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Monday, 15 February 2010 02:00


By  Stephan Apicella-Hitchcock
  Outdoor movie theater across from Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman's house on Via Vittorio Emanuele, Stromboli, 2006

Outdoor movie theater across from Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman's house on Via Vittorio Emanuele, Stromboli, 2006

"At last I saw the figure of Hans as if enveloped in the huge halo of burning blaze, and no other sense remained to me but that sinister dread which the condemned victim may be supposed to feel when led to the mouth of a cannon, at the supreme moment when the shot is fired and his limbs are dispersed into empty space."  [1]

The following thoughts, like limbs dispersed into space then reassembled, form a loose body - rudimentary, transformed, and not entirely unified, but something with the promise of a body nevertheless.

On Thursday, March 13, 2008, I used my small pocket compass to orient my map and myself when I emerged from the Shinjuku rail station in Tokyo, Japan. There are hundreds of exits from Shinjuku station and one can easily wind up walking in the wrong direction, becoming increasingly lost and bewildered if not initially pointing the right way towards one's destination. As in the past, my compass allowed me to fix my bearings and quickly set me on the correct course. Two days later, while traveling south from Tokyo, I stopped in the city of Osaka to see the grand sumo tournaments. Again, I utilized my compass to adjust the relationship between my map of Osaka and the city itself; however, despite the alignment of the compass rose on the map and the compass held in my palm, I was significantly off course and getting no closer to the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. Having become quite desperate after repeating the same, wrong route numerous times, I decided to walk in the opposite direction, concluding that my map of Osaka had somehow been printed in reverse. As I walked on this new course, the Osaka landmarks on the map quickly began to emerge in their appropriate places. I arrived at the Gymnasium and the entire matter disappeared from my thoughts as soon as the sumo bouts began.

Several days after my stay in Osaka, I arrived further south at my intended destination of Onomichi on the Inland Sea. Yet again, I encountered the problem of being significantly off course as in Osaka. I was investigating the city of Onomichi, looking for the different locations where the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu shot portions of his 1953 film Tokyo Story and I repeatedly found myself getting terribly lost despite the use of my pocket compass. After retracing my steps back to the Onomichi rail station, I carefully compared my map with the station's map. My map seemed to be exactly the same, so I aligned it properly according to the station map's compass rose, and set out once again. Now, I navigated with ease to my desired sites and it gradually dawned on me that my maps had not been the source of the problem at all, but that there was something terribly wrong with my compass. Somehow, my compass had suddenly and enigmatically reversed its polarity during the previous days - north was precisely south, and south was precisely north. From my perspective, the world was now entirely upside down.

I sat for a long time in Onomichi at one of Ozu's filming locations thinking about the implications of the world being unstable enough to abruptly invert. It was both odd, as well as comforting to be considering an enormous change such as a polarity reversal in Ozu's own backyard, he being a filmmaker whose works are known for their fixed camera positions and methodical, steady nature. What event would be significant enough to cause a compass to rearrange its orientation? Would not such an event have enormous effects on transportation in the world and at the least merit a brief mention in the news? Additionally, what would be the repercussions for my personal life? While thinking loosely around these matters, I recollected that a compass reversing its polarity also featured in a book I had read a long time ago as a boy - towards the end of Jules Verne's 1864 novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The main characters from Jules Verne's novel attempt to reach the planet's core, entering the Earth via an opening in a volcano crater in Iceland. Then, at the end of the story after numerous adventures, they are ejected from the core on a wave of hot lava into a warm climate considerably different from Iceland. The chief protagonist puzzles over the changed environment and eventually concludes (after hearing Italian) that their previous proximity to the magnetized core of the planet affected the functionality of his compass, which had reversed, and that they were on the other side of the world. In fact, it turns out that that they had been expelled from the earth from a volcano on the Aeolian island of Stromboli, in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily, not back onto the volcano in Iceland. It was not precisely the other side of the world, but close enough in my book.

So far, I have not been to Iceland in my travels, or even remotely close to transiting through the inside of a volcano; however, I actually have spent time on the island of Stromboli where Roberto Rossellini made his film Stromboli in 1949. A few years earlier I stood on the island near the active volcano and considered the possibility of the explorers from the 1959 film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth - actors James Mason, Pat Boone, and Gertrude the Duck - being shot out from the volcano, out of their movie, and directly into Rossellini's film alongside the heroine Ingrid Bergman. The science fiction of Journey to the Center of the Earth, in some ways a polar opposite of Rossellini's hard edge realism, would form a bizarre amalgam; further, they even shared a legitimate geographic feature in the volcano. However, sitting in Onomichi, I could not piece together, cinematically at least, what the connections were to Japan and what this had to do with my compass shifting so radically.

Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story was made in 1953, Roberto Rossellini's Stromboli was made in 1949, and Henry Levin's Journey to the Center of the Earth was made in 1959, so there was no commonality of production year to bring the works securely together, or even legitimately into the same mental conversation. Still, I thought, if only I could arrange for a screening of Tokyo Story at the library's outdoor theater on Stromboli, at the base of the volcano and directly across the street from where Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman lived while filming, that would be a neat suturing and provide the third side of this filmic triangle.

Upon returning home to New York from Japan, I looked further into the mysteries of magnetism and was quite surprised with the answer from the U.S. Geological Survey's National Geomagnetism Program when they posed the following question on their website, "Is it true that the magnetic field occasionally reverses polarity?" The website then went on to say with great enthusiasm, "Yes, incredible as it may seem, the magnetic field occasionally flips over! Occasionally, however, the secular variation becomes sufficiently large such that the magnetic poles end up being located rather distantly from the geographic poles; we say that the poles have undergone an 'excursion' from their preferred state. During a reversal, between polarities, the geometry of the magnetic field is much more complicated than it is now, and a compass could point in almost any direction depending on one's location on the Earth." [2].

This new information made me consider my situation quite differently. Who knows what would have happened when my compass flipped over if I had been seeking out film locations for Ozu's Late Spring, made in 1949, or for his 1959 film Good Morning. Perhaps I would have encountered less complications, smaller variations, and found significant connections with Stromboli, or with Journey to the Center of the Earth. Nevertheless, I had been in Onomichi, Tokyo Story was made in 1953, and consequently the reassembling of dispersed limbs is not as straight as it could be, or, more truthfully, is not at all. Two lines have been joined, with the promise of a potential triangle in a distant, missing leg.

After Verne's character emerged from the volcano's halo of burning blaze and spotted the guide, he likened his feelings to the sinister dread of a condemned man just before "his limbs are dispersed into empty space." If this character were to collect their senses and overcome their anxieties of the unknown, then ask the U.S. Geological Survey's National Geomagnetism Program "What causes the magnetic field to reverse polarity?" They would be confronted with the following answers: First,


Followed by, "The fact that the magnetic field occasionally reverses is simply a property of the continuous, on-going behavior of the Earth's dynamo."

Then, lastly and most lovely, "There is no 'cause' per se."

1. Verne, Jules. Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Trans. William Butcher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
2. "National Geomagnetism Program Frequently Asked Questions." (April 16, 2007): U.S. Department of the Interior/U.S. Geological Survey. .
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