City of Light(s, Camera, Action!)

I was on one of my usual foot treks through the city, starting as usual in a familiar spot and meandering away toward new hidden corners that I can connect to and sort of claim as my own, in my own little way. This one started by hovering above the Seine on the Pont de Sully, looking downstream at the skeletal ribs of Notre Dame. I shot one of my all-time favorite pictures thanks to a unique cloud cover whose sun had bleached the eggshell of the townhouses but kept the cathedral in a dark moody soup. It was a postcard, a painting, a Travel Channel documentary and a novel setting all rolled into one.

Turning south I snaked my way through the streets of the Latin Quarter, with no plan other than to avoid well-trodden paths. Along the way occasional flowers of interest sprouted up in my path: a slim building claiming to be the narrowest in Paris and standing where a medieval wall cut through 800 years ago, an unexpected American-style diner boasting authentic fluffy pancakes, and a fountain of menacing cobalt blue lion heads spitting thin tubes of water onto rusty grates below.

As I passed the lions and leaned my way up the sloping rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève, I stumbled into the warm adrenaline buzz of another magical moment, like the one on the bridge earlier, where all the elements seem to lock into place and you’re briefly sucked back into an impressionist painting. It was the lazy bend of the cobblestone street, the charm of an empty café nearby, and the church tower staring down from the top of the hill with its half-Gothic, half-Renaissance goodness. It was exactly what I search for on walks like these. I snapped another picture and soaked up as much of the scene as I could before the curiosity of what might be around other corners pulled me further on. It was so good that later I made a point to finish my walk by coming back again, this time via the narrow alley along the church’s northern side and past a set of stone stairs which lead up to the thick sculpted door of its side entrance. I took one more grateful glance around before heading home carrying with me the satisfaction of a successful afternoon walk.

Five months later I was in a movie theater, thoroughly enjoying Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”, about an American wandering the city’s streets each night looking for inspiration. I loved it — it was a story that really spoke to me and I’ve been enthusiastically recommending it ever since. That was a few weeks ago, and this morning while looking for something completely unrelated I ended up on a website offering a “film trail”, or a map of the movie’s shooting locales should you want to put together a nice little afternoon stroll for yourself. I popped open the file and something clicked. Images of the movie came flooding back — scenes of Owen Wilson walking down a narrow alley along a church’s northern side, stopping to sit on a set of stone stairs below a thick sculpted doorway, and the tolling of the bell of the Eglise St-Etienne-du-Mont – as an antique car drives up the lazy bend of a cobblestone street to take him on his adventure…

Hey, that’s my special spot!

I hadn’t realized it all during the movie, but funnily enough I remember thinking at the time wow, they did a good job of finding such a perfect Parisian nook to shoot this scene. Somewhere part of my brain must’ve been shouting “Look harder, look harder!”

In a way this is sort of a non-story; I mean it’s just a movie, it’s just a street, and it’s just a coincidence. And having lived in New York I’ve seen a fair amount of familiar places on film. But this one felt more meaningful. Maybe because it’s the same special spot I found by myself one day, alone and looking to be inspired, exactly the way Owen Wilson’s character finds it. When you spend your time searching a city for meaningful moments and then see one of them playing out on the big screen, detail by detail, you can’t help feeling connected to something.

Nor can you help, as silly as it may be, glancing around from time to time in case your own antique car might be coming around the bend, asking you to hop in and join the party.


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