In the fall of 1958, four friends took a car journey of more than three thousand miles across the Pacific Northwest. Bev, Berta, Sissie and Clarice spent two months driving from Seattle through Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Oregon and they documented their trip in a scrapbook with photos and keepsakes collected along the way.
Fifty years later, filmmaker Matt McCormick bought this scrapbook in a Portland thirft store and was inspired to make The Great Northwest. The film is made with a light touch and minimal explanation. Matt McCormick recreates the women’s journey, driving through the same towns, visiting the same sights along the way. He also compares original photographs with landscape and streetscapes today. Some remain exactly the same while others are unrecognizable. The longest shot is about ten minutes of the filmmaker’s car maneuvering around a herd of cattle (a lot of people left during this shot).
There is no narration or music, just short explanations and maps showing the routes taken. The four friends drink their way across the Pacific Northwest, stopping at cocktail lounges and tiki bars in every town (four beers for $2.60 in one spot!). The result is beautiful but also sad. Vibrant highways have been replaced by sterile freeways and many travelers’ haunts have closed, fallen into disrepair or been turned into sterile tourist traps. We see little humanity along the way, just stray tourists, but they seem to be having little fun. Instead, they seem anxious to hide behind their camera lenses, eager to check off famous sights without actually experiencing them. A memorable shot shows rows of people waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, all with fingers ready on the camera trigger.
This unconventional travelogue is both a meditation on our relationship to our landscape and history and a reflection on the charm of American small towns and the lure of the roadtrip before air travel took over. Is there perhaps a way to preserve history, I wondered, but a living, evolving history, without turning it into a ridiculous farce?
Of course the question arises, who were these ladies? What did this trip mean to them? Why did they take it and who, if anyone, were they leaving behind? Did they get along in such close quarters? While I couldn’t stop myself from wondering, it wasn’t a frustration but rather a wonderful, satisfying mystery. A brief explanation is given only at the end of the film and in fact it answers few questions. Even the filmmaker found out little about his subjects. Although the film is something of an elegy to a lost past, it is also a look at the present and the present day car journey is completely captivating. Matt McCormick’s camera catches so much, both old and new and it made me want to go for a drink with these long gone ladies.
One more showing:
Oct 10 03:30 pm