Wednesday, March 31, 2010

South by Southwest? North by Northwest? So... Where is That?


Remember the scene in North by Northwest in which Cary Grant's character, Roger O. Thornhill, is standing at Prairie Corner seemingly confused as to his whereabouts and as to the location's location?  Well, if Mr. Thornhill had known the title of the picture he was being bounced around in, he could easily have seen where his confusion came from.  He was nowhere, everywhere, and perhaps somewhere in between.

Seems that North by Northwest is neither a direction nor a location.  Now, Northwest by North is one of the 32 valid compass points, but "Northwest by North" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "North by Northwest", does it?  Mr. Hitchcock must have thought so or did he purposely name his film after a direction/location that doesn't exist?

From this site comes this explanation: "The title of the film is an anomaly and a clue to the absurd, confused plot in which no one is what he/she appears to be - there is no sharply delineated N by NW on a compass - it is an improbable direction. Apparently, it refers in part to the directionless, surrealistic search of the befuddled hero/common man around the country for a fictional character. [In Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet (Act II, Scene II), Hamlet is quoted as saying: "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw."]"  So, Mr. Shakespeare obviously knows his 32 compass points (which begs the question, "What didn't he know?"), while Mr. Hitchcock was at it again, jabbing the audience with a poker.
This "North by Northwest" topic came up when a friend and I were at a Chestnut Street, Philly bar a few blocks east (just plain East) of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia where we were to see The XX's and (unfortunately) some other groups perform.  Having solved the riddle of how many angels can sit on a pin a while back, we foolishly opted to tackle the "South by Southwest" conundrum.  Had the founders of this fine music festival, SXSW, been pulling a Hitchcoock on us?

Pen in hand, piles of white cocktail napkins at the ready, a pint of brew each parked on just-ended "Tattoo Festival" coasters, wits sharpened to as much of a point that geezers' wits can be sharpened to, we set off to solve the directional riddle.  Surprisingly, time and beer flowed quickly and yet our hands were steady as we wrote up all the compass points.  True, our compass had an egg-shaped look to it, emphasizing the East and West of things, but our point lines were fairly straight.   We concluded that "South by Southwest" was a directional legpull the folks down in Austin were most certainly guffawing about.  While we agree that SSW was a valid direction, "South by Southwest" was guaranteed to result in a fool's errand.  Verification of a sober nature was requested, so a text was sent to the Fishing Yukon man, who quickly (Hey!  How come he doesn't respond as quickly to less interesting texts?..Never mind, answered my own question).  He concurred with our inebriated verbal meanderings and so another round was ordered in celebration thereof.

As one is wont to, especially after being affected by fine German hops, this knowledge was seeking to be disseminated.  A quick scan around the fine establishemnt resulted in a sudden lurch westward (perhaps WNW-ward) to a table filled with four seemingly smiling gents.  Turns out they were all Austrian citizens over for a visit.  Posing my SXSW question to them, I was met by silent stares; I'm sure they didn't think they were going to be quizzed while imbibing.  So, seeing if leg-pulilng was a possibility, I addressed the leader of the table with, "Look, aren't any of you in the Austrian Navy?"

This fat pitch was to0 tempting to ignore (even if baseball wasn't their forte) and all four launched into explanations of the SXSW conundrum while espousing membership in the Austrian Navy.  German-accented English never sounded so convincing.  Now, it was time to lower the anchor on these Boys from Vienna.
"So, which port were you stationed in?", knowing that there couldn't be a port that the now non-existent Austrian Navy had ships to be manned.

Laughs all around as they realized that Americans DO seem to know some geography and history.  One fellow did mention he went on a sailing vacation in Croatia powered by wind, beer, wine, and rakija and admitted that " ... South, North, South by Southwest all seemed o.k. directions once your sails were set and you were four sheets to the wind...".  So to speak.

Well, I couldn't leave the topic just yet.  So, scrounging on Google I found this article by a certain Dr. Steven H. Schimmrich, Professor & Department Chair Math, Physical Sciences, Engineering, & Technology  at SUNY Ulster County Community College.  Hey!  This fellow seemed to know his stuff!   And, best of all, he was a geologist.  My experience with geologists/geoscientists/geophysicists was that, as a group, they were quite friendly, engaging, and well-schooled in the lively art of barstool arguments.  On a whim and a prayer, I sent off an e-mail to the fine professor who promptly replied.

Being a fine fellow who got the joke of this whole debate, he noted that there is no such location nor direction as South by Southwest nor North by Northwest.  So...it seems the folks down in Austin have been puling a fast one on all of us asking us to come to an event not logically locatable.

So, to all of the folks that think they attended this year's (and previous years') SXSW festival?  Well...self-delusion is a mighty weapon!  You weren't there.  Truly.  Pull out a compass and start looking.  It's a place reached by unnatural means, it seems.

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