Six Damn Fine Degrees #70: Have you ever wanted to walk into a matte painting?

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Have you ever travelled to a place and seen the sights – and it was a real disappointment, because in your mind, everything was much bigger and better and more amazing? If so, did the movies or other damn fine cups of culture play a role in this disappointment?

A few years ago, we visited Egypt… and if you’re in Egypt, you can’t very well not visit the pyramids, you can’t not see the Great Sphinx of Giza. After all, I’d seen then in so many films, in comic books (Asterix and Cleopatra, represent!), in video games (does anyone else remember Bomb Jack or am I just really getting on?) When we got there, though, I have to confess, it just wasn’t what I’d imagined. Especially the Sphinx: I imagined this colossal stone creature, mysterious and evocative – but what I saw was basically the size of a big garage. It was neither colossal nor did it feel particularly mysterious, and I imagine that being overexposed to its image was part of it.

After the Sphinx, I was prepared to be disappointed by all of these sights, so it was a welcome surprise that when we travelled to Easter Island a few years later, the Moai, the great human heads carved from stone, were everything I’d hoped for and more (even if the Brits had done their usual thing and gone and stolen the biggest, most iconic one and put it in one of their museums). Is it that they hadn’t featured in quite as many films as the Sphinx? Or was I simply in a better mood and a different mindset when we visited Easter Island? (I have to admit that the kind of heat we encountered in Egypt tends to leave me irritable and sulky.)

In any case, some sights more than live up to expectations. On a trip to Jordan, I went to Wadi Rum, and it is an amazing place, both strange and strangely familiar. After all, I’d seen it in many films, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Martian – and now I stood where Omar Sharif emerged from the desert and where Mark Watney grew potatoes in his own faeces.

Jordan is a great place for these sights – and it is where I had my favourite encounter with a place that I knew so well from the movies. Remember the last act of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The temple in the Canyon of the Crescent Moon, where Indy finds the Holy Grail and almost loses his dad? The scene where our heroes reach the temple and see this amazing entrance hewn into the rock? As a teenager (I was 14 when Last Crusade came out) I always assumed that this location was either an amazingly detailed, vivid matte painting or, alternatively, an elaborate set created for the film. I would never have thought that I’d be going there, many years later, and see it for myself. I didn’t even know it existed. (Be kind: this was before the internet was a thing.) Seeing the actual Petra for real, with my own eyes, was a breathtaking, almost surreal moment – it felt like I was walking straight into a matte painting.

Films – and other entertainments, from books via TV series to video games – can take us to faraway places, they can allow us to escape to purely imaginary locations. Nonetheless, it is good to remind ourselves every now and then that the world we inhabit can be just as stunning, just as beautiful. And in the meantime, it is perfectly okay to watch these films and to dream of experiencing these places ourselves, whether we imagine them to be Jordan or Mars, Rivendell or some nearby mountains. Exploration begins inside our minds, after all.

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