Firat Yücel checked in form Zaragoza to the see the world premiere of the American documentary The Great Northwest.
Four single thirtysomething women taking a road trip back in 1958 across 3300 miles in the USA… When I first read about the story that The Great Northwest is based upon, I expected a documentary that would elaborate on the idea of unmarried women deciding to take a long journey, being able to leave their lives, their homes behind and head through the unknowns of the American country. I expected some sort of a visual journal that would document the essence of travelling; a sense of liberty, nonconformism and momentum. And also — as opposed to all the machist or reversed-machist approaches to the idea of road trip, merely being a narrative tool for telling the glorious consumptions of the homo economicus (conquering lifestyles, identities, women, men, night clubs and even values about how life should be lived) — I was dreaming about a more sensual, immoral and abstract road trip. A visual document from the past that would bypass the usual treatment of journey (simply, a tale of how identities are shaped or the possibility of escaping identities), that for the time being we are so much accustomed to.
The documentary, or rather call it the art project of Matt McCormick is nothing like that. But then again, in a strange way, it is. The Great Northwest is not the story of these four women, but it is the story of the Northwest, as the title suggests. McCormick finds a scrapbook in a thrift store, dating and documenting a road trip in 1958, and takes a journey across the land that the women have left their footprints on. But neither is it the story of McCormick’s attempt to retrace their journey, as it would have been in a first-person narrated documentary. In fact the voice of the first-person narrator here (whether it’s McCormick or an imaginary teller) is shut down almost totally. We only grasp McCormick’s view of things and places, through the notes he puts over the landscapes, and those too are not personal at all; they tell about the way the land has been transformed through the years. What stayed the same, what has changed, this is what this film is all about: It is built upon the idea of ‘passage’, not upon the idea of looking through the past with today’s perspective. Maybe that’s the reason why McCormick avoids any personal comments, cause that would have automatically positioned the visual material into ‘a past’ seen from today’s moral and social codes. Whereas here, the main motivation is to look at the present from the past, not vice versa: Along his journey the director, puts the original photographs, taken in the fifties, in front of the camera, and then removes them from the view, which leaves us with the way the things are today. To put it in other words: What we are experiencing here through the images is not remembering the past; it’s more like remembering the present.
Watching McCormick’s experiment, I realize something about how memory works through images: Documentaries made about the past which are built upon remembering (showing photographs, archive footage etc.), somehow turn the time ‘in between’ into inevitability: What happened happened and we are here only for lamentation. There could have been no other way for what happened, cause the reality of present is standing still and concrete; it absorbs all the possibilities for the time ‘in between’. In a way that’s also what The Great Northwest makes you feel like, since McCormick is cruising in the present but there’s a slight difference to it: When he removes the old photographs of places, buildings and landscapes from our view and leaves us with the concrete present, we grasp not only lamentation, but also a sense of how this present has been shaped into what it is today. This way of looking at the present in fact leaves you with much more imagination, since it makes you grasp the human agency behind all that has been done. It’s not concerned about the past or the present; it’s concerned about the time in between, the passage.
This was one of the few reasons why Wim Wenders’ photographs of the American country came to my mind when watching the movie. It is not only that they are both interested in highways, diners, gas stations, domestic tourism and the vastness of the American country, but there’s a certain feeling that connects them: The images have a kind of depth, that makes a parallel between the idea of being on the road and the concept of time. The highway and the time become inseparable in our minds. There’s a strange silence that goes along with McCormick’s moving images that makes you hear even the slightest wind, which adds to this feeling. In this serenity, the empty land and the architecture (the human made) start to mirror each other and you become able to imagine the land without what’s built upon it. Which is also one of the best ways to avoid the feeling of inevitability of what happened in between.
The Great Northwest also leaves you with questions about filmic reality. Who knows if McCormick really found that scrapbook? Who knows if it is not only a made up story? And the real question: what would change if it were made up? In either case, this is the story of the land and how the American civilization utilizes that land. There wouldn’t be any change in what we see in the film, if it was made up or true; the land is there, the time is there, the change is there. The story of the four women is meaningful because it gives McCormick the idea to do this experiment. The past is only meaningful when it whispers things, as a muse or just an idea. The truth that is captured through the windshield of McCormick’s car is nevertheless the truth of the land and time, nothing else and nothing that could have been more.
The Great Northwest (Matt McCormick, USA 2012, 70′)