Stargazing: January

In January 2015, Alexander Bennetts acquired an annual pass to the Melbourne Star. Throughout the year, Alex will be sharing this gift with the readers of Scum via this very column. What lessons, if any, can be gleamed from the Victorian skies? Follow his journey to find out.

In Melbourne’s Docklands, there’s a giant Ferris wheel. You can see it when coming into the city from Melbourne Airport. It’s a white, seven-pointed star, holding up a circular frame for twenty-one evenly spaced cabins. It can look impressive in passing – large, dotted with coloured lights in the evening – and maybe you’re a tourist, and maybe you think, hey, that’d be a nice way to see Melbourne.

I don’t know anyone who has been on the Melbourne Star. I see it close up, once a week, when I go into Docklands to work from an office space. You can watch it rotate from the office balcony, but you’d only glance at it by accident. Everything I’ve heard about it comes in the form of rumour or joke – it’s expensive, it was over-budget and severely delayed, and it has closed down more than once. I’ve watched its lights starburst and change colour from an apartment in Footscray. It’s always been something to be looked at, not from.

But, a few days into this new year, I came into possession of an annual pass to this mysterious beast. A gift such as this should not be left to flounder at the bottom of a backpack or wallet. So.

On a Friday afternoon, I make my way towards the Star. I walk through the outlet mall, which is flogging out-of-season menswear and retail spaces for lease. It’s an entirely appropriate entrée to the Melbourne Star experience.

Before entering, I read the rules and conditions. Two sentences stand out. One: “During normal boarding, cabins do not stop.” Two: “Do not be alarmed if the wheel stops from time to time – it’s a normal part of operation.” Using my Docklands codex that a businessman gave me in exchange for a single hug, I’ve worked out that this means: “The Melbourne Star might lose its shit, so please don’t lose yours.”

Before you can enter this wheel of delights, your photo is taken against a green screen in a number of ‘fun’ and ‘silly’ poses. You walk through a boastful, shitty maze, a pseudo-museum exhibit that proudly declares Melbourne’s world firsts and inventions. On a sign describing the engineering magic that went into building the Melbourne Star, it asks me to think of it as “a 40 storey building – that rotates!” Which is, frankly, totally fucking terrifying. The only forty-storey buildings that rotate, spin or otherwise move should be in Godzilla, or the American remake, Godzilla.

I step into a cabin as it slowly rolls by. The cabins are quite large – I’ve been told that they are on par with the cabins on the London Eye. So: congratulations, Melbourne Star! You’re comparable in at least one aspect to a much more well known Ferris wheel! The cabins are also air conditioned, which I welcome on this summer day as I’m being thrust towards a sun that popular opinion says is plotting to kill us all.

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Maybe I’m being too down on the Melbourne Star. I have an entire cabin to myself, though it could comfortably fit a dozen people, or a dozen trench coats filled with river otters standing on each other’s shoulders. The sky is clear, and it’s sunny. I think to myself, actually, this is might be relaxing. And then a man’s voice begins to fill the cabin. His name is probably something like Greg, or Carl, and sure, right now he’s just welcoming you into his house, and you’re nodding happily, but soon he’ll be sitting on your chest so you can’t get away, reading you facts he found in a dumpster behind the Tourism Victoria office. You’re like, “hey, could I just chill on the sofa and eat some dip?” and Greg is all, “hey, did you know Australian Rules football is one of the oldest codified sports in the world? How cool is that?!?!”

I’m forced to listen to the city of Melbourne being given a PR blowjob, on and off, for the full thirty minute rotation.

The ascent begins with a view of the outlet mall below you, and the gaudy pink and orange apartment balconies hidden inside the outlet mall like a fortress. You’ll be treated to the many other spectacular sights of Docklands – warehouses, empty parking lots, and concrete so unsullied by human use you could almost get high off it. To the West are shipping yards, silos, and trucks passing over the Bolte Bridge, which someone later tells me is an infamous suicide site. Elsewhere, I see cars pull into but never out of the grey mass that is Costco.

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The voiceover asks me to look at my map, if I have a map, and begins to points out notable areas of Victoria and Melbourne that my eye line doesn’t reach. It feels a little like cheating. A good Ferris wheel experience should feel holistic: this is what the world looks like from this spot, in this air, at this time. Invoking distant and unseen regions is unsatisfying. I don’t want to hear about the mountains in the distance, I want to see their outline, a little blurry, and outline their shape with my finger, and try to imagine how long it’d take to drive, ride, or walk there.

After about ten minutes, I have an actual view of the city. (Look, I know people from the city don’t call the city ‘the city’ but I’m going to call the city ‘the city’ because ‘the CBD’ sounds real corporate, alright?) One can assume that the main purpose of the Melbourne Star is to watch, look at, and otherwise behold Melbourne. It’s in the name, really. Except, the Melbourne Star mostly fails at giving an interesting perspective on the city of Melbourne.

The Melbourne Star feels like it’s built on the shitty part of the Monopoly board. You can kind of see Mayfair, over there. It exists – you can see it! – but still too distant. It could be a scale model, for all you know. Or, it’s like going to see a singer in concert, and seeing nothing of them but the weird fleshy part behind the knees.

It’s all a little unexciting. The way the voiceover drools over Melbourne, the way you can see the city without being part of it – the view from the Star feels aspirational. Like it wants to be part of the city, like it wants to be embedded in its culture and history. Like it wants “fetch” to happen. The Melbourne Star feels like it wants its Docklands home to be considered a viable and interesting extension of the city proper, but it comes off as viewing platform and nothing more.

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I see a shipping boat approach the docks. I watch it for a minute, trying to judge how fast it’s moving. Instead of coming back to earth at the Docklands, where I want to be is above the city, looking down into it like an ant colony. I want to see the machinations of a city. I want to see the streets as things they aren’t: arteries, dirty rivers, contemporary art. But that’s not the Melbourne Star. I watch the boat and the faint way it moves to where it wants to be.

The voiceover sounds most likeable when it starts to glitch. “Time to go exploring-xploring-loring.” For a second I think it could be going off-script, but then it goes silent, only to return a minute later to wrap up everything, like a sixth grader giving a speech to his class.

By this stage my view is mostly confined to Docklands, again. There’s that empty parking lot, a closer look at the gaudy apartments. The sun is splayed across the city but it’s cold in the shaded cabin again. (“You must never go there, Simba.”) People picking out things from a sideways Costco trolley, and I have a view of a closed off grassed area behind the apartments and the outlet mall. It looks like maybe it was supposed to be a small park, or a back yard, but now it’s just a fenced off dumping ground occupied by rubble and gabble I guess you can’t see that from the ground.

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I step out of the cabin, and an employee asks, “Did you enjoy that?” I think she’s been watching me trying to take photos of the view with my laptop’s webcam. I walk through to the gift store, where I’m more impressed with the three-metre tall, motorised Lego model of the Melbourne Star than I am the real thing. Thousands of metal stubby coolers are on sale, but you have to buy three at a time to get any savings. Even then, it’s overpriced. Won’t the metal stubby cooler just get cold itself? I’m not really sure they’ve thought this through.

Alexander Bennetts is a writer and editor from Melbourne. He tweets @NoiseEtc.

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