HERE: Love in the Time of Google Maps

By Karina Longworth in Festivals, ReviewsMonday, January 24, 2011, at 11:29 pm

Braden King’s Here stars Ben Foster as Will, an American satellite cartographer on a contract assignment in Armenia, where he meets Gadarine (Lubna Azabal), who is visiting family in her home country after making a name for herself as an artist abroad. She is stubbornly independent, her professional and personal self-sufficiency expressed through a habitual globetrotting that serves as a small-scale political rebellion against her old-fashioned, peasant-class family. Comparatively restrained and watchful, Will is equally focused on transience. Drawn to one another after two chance meetings (“Big world, small country,” she says), Gadarine impulsively joins Will on a trip to gather ground data to make a more accurate Google-style map.

The couple’s excursions into Armenia’s sparsely-populated regions give King an excuse to indulge in spectacular widescreen cinematography. In both city and pastoral landscape, the signature shot here is a scene-ending, slow 90+ degree pan to the left. The counter-intuitive direction of the camera movement implies a last look back, cataloguing the moment and processing it into memory.

Here is a romance in the boy-girl sense–and a wonderfully alive one–but it’s also an exploration of the romantic worldview of the traveller/explorer, updated for a time in which we can zoom in and out of places almost as easily as we zoom in and out of satellite maps. The romantic notion of travel–in which the road is a catalyst for transformational, transitional experience–is black swanned by the specter of the colonialist conqueror. The briefly-stated elephant between Will and Gadarine is that he is being paid by a corporation in his country for geographic information about her country, which she (probably rightly) suspects they want because there’s money to be made from exploiting it. If he does his job well, the places that bred their affair will change or disappear. This running subtext intensifies the urgency of scenes that might otherwise seem mundane. While Will surveys, Gadarine takes countless Polaroids of their surroundings–her effort to preserve the moment as he’s ensuring change for the future. When she introduces him to a hidden cove, Gadarine asks only that he “leave it off the map.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Here is itself working off the map, at least in terms of the traditional Sundance dramatic competition film. Foster and Azabal (who King cast first, based on her performance in Paradise Now) have incredible physical chemistry, which allows the love story of Here to grease a path for its more complicated formal elements. King weaves into his travelogue dreamy, extra-narrative montages of optically printed abstractions, set to a narration by Foster that could best be described as imagistic poetry.

King’s blending of naturalism and pure cinematic flourish, the startlingly direct romantic philosophy nestled within layers of enigmatic writing and visual obfuscation, packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch. It’s the road trip romance reinvented, remapped.