Note: To be shot in 70mm, black and white.
INT. AIRPORT CORRIDOR – DAWN
A jumbo jet full of PASSENGERS waits to pass through customs, passports in hand. They are in between, not yet present in any country. At the end of the corridor an automated dispenser of hand sanitizer welcomes them to the United States and to Los Angeles, such as it is. A few passengers exchange anxious glances with the impassive and, for some, unfamiliar machine.
The line does not move.
Eventually a DIMINUTIVE WOMAN approaches the machine, hand extended. The dispenser BUZZES and a tennis ball-sized dollop of hand sanitizer appears in her hand. She returns to her place in line, staring at the impassive white bolus in her palm, more anxious than before.
The line begins to move.
INT. AIRPORT TERMINAL – TEN MINUTES LATER
A menacing brown sun just begins to rise outside. It will be 90 degrees by midday. We TRACK up the stairs to reveal a scene of what appears to be total chaos. The fact that it is this way every day is our only reassurance. The terminal is an overwhelmingly beige building which gives up all hope each night only to somehow still be there in the morning. Departing PASSENGERS are packed into a winding line leading to a security checkpoint. A steady stream of humanity arrive from the stairs below and from outside. They mill about, trying and failing to find the end of the line. Some join a shorter line reserved for first class passengers. A stressed-out ATTENDANT directs the neophytes to the true end of the line, outside the terminal.
In the line, one YOUNG WOMAN appears to be particularly agitated. She watches as a THURSTON HOWELL III LOOKALIKE joins the shorter first class line.
Hey man, that’s first class. The real line begins outside.
T.H. III L.A.
(vaguely fingering a boarding pass)
I am first class.
The Young Woman relents, there is maybe a two hour musical sequence in which she overcomes adversity to end up in the coveted first class line. A moment passes, the architecture and growing crowd conspiring to make the true form of the line even more obscure. Understandably, people find themselves joining the first class line. A middle-aged black MAN approaches. Like others he scans the space, trying to locate the end of the, possibly endless, line. He joins the end of the first class line behind the Thurston Howell III Lookalike.
(to Attendant, one microsecond later)
But he’s not first class!
The Attendant freezes in place, as do all within earshot. She locks eyes with the agitated Young Woman and, with the full force the superpowers bestowed by her superpower, extends an admonishing finger.
EXT. 30,000 FEET – MAGIC HOUR
Product placement: A jet flies across the continent, east to west, its logo glimmering for the camera.
After the experience of setting foot on American soil for the first time in eight years, it seems I should offer a few grand conclusions.
INT. AIRPLANE CABIN – MAGIC HOUR
A golden light illuminates the interior of the economy cabin. A seated TRAVELLER addresses a busy FLIGHT ATTENDANT. She listens patiently, a plastic cup of melting ice in her hand, leaning on the drinks cart.
I can’t say, as I might have hoped, that I know it for the first time and I suspect that T.S. Eliot’s suggestion that this might be the result of our travels was wishful thinking on his part. It is a working theory though, and we need working theories when we travel. My working theory at the moment is that there are three phases to encountering any place, be it Timbuktu or the local Stop & Shop…
EXT. HURON AVENUE, CAMBRIDGE MA – NIGHT
It is very late. The venerable spine of the 02318 zip code is bathed in the orange glow of sodium streetlamps. We hear the faint BUZZING of an electric engine, gradually approaching.
Phase one: Before departure there are preconceptions, which are needed in order to summon the quantity of dread or anticipation included as a tax on your fare. My preconceptions are always fragile.
As the car approaches, we hear the sound of three young people GIGGLING and CACKLING.
A Prius, bedecked with two “KERRY/EDWARDS” bumper stickers, drives down the otherwise empty street. Though the vehicle travels slowly, it weaves across the entire width of the street, nearly hitting the parked cars on either side.
TRAVELLER (V.O.) (CONT’D)
As soon I embark, I forget all my preconceptions. An example of a preconception might be, “Golly, I bet there are still a lot of Obama stickers on people’s cars.”
The Prius suddenly brakes to a stop on the wrong side of the street, opposite Le Jardin and Formaggio Kitchen, neighboring gourmet stores. The GIGGLING stops.
TRAVELLER (V.O.) (CONT’D)
Phase two of travel begins when, upon arrival, the traveller faces the actual true nature of a place, its objective presence.
The back doors of the Prius swing open simultaneously, disgorging two YOUNG CANTABRIDGIANS. One is male, one female, but they are dressed the same, in tattered jeans, flannel shirts worn as jackets. They run across Huron Avenue to the sidewalk in front of Le Jardin, leaving the car doors open.
TRAVELLER (V.O.) (CONT’D)
Places do have objectively true aspects. Naturally we first notice the changes, i.e. “The Boston Globe vending machine in front of Le Jardin has moved 36 inches south at some point in the past eight years.”
Working together, the two Cantabridgians lift a newspaper vending machine in front of Le Jardin. They move it a couple of feet to the opposite side of the sidewalk, put it down and run back to the Prius. They gleefully slap each other five and get back into the car. Before the doors are shut, the Prius speeds off with a mighty WHINE.
INT. AIRPLANE CABIN – TWILIGHT
The Flight Attendant continues to listen to the TRAVELLER. She stares into the plastic cup of nearly melted ice.
I’m back and forth so many times, nothing ever seems to change.
You don’t notice?
I don’t let anything change.
(turning to the TRAVELLER)
And what was the third thing?
The third phase happens when, in reaction to this perceptual torrent of undeniable realities, pre-gilded truths, life with boring bits, we make attempts to theorize what we can perceive of the objective nature of a place into some larger sense of the meaning of the world.
EXT. HURON AVENUE, CAMBRIDGE MA – MORNING
The sun has risen on a typical West Cambridge morning. LOCALS walk dogs, compare SAT scores, catch buses, buy croissants and newspapers. None notice the subtly changed position of their local Boston Globe vending machine.
Our analysis, however flimsy, is a concealed magnet on the roulette wheel of unpredictable reality.
EXT. HANCOCK TOWER ROOF – MORNING
A magnificent Red Tailed Hawk leaves its nest at the pinnacle of Boston’s tallest building. It flies off into a clear blue sky.
We need to draw conclusions in order to ensure that the journey is exciting, without being so surprising as to completely upend the sensibility, ours, which preconceived the journey in the first place.
EXT. CHARLES RIVER – MORNING
From the Cambridge side of the Mass Avenue bridge we see the Boston skyline. The raucous colors of autumn define the riverbank.
A scull passes silently.
For example, witnessing a racially charged conflict within fifteen minutes of arrival in a major west coast airport might reinforce some idea about America’s epic struggle with its past.
Suddenly the Red Tailed Hawk dives into the wake left behind by the passing boat. The great bird emerges with a large fish clasped in its talons.
At a more generally existential level it would make the traveller feel like a salmon plucked from its stream by an eagle before being dropped, miraculously, years later, uneaten, back into the same point in the same stream.
EXT. CHARLES RIVER – YEARS LATER
The same view of the Boston skyline, with a couple of new skyscrapers visible. It is teeming with rain, the gray river matching the sky.
A scull full of miserable-looking ROWERS drifts past.
A fish falls from the sky into its wake.
But could it ever be the same stream?
EXT. STATA CENTER, MIT – MORNING
In the rain, the Red Tailed Hawk returns to its roost, now safely located within the folding roof of the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center at MIT.
EXT. CHARLES RIVER – MORNING
After a moment, the TRAVELLER emerges from the water. He climbs the riverbank, soaking wet, and wanders off toward Memorial Drive.
Depending on our sensibility one tendency or another prevails. I’d imagine there are travellers with impervious preconceptions, just as there might be true adventurers who manage to take a place as it comes, without the need for preconceptions or post-justification.
EXT. HARVARD SQUARE – DAY
The TRAVELLER, still wet, walks the streets of Harvard Square. He occasionally looks at a hand drawn map.
Before I left, I attempted to draw a map of Harvard Square from memory. I got most of the stores right, and in the right order, but my undoing was the angles of the streets. If you’re a little bit off on, say, the angle at which Brattle Street meets Mass Ave, then the whole pattern is hopelessly destroyed. Then you get there and there is no more Wordsworth, no more Tower Records, no more HMV and you have to ask yourself.
The TRAVELLER kneels down and examines a portion of the sidewalk where tree roots have dislodged the bricks. After a moment he becomes conscious of a nearby presence. He looks up to see that he is surrounded by the three Cantabridgians, now a few years older and bedecked in the gear of three different Boston area universities, including the one in Harvard Square. They stand over him, staring.
They saved the trees. In Sydney they would have been cut down.
The nanny state, consensus, the interests of safety. You have to ask yourself.
INT. AIRPLANE CABIN – DAY
The TRAVELLER and the Flight Attendant continue their conversation. A small cluster of PASSENGERS gathers around the nearby toilet, waiting.
Ask yourself what?
What on Earth does this all signify? Why this trajectory and not another? Where is all this leading?
And is it all your fault, or partially your fault?
Some American things have not changed.
Papaya King and Symphony Hall. That’s maybe all.
EXT. SYMPHONY HALL – DAY
In SLOW MOTION, a Friday afternoon crowd files into Boston Symphony Hall.
And so this place gets compared to that place, and this place to this place years ago.
EXT. BRATTLE STREET – MORNING
The Prius swerves into the driveway of a Brattle Street mansion, replete with a blue, oval-shaped plaque commemorating its historical value.
INT. KITCHEN – MORNING
The three young Cantabridgians, two guys and a girl, hang around among the dangling copper pots. The girl pours Grape-Nuts from a box into a large copper mixing bowl. From her other hand she simultaneously pours milk into the bowl.
America has better bagels and breakfast cereals than Australia.
She finishes pouring the immense communal bowl of cereal and they all dig in.
INT. SYMPHONY HALL – DAY
The automated blinds close over the hall’s clerestory windows. The concert is about to begin.
Australia has Vegemite, kangaroos and single payer health care. Sydney has, no joke, worse drivers than Boston.
INT. SYMPHONY HALL – DAY
RAFAEL FRÜHBECK DE BURGOS stands before the sold out hall. He waits patiently for a substantial minority of the AUDIENCE to stop CHATTERING.
America had fewer automated hand sanitisers and Bank of America ATMs in 2001. And where did all your record stores go? If only it were possible to remember all these things, let alone draw meaning from them.
INT. AIRPLANE CABIN – NIGHT
The TRAVELLER continues his conversation with the flight attendant. She occasionally sips from the plastic cup of now melted ice.
She stares at the door to the airplane toilet, which is bulging outwards and pulsating slightly. A half dozen agitated passengers now wait in the aisle.
People will ask how my trip was and I will find myself telling them it was colder than I remember. Talking about weather.
That’s what I tell people — ‘N.Y. was really cold, L.A. was really hot.’ Only stupid people think they’re too smart to talk about the weather. My job would be impossible without small talk. Chicken or beef, weather or sports.
The Flight Attendant stares intently at the gathering crowd in front of the toilet door.
But it does get boring after a while.
Weather. Small talk. Eventually you want to say something insightful–
Or at least controversial. Excuse me.
The Flight Attendant puts down the empty plastic cup on the drinks cart and walks over to the toilet door.
FLIGHT ATTENDANT (CONT’D)
You know what I say when someone asks how my trip was?
The Flight Attendant knocks on the toilet door.
I tell them five good things I noticed while I was away. So…
She knocks on the door again.
Tell me five good things about your trip. About America.
She continues knocking on the door. For each KNOCK, we see a shot of the place the traveller describes.
The good things about America are local — the High Line in Manhattan…the Fisher Centre at Bard…finding Sirk on Sirk in this used bookstore in somebody’s barn…um, picking my own Brussels sprouts…and Frühbeck de Burgos winning over a Friday afternoon crowd with a cracking performance of Beethoven’s Fifth.
There was something I wanted to say…What was it?…Oh yeah, T.S. Eliot was talking about knowing the place where you began, but only at the end of all your travels.
So your travels aren’t over yet. We’re gonna land safely. You have connecting flights.
The door to the toilet swings open tentatively. A WOMAN comes out, followed by a MAN. Mortified by the embarrassment, she walks back to her seat, eyes averted. The man bows to everyone apologetically. The passengers burst out laughing.
INT. SYMPHONY HALL – DAY
The hall has gone quiet. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos turns to face the orchestra. They begin to play Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The audience listens with complete attention.
FADE TO BLACK.