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.
February is a busy month where I achieve little. I see the Star from a distance every week. I tell some friends that I plan to ride it it twice in a row, once wearing my new prescription glasses and once wearing no glasses at all. This month’s column will be about perception, I say. I wonder if I’ll actually enjoy the view from the Star now that faraway things look like they apparently should: too detailed, too much like a TV screen.
It’s November. My girlfriend and I are in Nagoya, Japan, and we’ve decided to take shelter from the rain in a shopping complex which features a Ferris wheel connected to its side. The wheel is called “Sky-Boat” and it is covered in the branding of a popular girl group, SKE48. On the second floor there’s a SKE48 restaurant and theatre, reservations necessary. The people queuing for the restaurant are either teenage girls or middle-aged men.
In accordance with the current promotion, we buy our tickets from a girl supposing to be in SKE48. She’s short, maybe eighteen, wearing a hoodie with the band’s logo on it. We communicate through gestures. She has a prominent birthmark underneath one eye; later, I try and find this mark in the numerous calendars and magazines the shopping centre sells. I can’t find her anywhere.
Entry costs the equivalent of five Australian dollars. The capsule is small or big enough for four people, emblazoned with the face a SKE48 band member, like so:
— Sky-Boat (@skyboat3) November 22, 2014
When we sit down, a touchscreen monitor bursts into life, giving us the choice of three SKE48 songs. We pick one at random, and its film clip plays on repeat. It’s upbeat, enthusiastic. Sky-Boat has no pretentions: it just wants you to have fun.
The wheel takes about twenty minutes to rotate. The rain eases a little: cute movie rain, photogenic rain. After clearing the height of the shopping centre, we have a wider view of the city. The Nagoya TV Tower – one of the many Eiffel look-alikes found through Japan – sits peacefully in the middle of a park, just as it did in 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla while waiting for its untimely end. We spot a small, disused Ferris wheel sitting on the roof of a department store. It’s colourful, and looks like a toy.
It’s late February, a Monday after a sleepless weekend. I’m a sad Macaulay Culkin; home alone and aimless. I haven’t paid attention to anything outside my apartment, including the sky, so I’m surprised when it begins to storm heavily. I pull on a cotton hoodie and take a walk through my suburb. There’s a track that winds by a park, a few glorified nature strips, gumtrees, old bikes chained to fences.
There’s no one outside, even after the rain and wind calm considerably. I text a friend, It’s like one of those movies where everyone vanishes. He doesn’t respond, because he’s vanished. Would the Melbourne Star continue its loop if everyone were to disappear? Or would you be stuck in the capsule, alone?
I want to be on the Star, in the middle of the downpour. Would the glass mystify, cool to the touch? Would the voiceover carry on infinitely, unstuck from time and space? My girlfriend has this story where she’s on the London Eye with her family when a mechanism freezes, and they’re stuck at its very peak, too cold to enjoy the view.
Do you think the Melbourne Star could freeze in place, suffer water damage, conduce a lighting strike? Shake, shiver?
We’re in Osaka, underprepared. The only guidebook we have is designed for architecture students, so we’ve ended up among the skyscrapers of Umeda. We scale one of the city’s tallest towers and look as far off as we can. On the roof, I count almost a dozen unevenly spaced bridges crossing the Yodogowa River. A broken loveseat fails to light up for any of the couples that sit in it, including us. Looking east, I can make out a Ferris wheel that looks like an intricate spider web painted red.
This Ferris wheel sits atop HEP Five, a trendy shopping mall. Just like the Sky-Boat and the Melbourne Star, it’s necessary to navigate a good old hub o’ capitalism to reach the wheel. Wow, it’s almost like they were designed this way! (I buy a backpack.)
This time, we buy our tickets from a machine. The small cabin has a speaker system with an iPod dock; I suppose it’s BYO musical accompaniment. HEP Five’s take on the Ferris wheel experience is refreshingly malleable: go for soppy, romantic clichés; listen to an architecture podcast as you traverse through the Osaka skyline; or put on a Burzum record and black out the windows.
We don’t have any music to hand, so we place my girlfriend’s iPad against the glass, set the camera to time-lapse. We wait for every piece of the image to align; it becomes a game where we anticipate a train cutting through the frame. The final result is as shaky as the ride.
We sit across from each other in the cabin, a formation usually reserved for a table-for-two. In our Melbourne life, there’s a certain parallelism to how we position ourselves: side-by-side, as in talking in bed, as in sitting on a couch, as in taking the tram, as in etc. As we descend, we take photos of each other instead of the city.
The Melbourne Star bills itself as an “Observation Wheel”, and by design it encourages the rider to look outwards. The seating arrangement is like a picnic bench, to be sat around, legs pointing towards the windows. The view is of an Australian metropolis, and what surrounds an Australian metropolis.
I can’t imagine the Star as a place of postcard romance. The cabins are too large; the voiceover is intrusive; the emphasis is on the outside, looking at a map and surveying the distance. There’s little chance of knees accidentally touching, or necessary huddling in the night-time cold; the constant video surveillance is unnerving.
I catch the Melbourne Star on the last day of February, more out of contractual duty than will. (I’ll let you in on a couple of the totally fukt-up Scum Magazine columnist terms & conditions: “the writer must diarise all masturbation and file to Scum HQ”; “the writer must sacrifice at least one virgin male at the altar per published article”, etc.) There’s a queue of a dozen people before me, mostly families on holiday. A small French girl sings ‘Let It Go’. Every cabin is occupied, usually by a group of people. A staff member looks at me funny for riding the Star by myself.
I put my headphones on to block out the voiceover, and set the iPad against the window. I take my glasses off and look at Melbourne, pretend that it’s in any way different. It has the outline of a city but nothing finer, as if the texture hasn’t rendered yet and all I’m seeing is the basic polygonal structure. I put my glasses on but the city is still too distant.
It’s smooth. The whole ride is smooth, and the air conditioning is cool on my neck. Every now and then I have a view into the cabins either side of mine, and the other cabins have a view into mine. Here’s a cold, hard fact I didn’t verify beyond Wikipedia: the passenger cabins on the Melbourne Star were built in Osaka, Japan.
On my descent, I notice a metal ladder wraps around the full 360° of the Star. In the event of apocalypse, in the event everyone vanishes, do you think it would it be within the realms of possibility to make your way down the structure and survive?
Alexander Bennetts is a writer and editor from Melbourne. He tweets @NoiseEtc.