In 1958, four women from Seattle set out on a 3,300-mile road trip across the northwest.
In their 1955 Plymouth, they drove through Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon across the blue highways and rural roads that would soon be replaced or made redundant by the interstate highway system. The women stopped in small towns and big national parks, snapping dozens of Polaroids and gathering restaurant menus, brochures and other pieces of ephemera along the way. When they returned to Seattle, they made a meticulous chronicle of their experience in a leather-covered scrapbook.
More than 50 years later, filmmaker Matt McCormick came across that scrapbook in an Oregon thrift store. Sensing that it was something special, McCormick shelled out $100 for the book. Soon, he devised a plan to retrace the women's journey, to try to find the places they slept, ate and drank and to document the thousands of ways in which the landscape has changed in the past half-century.
The result, McCormick's 70-minute documentary "The Great Northwest," screens Wednesday in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.
McCormick, an accomplished filmmaker who splits his time between Portland, Ore., and Buffalo, is enrolled in the University at Buffalo's media study department. He has shot and co-directed music videos for the Shins, Sleater-Kinney and Broken Bells. He also directed the 2010 feature "Some Days Are Better Than Others."
"The Great Northwest," which serves as McCormick's own video scrapbook, juxtaposes pages from the scrapbook and individual photographs from 1958 with video postcards shot in 2010. The contrast can be subtle, as when close-ups of an ad for a restaurant called the Flame Lounge in Missoula, Mont., precedes a scene that shows its modern incarnation as a members-only social club. Just as often it is stark, as in McCormick's depiction of the modern-day remnants of once-hopping Taft, Mont., which was paved over by Interstate 90 in 1965.
"They just literally just bulldozed everything," McCormick said in a phone interview. "And Taft was a town that the women stopped at. They stopped at some bar and had a menu and wrote down all the drinks they had at this bar. They had a great time in Taft and a year later, the whole town was bulldozed."
Because the landscape and highway system has changed so much, McCormick said, finding his way to the places where the women had stopped wasn't nearly as easy as he anticipated.
"It's not as simple as just getting on this road and doing it," he said. "The old highways have been renamed and oftentimes the freeway covered up parts of it or all of it in different segments. Oftentimes, they would be altered in ways that kind of made it like a treasure hunt. It took a lot of research."
A persistent sense of melancholy and nostalgia comes across in the film. But McCormick said he approached the project as a study rather than an attempt to strike an emotional chord.
"As I would pull into a town to find this place, oftentimes I wouldn't know what I was going to find. Would I find a cute, old, midcentury motel with a fantastic neon sign still in operation, or would I find a Walmart?" McCormick said. "It is hard not to feel a twinge of sadness when you see [these] things. There's a really nostalgic element to it. It's hard to get real excited about a freeway or a Walmart, whereas when you see some cute, old midcentury diner or roadside attraction, those are the things that I find myself wanting to root for."