that film, Jane Hudson, a naive, repressed, single American woman played by Katherine Hepburn, comes to Venice to find—or maybe to lose—herself amid the canals and palazzi and romance of Italy's most picturesque city, filmed to Technicolor perfection, of course. (When I went to Venice for the first time, the spot where Hepburn's character fell backward into the canal was a must-stop on my itinerary.) This summer's Eat, Pray, Love, the movie version of Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller, updates the Summertime plot, substituting Julia Roberts for Hepburn and Javier Bardem for Rossano Brazzi. (Ironically, it's the modern film, not the '50s one, that gives the heroine a happy ending.)

I find these kinds of travel films hard to watch. Movies like Midnight Express (and its modern variation, Transsiberian) are scarier than horror films to this frequent traveler. They hit too close to home, to the risks and dangers I face in real life. That voice you hear in the back of the theater muttering "No no no!! Don't leave your stuff unguarded around those strangers! Don't get off the train! BAD idea!" is mine.

The films that "travel" best for me don't have to be about travel, but they do have to have a sense of place. I'm a sucker for all of those spy-and-caper thrillers, from the Bonds to the Bournes, that flit through a catalog of far-off lands. I'm the one still in my seat as the last credits roll, checking whether I guessed all of the locations correctly. I adore films like Salles's homage to northeast Brazil, Central Station, that are as much about a land as its people.

Best of all are the movies with a sense of place stronger than the place itself. I've put off visiting Vienna because I can't imagine any Vienna more hauntingly perfect than the one I've seen over and over in The Third Man. And I linger on the steep "ladder" streets of Hong Kong after midnight sometimes, imagining myself wrapped in the elegant, nuanced romance of Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love.

Casablanca isn't exactly about travel. The movie city "Casablanca" was a fantasy, I know. It was filmed in a Hollywood studio, not in Morocco. But I still think it's one of the great travel films of all time, rich and evocative of a world in which so many people were set adrift and lost their connections to the places they came from. In an over air-conditioned theater in Hong Kong, thousands of miles from Casablanca—or my own hometown—my traveler's spirit is there, in that shady city of exiles. I'm sitting at a table at Rick's Cafe, eavesdropping on the man wearing the fez. For a movie-loving traveler like me there is no better thrill than to be in London, or New York, or Hong Kong and know I can still—and always, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca—have Paris.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com.

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