on location

I love fireworks. I have never visited Mount Rushmore.

So when I learned last month that the National Parks Service was conducting a lottery for a Fourth of July fireworks show there, I visited their website to enter my name. I figured I could minimize COVID-19 exposure by driving out, loading the car with plenty of food, and staying in campgrounds during the trip. It would have been great to see the Badlands too. I even considered an extended trip, very much like my colleague who has been working on the road, visiting up to five of the remaining eight states where I haven’t been: South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Oregon.

However,  after I learned President Trump would be there, hosting one of his divisive rallies, I recognized this would be a bad idea. I knew the crowd would be packed closely and would disdain masks. I knew the mere appearance of my brown skin could trigger some racist drunk (or racist, period). In the days since the lottery, I also realized the danger of wildfire, and recollected the slave ownership of Washington and Jefferson, as well as Theodore Roosevelt’s slaughter of Filipinos fighting for the liberation of their islands.

On the Fourth I did view impromptu fireworks, flashing above Homewood and some ground effects in the middle of the intersection at the far end of our block. And over the weekend I saw Mount Rushmore on film, rewatching North by Northwest, often considered one of the world’s greatest films, having been preserved twenty-five years ago in the National Film Registry.

I don’t think the movie is all that great.

North by Northwest is certainly influential but it is very much a product of its time. The incidental music is heavy-handed and repetitive, the dialogue is more ham-fisted than clever, the characters — especially the gender roles — are stock. 

Watching this Hitchcock movie as a period piece created more than sixty years ago, I was most engaged by the scenery. The establishing shots occurred in New York, Chicago, Indiana, and Mount Rushmore. In New York, Grand Central looked precisely as I remember from real life and countless other films, the then-new United Nations Headquarters was iconic but depicted with an obvious matte painting background, and I didn’t recognize the Plaza Hotel until afterwards. The train from New York to Chicago looks like it is on tracks heading up the Hudson Valley, which would be a very indirect route (and originates in Penn Station, not Grand Central), but I’m willing to believe that change have occurred over the past six decades. Although I lived in Chicago four years, I didn’t see anything definitively identifiable of that city. The field in the middle of “Indiana” was apparently filmed in California’s Central Valley; the land looks a bit arid but I was fooled. I couldn’t tell how much of the Mount Rushmore scenes was done on location or on set.

There are two absolutely marvelous scenes. One is brief: a geometric overhead shot of Thornhill as a tiny dot, fleeing the United Nations. One is extended: when Thornhill finds himself in the middle of a field to meet the mysterious Kaplan. The suspense builds slowly and silently, unfolding at a pace that modern audiences probably no longer have patience for.

We can admire the finer aspects of something (or someone) even while observing the imperfections.

Indeed, those imperfections can be integral.

When I visited the UN Building as a young child, I first encountered an idea that was completely strange to me, the notion that Islamic art deliberately introduces imperfections, because only God is perfect. When I entered the Minneapolis Institute of Art in the summer of 1992, I saw an incredible mandala and was stunned to read that it soon would be swept away, in concert with the Buddhist concept of impermanence. When I took a graphic design class at the Art Institute of Chicago, my friend and fellow professor taught me to work with what we initially perceive to be mistakes.

Everything — films and mosaics, statues and statutes — is subject to interpretation. In my most recent Convertsation on Thursday evening, we discussed the complex topic of monuments that memorialize and offend. The Supreme Court recently upheld DACA on procedural grounds, prevented Louisiana from having only one abortion provider in the entire state, and barred discrimination against LGBT workers.

Still, something is amiss when scenery is the unintentional highlight of a video. This is the case for two Netflix releases from the past month. I’ve watched only the first half hour of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga because it has been unfunny, all the more tragic because Will Ferrell is a comedic genius. The main draw to continue is the stunning landscape of Iceland, which we visited three years ago. I’ve nearly made it through the first season of Warrior Nun despite the incredibly uneven story arc and character motivations, in large part because Spain is so beautiful. The area of Ronda near the parador where we stayed last winter is featured in the sixth episode.

I would like to travel again sometime, see the scenery for real. I don’t mind being at home, in many ways I enjoy it. Technology brings aspects of the world to me, I can see and talk with my sisters who are a state and a continent away.

But I have not visited my sister who lives here in town, nor my parents who live only ten minutes away.

It will be good to travel again sometime.

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