Precarious Kites
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About Magic > Movie Backings, Wow, and the Space Shuttle
Movie Backings, Wow, and the Space Shuttle

Grace-Notes #25 – for Sunday 6/25/06

Movie Backings, Wow, and the Space Shuttle

I hated the elevator. It was tiny and I imagined it hanging by a rope, stretched over a small, rusty, pulley. But my mother’s office was up, so up I rode.

She worked for a movie backings company. The elevator opened on the top floor of a warehouse on the old MGM studio lot. The ceilings were dizzying, rising hundreds of feet in the air. The floors where cut with slits and through those slits, after maneuvering ropes and tie-downs, huge blots of canvas rose – pulled up until each could be unfurled like a shade. When they dropped, you were in Central Park or downtown Washington DC or over the San Francisco Bay. Here the backdrops for movies were made.

The artists worked on scaffolding and platforms, with caddies of paint and brushes and chemicals. The floors were flicked with years of colors spilled and smeared.

The first time I saw an open canvas, I touched it to untrick my mind. It wasn’t real, just a backing. The Grand Canyon, or the Alps, or downtown Chicago brought to Hollywood so actors could perform in front of a canvas that photographed as real, as actual, as the place itself. Movie Magic.

This was a time ago.

Now we have digital. Now we have computer generated. Now we have speed and exacting detail all accessible in bits and bytes.

Now, blitzed with technological special effects, we expect them. Now it is a part of our lives, this zipping, bursting, oooh-ahhhing rush we expect from films, from video games, from TV.

But, of course it isn’t real. It isn’t even as real as the fake backings – the giant paintings – I used to touch.

Sometimes we become so accustomed at being wowed by what isn’t real, that we forget to be wowed by what is.

We have a space shuttle, an orbiter, filled with people that zooms up and far away from the earth. If all goes well, we are returning to flight, for the second time since the Columbia tragedy, to resume building the International Space Station.

Years ago my little brother worked at Edwards Air Force Base. He and I were on the tail end of a road-trip from Colorado to Southern California. It was before 9/11, before terrorist threats, before the kind of security we know now. We were nearing home, but he had to make a work stop. I sighed, bored, tired and beyond arguing. He maneuvered through the gate codes as dust and the mirage of heat waves bent the horizon around me – Antelope Valley temperatures regularly reached far past 100.

The sun had set, though just, and the sky was brushing itself quickly, quickly, from egg-colored, to pink, to deep red. I nagged him “Should we be here? Do we have to do this now?’’ It was Sunday. I wanted to get home. I was thinking about traffic.

And then it was there, filling the windshield.

It rose up from the hard, salt-pan, desert floor – the biggest black and white bird I’d ever seen.

Pictures of the Space Shuttle have entered our collective memory, iconoclastic, metaphoric.

But no picture does it justice.

He stopped the car, amused, I think, by my stunned silence. I got out and gaped.

It had been set vertically in its rack, awaiting service, loading, and tie down, for flight to Florida. It looked as if a finger touch could send it bursting upward. Pointed straight toward the sky, it rose, huge, in the settling heat.

It could not have been more startling had it been a dinosaur alive and blinking, or the Lincoln monument with a sudden heartbeat, or a tidal wave frozen in time.

It was alive with possibility and power.

It was nothing like a movie.

Forth of July is coming fast. Remember when you blink in the dark to draw up your picture of the Shuttle. It does not have to be painted, digitalized, or computer generated – it is already in your mind. Its flight is very real and a mighty risk – as the most worthy leaps of faith and discovery always are.

Think of the nuts and bolts that hold it together, and the brain power that built it, the hearts that pilot it. Astronauts Lindsay, Kelly, Fossum, Nowak, Wilson, Sellers, and Reiter – Godspeed. Fly safe.