Oblivion is a film you may or may not remember from about 7-8 years ago. Tom Cruise is in it playing a man on a post-apocalyptic Earth. There isn’t much to know about the plot other than Cruise bombs around in a cool looking spaceship (and sometimes a futuristic motorbike) looking for damaged drones to repair. He has a partner in a high tower that helps him find these things, and in between missions he finds tchotchkes from “old Earth” times which he brings to an oasis-like area where he plays records and lays in the grass by a lake.
The best kinds of Science Fiction wrestle with metaphors for life, politics, religion or some sort of universal human condition. The thing I remembered most about this movie is the fact that Cruise had his little cabin in the woods where he could escape from the horrible reality around him. Isn’t that pretty much what life is? Making a little oasis for yourself. It could be a house, apartment, basement man cave, practice space, or even an actual cabin in the woods somewhere off the grid. As you get older these places balloon with tchotchkes from different parts of your life. They expand with the tchotchkes of significant others, children, relatives, friends, and on and on. Until one day, things begin to disappear and shrink until you either give everything away, you become irrelevant, or you simply disappear yourself.
I will never forget visiting my grandmother in her tiny room in a local nursing home before she died. She used to have beautiful homes in North Dakota with my grandfather, homes chock full of cool trinkets. An old timey telephone that still worked, lots of sail boating paraphernalia, a statue of Theodore Roosevelt, nice comfy furniture… the whole nine. In the 9 years since my grandfather died most of this stuff started going the way of the dodo. At one point though she had a cool little apartment set up in the Minneapolis suburbs where she had a mini version of her homes. It was pretty posh, for a granny. However, when I took my kids to see her in the nursing home, all she had was one chair, a bed and a couple of pictures. That was it. All that was left of her earthly possessions. I remember being blown away by its sparsity, and by how much those other things didn’t matter anymore.
A yellow stained 1991 Minnesota Twins Homer Hanky. That’s the only thing of relevance I have left of my grandmother. A relative gave it to me after she died. It was probably in one of the decaying cardboard boxes she had left in storage. Sure I have some other stuff, heirloom stuff passed down between generations of Swarts. But this smelly hanky is the only thing I have visible in my home. It sits atop my old beer fridge in the basement, next to the framed autographed picture of Mudcat Grant. Mudcat used to play for the Twins in the 60s. I saw him in the Metrodome at Twins Fest a few years before they tore that old plastic monstrosity down. Mudcat happily hit on my mother and let her sit on his lap while he signed for me. She was over the moon.
Epic tchotchkes on a beer fridge. That’s what will be left of me. There’s still beer in there from when I quit drinking 2 years ago. I leave it in there to remind me of how quickly I used to empty that fridge and then had to replenish it, an endless waterfall of liquid courage.
I started driving around during the Pandemic. Just driving and listening to tunes. Scanning the Pandemic landscape like Tom Cruise swooping down to fix a drone in a dilapidated football stadium in Oblivion. Searching for something…who knows what. I remember in March when I was afraid to get out of the car in these Podunk farm towns because nobody wore masks. What was the point of these drives? I have no idea.
When I quit drinking I needed a purpose or a hobby. I’ve always collected things. I think it goes back to scavenging garage sales with my mother when we were poor. I’ve collected baseball cards as a youth, vinyl records, and Blu Rays as an adult. Now it was black and white photos. Stopping in every weird place I could to take random pictures of inanimate objects. Instead of a messy pile of physical media and a fridge full of beer…now I just have digitized ghosts saved in a black mirror that goes to a cloud. Like Cruise visiting the bombed out husk of the Empire State Building I visit towns like Cosmos (Pop. 437), Glencoe (Pop. 5467), Dassel (Pop. 1424), Darwin (Pop. 357), Brownton (Pop. 727), Gaylord (Pop. 2244), and of course Hollywood, MN (Pop. 6?). In Green Isle (Pop. 559), I see a junkyard with cars piled higher than the fence which encloses them. It resembles a twisted metal Stonehenge. In Darwin, I see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. I drive 55 miles out of my way to see a Yoda carved out of a tree stump in Cosmos. I also see an American flag, underneath that American flag is a Trump/Pence 2020 flag that also says “Socialism SUCKS” in giant letters. I am Post-Apocalyptic Tom Cruise playing dress up in a Yankees hat and listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On”. A hazy lithograph of a 21st century Peter Pan.
Have you ever watched a movie or listened to an album and then had the severed threads of the last few years briefly fuse together and suddenly make sense for a split second?
I learned about Andrew Wyeth from of all places, Instagram. I had posted one of my corny black and white photos there. It was an old abandoned barn in Victoria, MN (Pop. 9820) photographed from a distance with a field in between. A stranger mentioned all I needed was the “girl” and then hash-tagged #Wyeth. I had no earthly idea what this person was talking about. So I searched the hashtag a bit and sure enough there was a picture of a girl laying down in front of some distant barns.
The painting is called “Christina’s World” and was painted in 1948. Apparently it’s really famous. I had no idea it even existed. I had been inspired by a recent viewing of Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven and was trying to shoot barns in such a way. Later I found out the cinematography of Days of Heaven was heavily influenced by Wyeth. I didn’t know any of this when I shot the photo of the barn, it was just pure subconscious “this looks kinda cool” taking over. But it begs the question, is all of humanity through the ages hardwired into some kind of hive mind? Are Pandemics the reset button? After 1918 we were thrust into prohibition, world war, the 60s, manned space flight, crack cocaine and the internet. Will we recognize ourselves in 10 years? Will we become thousands of homogenized hologram Tom Cruises? Sterilized and perfect. Or will we be messy underground revolutionary cave dwellers like Morgan Freeman and that Game of Thrones guy. At best we won’t return to those Pre-Covid times no matter what happens with the presidential election tomorrow. We will be thrust into a future that is wildly blurry in our mind’s eye. Don’t worry, be happy. That sentiment is everything and bullshit simultaneously.
“Christina’s World” appears prominently in Tom Cruise’s Oblivion. I’m sure I noticed the Wyeth painting when I watched this film in 2013. I probably just thought it was an idyllic Norman Rockwell-style vision the Cruise clone used as a centering mechanism. I never even thought to google it. Sobriety causes rampant curiosity at times. When the comment on my Instagram picture happened I had to know who the artist was, and what he was trying to say. In doing so my whole perception changed. The girl in the painting was based on a girl Wyeth saw out his window. She had some sort of genetic disease which caused her to have to crawl across the field rather than walk. This not only could change what the painting represents within the film, but changes the viewers perception of the painting itself. The girl may not be lounging, the girl may be struggling immensely. We don’t know. Maybe the Cruise clone wasn’t longing for a simpler pastoral time, maybe his longing was more complex. Maybe he felt the endless longing to feel normal just once. Maybe he was attempting to appreciate what is, rather than what was.
Life is like a good screenplay. It sprinkles out tiny bread crumbs of information for you to follow before revealing that together they form something completely different than you were expecting. You were born to think that this grand tapestry will reveal the meaning of life, but all it does it teach you to accept it.