apologies to S.M.
How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him: or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.
— George Orwell, 1984
The Museum of the Future is located in an outlying district for which further development was planned, but never realized. It may be reached by taking northbound buses 6 or 23A, or the spur route of the green metro line to the final stop. The station sits behind the desk of a vast plaza which it supervises, with its massive clock, like a concrete bureaucrat. Emerging from this terminus we seem to face, with the sun just beginning its ascent, a desert of human manufacture, were it not for the gaiety of a lone gelato vendor under a striped umbrella. From there, the museum is a ten-minute walk.
As we proceed through this concentric suburb past houses with their spruce lines, the impression is one of uniformity imposed on a staggering scale: an attempt to transcend the present with design. Yet the district’s spiderweb might seem tattered from above, its radial arrangement interrupted: here by a run-down dwelling, there by a gaping excavation for one never built, while all around unfinished streets run dry in gravel piles backed by unplanned woods. The era of exuberant experiment is over. A shaggy hedge extends unkemptness towards us as if in greeting, and a toppled marble bust nestles by a broken mower in the weeds.
The museum itself remains an imposing edifice, conceived on a colossal scale the air of gentle desolation does little to dispel. It is hard to tell from the mottled concrete whether the façade is blank from wear or still awaiting ornament. To our left, the oblong pool holds only old leaves; the stricken plaster of its basin is pale blue as though recalling skies the vanished waters once reflected. Dandelions push up between the fitted flagstones. Interest in the future begins with disappointment.
A gigantic hourglass fills the atrium of the museum’s entrance. The future, that immense and sandy mass, flees grain by speeding grain into the past through the blinding transit of the present. The hourglass requires no periodic upending; in a gesture toward infinitude, the sand in the upper bulb is mysteriously replenished. We have often wondered why a technology so anachronistic — though some say timeless — was chosen to greet visitors to the museum. And really, the concealed mechanism must be rather simple, on the order of the detached faucet that, from midair, releases a torrent barely hiding the plastic column within, through which water cycles up to fall again. We recall such gimmicks and enticements from the fairs and midways of our youths, with all their noise and garish lights, and this causes a certain resentment, amplifying our befuddlement, for isn’t the future meant to be altogether different from everything we’ve ever known? And yet the actual mechanism remains satisfyingly mysterious. Engineer fathers, with their families in tow, can only offer guesses on the process. From time to time, sand in the upper bulb shifts, resettles. A reflected skylight makes an opaque shape on the perfectly transparent glass.
We are delighted by the miscellany of moving walkways in the Hall of Transport: walkways encased in corridors of colored glass, walkways under sectioned canvas awnings, walkways rising at steep angles, walkways corkscrewing slowly floorward from great heights. Shadows dapple us, waft and ripple past, and for a moment we might be forgiven for believing ourselves on the ocean floor, so various are the airships that dally and meander overhead: the fanciful airphibians, the discopters, the gyroyachts, the flying wings. Busy ogling the countless conveyances, we realize only belatedly that although we have stopped in our tracks — are, in fact, standing stock still — we have not ceased to advance: beneath our feet, our own moving walkway bears us imperturbably along, at a stately pace suited to admiring the sights without letting our eyes linger on any single one. For there is a secret the museum’s curators know well: it is in glimpses, flashes, shards that the future lodges most deeply in the heart, pieces of a dream our memories return relentlessly to reassemble.
Pausing, pointing, rubbernecking, we press on through this congestion of invention, this chaos of progress. We duck as the monoflyer on its single rail makes a roller coaster swoop just past our heads. A hoverflivver about to run us over takes abruptly to the air, oblivious to the whistle of an autocop, and in the oncoming lane, a tricar commuter breaks bread with his neighbor from a battery-powered toaster. The future is busy.
Critics have quite rightly pointed out there is a great deal of gimcrackery in the Hall of Gadgetry: the moon capsule with its upholstered salon, the pedal-powered pogomobile, the astrodavenport, the spherical atomic folly… the wave of junk and clutter banks, threatening to drown us in hokiness, but already we are climbing toward the exocoupe with its three headlights on a dais of pink glass, pointing the way out with its nose. A gentle but insistent breeze blows from the darkened doorway beyond, and this would be our last impression of the hall, were it not for an old man in a cardigan nearby. Only his shoulders, hunched against the wind, and the occasional shiver betray him as a visitor, instead of a museum mannequin. With his back to the exit, he stands rapt before the display of the levitating lounger. A faint round print, as though from use, depresses the yellowed doily of the headrest; on the seat lies a folded paper, its front page forever showing the same grainy five-second footage of a zeppelin. The scene, bathed in an amber glow, glazes the codger’s spectacles, tingeing a single memorial tear.
In fact, an unbroken series of moving walkways paves museum corridors between the themed Halls. Sometimes visitors may be seen pausing in these halls with an absent air: their ears have picked up the walkways’ near hum, as of a river that locates us in a wood. Once we know to listen for it, we are apt now and then to tune in, then resume our journey oddly refreshed and reassured.
Some have speculated these moving walkways are meant to sustain the illusion that the future will be delivered to us without our having to lift a finger. Such is its imminence that we need only stand and wait to come into our own, heirs to a kingdom of confirmed prediction.
Others claim it is rather the reverse: that we, instead, are being delivered forward. Itching, twisting, aching, slouching, saddled with cameras or suffering our children’s tugs and pleas, lost in thought or plunged in conversation, fervently awaiting or utterly oblivious, we are with every moment and in every attitude brought closer to the future, whether we like it or not. Black and sleek, the placid belts roll on, tines glinting in the muted light.
What first strikes us in the Hall of the White City is its blancheur and éclat. The noonday of Cartesian reason seems to tumble from the rows of slanted glass above to bless this resplendent scale model. For although the White City is far less than life size — our gazes travel at eye level the fiftieth stories of towers, and we could, if we wished, rest a casual elbow on a ledge of stepped skyscraper — the reigning impression is nevertheless one of monumentality. By our ankles, broad and stately boulevards fan out like winning hands. The lithe passerelles of the heights remain out of reach, and gloriously crowned by the sun from whatever angle we crane our necks to squint at them.
Some visitors are content to be awed by the White City. Perhaps it is their first time; perhaps they are susceptible to beauty, or among those to whom hope comes easily, and often. We find these people everywhere, the very lifeblood of museums, admiring with soft gasps the sunflowers or poised apples no matter the artist’s style or school.
To others, the White City is simply an outsized architectural maquette, as if inflated with the pomp of civic promise. The whiteness of the buildings is a curdled dream. How eagerly they’ve waited for the White City to come true — how terribly, unforgivably long. If only they could tear in rage through the display, avenging disappointment!
Still other visitors wander the White City with their minds on the laundry, the roast marinating at home in the fridge. In its clean lines they see sterility. Where are the grit, the smoke, the sewer reek, the groans of trucks and honks of thwarted cars and the cursing pushcart vendors? Chafing at the silence of their fellows, they keep up a steady stream of gossip with their friend — they never come alone — about who misbehaved at last night’s party. Their minds fizz, populating the White City with a thousand cares and worries, reducing it to the level of their own distraction.
Finally, some visitors are quieted, even subdued. We find them already weary, as if having come a great way to reach this, one of the museum’s first rooms. The men are studies in gray, and a few strands of the ladies’ hair have come loose from whatever holds it. In their unfocused gaze, the White City seems its truest self: an assembly of curiously vacant façades whose blankness they meet with their own. Are these pristine walls a tabula rasa or, more likely, a reflection of some inner exhaustion beyond both hope and disappointment? An air of desolation surrounds these lost souls, their coats folded over an arm and spilling down their laps. And so, seated among the towers as if at a bus stop, they wait for the future they have given up imagining to become inevitable.
In the Museum, the future is not restricted to exhibits; the very architecture bodies forth futurity. The walls’ immense expanses race up, wordless and replete, melting into rarified heights. The pyramids and cones, the saucers and paraboloids disposed about have the splendor of platonic forms. And in these vast, impartial spaces, visitors to the Museum of the Future sometimes seem engaged in a curious game of hide and seek. Husbands, pivoting with a quip to find their wives gone, may spot them framed smartly by a steel arch. Mothers calling for their children may, on turning toward an echoing reply, feel their gazes funneled down a torqued arcade to the vanishing point. Having climbed the spiral sweep of a suspended ramp, we emerge onto a massive, empty mezzanine where, as if to furnish scale for some supreme portraiture, we are the only human figure.
These visions give us a dizzying déjà vu — what is it they remind us of? And opening the brochure to orient ourselves, we find our answer. On page after page, in picture after picture, the architecture of the future seems to conscript us, with careful compositions, into the authority of its geometry. Clustered, staggered, segregated, posed, austerely decentered or strategically distant, we are forced by features to conform, subjects of setting, elements of an absolute décor. For if anything the future is a totality, and possesses a supernal coherence. It comes all at once, or not at all.
At such moments, there seem to be two museums: the one where we stand, and another, purely on paper. It is this second museum that we set out from home today, lured by the brochure, to visit. And with a creeping sense of disenfranchisement, we wonder how we wound up here instead. For the museum where we stand seems, strangely, somehow less than the sum of its photos — or rather, less than the world suggested by that sum, beyond the edges of the frames.
In this light, the game of hide and seek among the visitors takes on an altogether different air. And in their faces we now see fulfillment or surprise not at found parents or partners, but at glimpses of something else hiding in plain sight, more conjecture than locale.
Docents wear white, the preferred color of the future. Their seamless uniforms blend in with the spotless walls and, when glimpsed in distant galleries, they seem to be disembodied heads bobbing about. Here and there a head pauses, bent forward with a kindly smile to address a child. Its hushed speech is cadenced, stately; its attitude unfailingly attentive and obliging.
In these postures approaching some ideal of solicitude, the docents can seem like oracular automata, roving interfaces of a master computer. But drawing close for questions, we see crow’s feet to either side of the men’s clear gazes, gray traces in the hair pulled back from the women’s brows. And of course, there is no master computer. Docents are engaged on a strictly volunteer basis ever since the museum suffered severe budget cuts.
In the course of our visit, we encounter room after immaculately furnished room which, it seems, someone has just left. The sliding door of floor-to-ceiling glass stands open on the empty patio; the impeccably positioned cushions provide swatches of apposite color by the pool. Beckoned by its seemly waters, we pace its rectilinearity and, through a portal in the far hedge, find a further living room with floating globes shedding soft light on a table of smoked glass. From yet another salon, we survey a green lawn where, among discreetly situated white stones, two chaise longues slung low from bright steel bars bask in a startling mimicry of morning sun. And on, and on, tickled by an impish sense of trespass, drawn forward as if by the echo of footsteps, overheard laughter, the updraft of someone’s passing, we plunge deeper into these deserted chambers after our vanished hosts. Who are they, the people who lead such a charmed life? How different it must be, of another order altogether, one in harmony with the lithe vase in its alcove and the intuitive canvas centered on the bare wall. In fact, as we look around, we are increasingly aware that it is we who sound the false note: we, with our dazed eyes and faintly aching feet, and always in the wrong clothes. Where are the undone tie, the kicked-off heels, the coats slumped on a sofa arm after a long day at the office? We dare not disturb the artful disposition of glasses on the oval table, or even perch in rest on so much as a corner of the teledivan with its untouched pillows. We have with piercing clarity pictured surroundings that exalt and inspire us, but failed ourselves to make the matching transit, and in the scheme of their garden, this thought is a serpent. Heads bowed, we hurry from the room, lest another visitor should, on rounding a corner, chance upon us, and we should ruin, if even for a moment, the illusion of flawless appointment.
A balcony of glass and brushed steel supervises a view of roofless cubicles repeated in a grid across the floor. We have come, in the years since the height of its popularity, to recognize this as the very landscape of drudgery. For the Hall of Work belongs firmly to the past, a future we believed left behind. Indeed, curators would long ago have closed it, but for a curious ritual that visitors lingering through evening may witness.
On certain weekdays after business hours, a sea of seeming employees will flood the hall, while bars outside the museum are filling up for happy hour: the men in gray flannel suits, the women in decorous dresses. They hang their hats and open their briefcases on vacant desks. Then they embark on an elaborate and unsmiling pantomime of work. An escalator brings us down for a closer look.
Once among them, we are startled by their youth. And the framed photos they set beside the phones are not of their children, but of their own childhood. For they are all young enough for someone to still think of them as children — if, in some cases, only they themselves. Sometimes it is quite hard to tell how old the oldest are. There is a penitential aspect to their postures in their cubicles — awaiting, like a cellbound monk or a nun, some confirmation.
Watching them, we are moved by their devotions. For one and all, bent studiously over a document or conferring intently by a coatrack, they carry out their tasks with the devout and utmost gravity of children at play. It is as if they are living out a memory of work, enslaved by some outmoded seemliness; as if only these clothes could enable true labor; as if the real work of the world occurred only in offices like these, to which their parents once led them by the hand — that there, some seriousness since mislaid still awaits them, and never in their own startups of loosened ties and t-shirt Tuesdays, pinball break rooms and four-thirty board meetings with beer.
The doors ahead gently part. A corridor whose lavender cedes stealthily to violet delivers us into a beguiling gloom where, with eyes that strain as though through falling evening, we see a family relaxing. On a sunken couch, Mom watches Sis sprout from the vidcube, fuzzy in fluorescent armlets. Junior orchestrates palettes, practicing scales on his chromatic theremin; Dad, puttering over aeroponic bonsai, ticks boxes in the weather preferendum on a tactual slate. Our gaze, moving past him out the picture window, is drawn up into the massive sweep of a toroidal colony as it bends from view beneath a curve of paneled sky. A blue unbroken lake runs down the middle, between a quilt of farms and green repeated yards. Here in the universal suburbia, leisure has come into its promised land. So convincing is the scene we almost feel a thrum, an implacable rotation underfoot that like the earth’s keeps the tumblers on their coasters. Outside, capsules scuttle to and fro among the stars.
The Hall of Domesticity is sometimes called the heart of the museum. And many credit its enduring appeal to its ties with tradition. For the silhouettes of visitors against the bright dioramas, the scuffed varnish of black flooring where displays blur and glow — these remind us of nothing so much as the museums of our childhoods, with their cavemen in bear pelts, their sabre-toothed tigers, their alert and regal elk. And just as in those museums, on days when school trips have stretched unbearably long, we surrender to a curious somnolence, a magical disorientation. For if this is the future, why should it feel so much like coming home?
The dim solemnity, on the verge of dream, extends a promise of haven and, enfolded in these early memories, we watch a mother readying dinner. The chronofridge informs her which vegemins and vitables are about to expire. She wears a flowered terry apron over her moodsuit, currently a tranquil green. Curled up in a convex porthole, a toddler in cadet pajamas makes faces at his pet dolphin nosing the glass. The kitchen trembles in a net of blue glimmer and seaweed shadows, imbricate traceries of light.
It seems we have come to these scenes a prodigal, a penitent, and after all these years, a stranger — no more than a ghost in the glass that divides us from their happiness. These animatronic parents and siblings, if they could see, would stare right through our yearning selves. Why should these fulfillments be refused us? Why should they hold us at arm’s length? Now that we have found our way back, why should we ever leave? And looking over our shoulder, we see that we have come a long way from the entrance to the hall — that in fact, we are almost at its end.
The sameness of these happy families set against the distances, these automatons, ridiculous and pitiable: is it not they, locked in the performance of memory, who are ghosts? Shackled to enacting these scenes by some unfairness, they cycle through their motions almost ceremonially. The lighted windows, abducted from their context by the dark, align in backward repetition to infinity.
Among the many rooms of the museum, there is always one that opens — each time in a different wing, it seems — from behind a sagging barrier of hazard tape on absolute dark. No sudden Jupiter looms forth, as from an orrery, to startle and locate us. From out of the hidden distance, not even the wink of an exit sign hints at the extent of the void.
Most visitors pass up this entrance gaping like a chasm, some with a mild dread they would be hard pressed to explain, and others from mere uninterest, construing it correctly as a room unused or under renovation. But still others linger, fascinated, at the brink of the immaculate black as though the emptiness itself were worth consideration. For is this not the blackness from which all exhibits are born? Does it not, as we lose ourselves in their illusory depths, secretly underlie even the most luminous dioramas? And when at last they are dismantled and removed from rotation, is this not the darkness to which the room will return? In that sense — or so the hands, clasped behind backs, of those visitors stopped in rapt contemplation, seem to whisper — is this not the truest future, from which all others arise and subside, of pure potential and abiding repose?
We emerge into what seems to be a mockup of a monorail station. A single steel line, gleaming with reflected light, runs beside a platform and into tunnel at either end. To our right, a digiposter resolves into the face of a blonde, beaming at us in advertisement, but someone has with marker blacked out the exact squares of her front teeth and given her a swarthy mustache. Reassured, even perversely pleased, we cannot repress a chuckle.
As we proceed past empty benches, something like a chill rises from the cement, recalling all the nights it took us too long to get home alone from parties, their residual elation drained away with waiting. The sense of dereliction is powerfully familiar, as though the universal fate of public transit were disrepair. We glimpse naked wiring through a breach in the drywall, a map of the museum savaged as if by a knife. At such times we are disenchanted with the museum and impatient with its lapses, its fiscal woes and disrepair, for the illusion of futurity is, if anything, sustained only by consummate cosmetics. We cannot hide our disappointment at these cracks in the veneer, and just then, a fluorescent bulb begins to stutter.
We are almost at the far end of the platform. Leaning forward, we peer first into the dark, then down at our own feet, and step back in shock. A pair of legs in dark gray pants stick out from under the platform edge. Mud has dried pink on the thick-soled boots. There is an inert slump to the hips. We are backing away when what we took absurdly for a dead body twitches, and we hear a clanking from below. A metal panel in the floor pops open, and through it we spot scattered tools, a bucket of dirty water. The supine man in coveralls gives us a wave. Flustered and apologetic, we back into an orange cone, and stumble through a steel door.
It seems to be a back alley behind the museum. The dilapidation is drastic. Lingering smoke palls the scene. Two dumpsters, marred by spray paint, drift toward a cement runnel in the asphalt, as though with menacing sentience to block the way forward. The door clicks shut and is, we find, locked.
A grimy pane lies shattered at our feet. How did we lose our way? Through no fault of our own — a chance misjudgment — we have exited the museum, but how can we return? The odor of burning plastic overpowers the sewage stink. We recall the rumor that for every seemly, ideal hall in the museum is another one of sludge and grime and metal grate and exposed plumbing. And as we pick our way past the dumpsters, our fear, while never leaving us, gives way to dark relief and then a wild delight, as of a dream shrugged. The fires guttering in oil drums, the dented shopping cart with one lame wheel run up against the cinderblocks — these free us from the onus of becoming. We plunge in shame and glee into these looted ruins, fleeing the memory of our intentions.
Then a peal of silver laughter rings out. Through an undimmed pane, we see a well-dressed couple at a table in what we recognize as one of the museum’s many conveniently located cafés. And lurching through a wreath of steam, we find that we have joined them. A display lists the daily specials; pastries line the doilies in a case of curved glass. Still shaken, we sit down with our snacks. A TV is playing in the corner. On it, an urchin generation with smudged faces clamber over chunks of fallen buildings to escape the feral clans, combing the ruins for an unopened can of peas, only to find, in the curved face of an urn, the chrome portrait of their own desperation: matted hair, chapped lips, blood drying at the temple. And we too laugh, for surely that future — why didn’t we think of it? — is also part of the museum.
Among the maps and highlights, our brochure contains a welcome from Simon Elgin, a beloved figure. Simon was always an imaginative child, and so when, at the tender age of twelve, he ran away from home, it was to take up residence in the museum. He was a precocious student whose brilliance won him the flattery of his teachers, and his parents, at a loss to occupy his lively curiosity, often took him there to while away their Sunday afternoons. As they approached the colossal entrance, he would run up to the reflecting pool, and taking his father’s hand, make his teetering way along the lip, twinned by his own image in the water. He fell in once, and another time, got lost. After that, his fear replaced by wonder, he would deliberately dawdle in some ignored corner, long past the closing time announcements when they paged his name, until guards finally returned him to his worried parents waiting in the lobby. But soon their marriage faltered. Simon’s grades fell and, once a keen follower of current events, he tired of the papers he so avidly devoured. Impatient for the sluggish now to catch up with tomorrow, he decided to make his home in the latter.
He managed to remain undetected in the museum for five years. He slept in the model rooms and stole food from the many cafés. When he was finally found out, the picture of him — caught by a curator’s flashlight behind the wheel of the teardrop exocoupe — made the front page of every local paper. It emerged that he’d stayed hidden for so long thanks to Henry, a museum handyman who’d befriended him. But when the time came to leave, Simon had been living in the future so long he was unready for the present. His first feeling, on stepping out into the sunlight, was one of disappointment. The reflecting pool lay empty, and the leaves that had once spotted the water’s surface now filled the basin with its cracked and peeling plaster. His father had moved to another city. The present no longer seemed interested in overtaking the future, but had instead veered off in an entirely different and inscrutable direction. Simon felt frightened — unmoored — and sought refuge in what had always been his safest haven, a known quantity, a fixed point (if always fixed on the horizon). During his stay in the museum, Simon had learned a great deal from Henry about exhibit upkeep, and so it was thanks again to Henry that after a brief sojourn in the world outside, Simon was allowed to return, this time as Henry’s legitimate apprentice. Visitors, recognizing him from the news, would wave when they saw him adjusting an automaton, or in coveralls sweeping up with a headlight broom after departed re-enactors in the Hall of Work.
As ever an avid learner, Simon worked his way up to head docent and finally curator, and that is how, hands clasped behind his back, we find him in the lobby today, surveying the departing visitors at closing time. Of all the curators, only he makes his home in the museum, in a small room off his office. He is older now — glasses frame his softened features chastened by spots, and a hint of belly shows through his sweater vest — but accompanying these changes is an air of patience. He has learned that things that happen do not happen for the better or the worse — they are simply those that happen. But for all that he has not given up hope. As ever, he refuses to keep up with the news, which is easy in the museum’s cloistered atmosphere. Still, he sees the signs coming: here, a soaring arch snuck into a civic center, there the resurgence of a gleaming fin. He knows that one day when he finally leaves the museum, the world will look exactly like his dreams. Cars, whether they fly, will in every way resemble the ones meant to. From beside the ticket counter he watches with approval as the guards turn away late would-be entrants, while evening blue settles on the slate walk, just beyond the hours he can make out backwards on the glass doors.
Wandering through the Museum of the Future, it may strike us that some of the objects on display are already part of the present we know and navigate daily. The egg chair, the residential obelisk, the foam igloo, the visiophone, the sleeping tube, the skybridge, the machine for living — all these we often overlook, so ordinary have they grown. Have we managed somehow to smuggle bits and pieces of the present into tomorrow?
More likely, these bits and pieces of the future, borne on some inconsistent current, have merely trickled back to us, talismans of hope and progress, advances on a promise. Their presence in the museum makes them somehow seem to shimmer, ghostly. Wrested from the everyday and in their rightful context, we see them again and as if for the first time, less clearly but more forcefully. These visitations lure us forward, into ever hazier precincts. The bridges in the sky become bridges to the merely imagined, drawing away from our outstretched fingers in this gallery of reverie.
Some have said that the Museum of the Future is irrelevant — that its universal baggage, jetscalator, moon jeep, dolphin lexicon, having failed to come about, have outlived their usefulness and no longer serve a purpose, not even novelty, not even kitsch. The museum, they say with some bitterness, is a monument to folly, a public embarrassment, a showroom of broken promises. These words come to mind as we contemplate the City Under Glass. Each time we return to it, we notice something new — although whether these elements have just been added, or whether they have always been there, we cannot say.
Standing over its dome, we watch as, slowly, in a way we know by heart, the room darkens and the model begins to glow from beneath, lighting our faces as though we peered into a scrying pool. It recalls, in its serene containment, the train sets that formed our first ideas of towns and mountains, roads and rivers; that gave us, as the linked cars sped by at eye level, a sense of the possibilities of the world. Now, from above, we can encompass it, holding it, as it were, in the palm of our mind, or the dome of our skulls. Our imaginations populate its every recess, as if every flickering window were a neuron, every line of light a firing synapse.
There is the city we live in, bequeathed to or imposed upon us, which we struggle against daily that we might with toil wrest from it a place to lay our heads, and there is this city of spires, of pods and contoured towers, of crystal buildings bound in rows of light, hanging gardens, streamlined cars forever frozen in their place along the ruled acreage of boulevards. We cannot inhabit this city: that is the source of its infinite perfectibility, and melancholy solace. It is precisely at this point, freed from the burden of pertinence, that the museum joins the ranks of dream, and becomes part of that compost of longings from which we draw the consolation we call art.
Only one film ever plays in the theatre at the Museum of the Future, but it plays continuously. We may enter at any time, without fear of having missed a thing, by purchasing a ticket from the student in the booth. Among museum employees, he alone seems bored, hair disheveled, face disgruntled, leafing through a weekly with the latest goings-on elsewhere in town. His dress never conforms to code, consisting often of torn jeans and, variously, a worn leather jacket, a flimsy pinstriped vest, or a blazer spotted with slogan buttons. Without rising from his slouch, he takes our money and pushes, with our ticket, a pair of glasses through the window slot. Beside his half-smoked pack of cigarettes on the desk, an empty candy wrapper peeks from a gift shop copy of a book his boss has lent him, which he will never finish.
In the film, a man and a woman are driving down a highway in the dark. Their headlights pick out the dotted yellow on the faded asphalt. They may be in the desert — is that a cactus whipping past, that distant silhouette a mesa? — but one thing is clear: they are pressing on with quiet, seemly urgency, as if afraid of being late. They tear through veil after veil of mist, the tatters slipping from the windshield. We cannot see the odometer, but from the bottom of the screen comes the green and faintly comforting glow of the dash. From time to time, the camera pans out the window on the driver’s or the passenger’s side, and through the parting mists we see the city of the future — bright rotundas, louvered ziggurats orbited by blinking vehicles, silver glideways ringed in arches slender as a rocket’s hurtle — and a gasp comes from the audience. But where is it? Are they going too fast? Have they passed it by? When will the beams of their headlights find the sign, its dazzling reflective letters? Where are the exit, the off-ramp, and the blazing portal?
We clutch our glasses and we wait. We are waiting for the moment we have heard so much about. When the instructions scroll across the bottom of the screen, we bend our faces forward and bring our cupped hands to our eyes.
We put them on; we put the glasses on. We look up.