Caught Mapping: A Cinematic Ride Through the Nitty Gritty World of Vintage Cartography

Long before iPhones, Garmins, and Google Maps con­spired to make car­to­graph­ic sheep of us all, Chevro­let had a vest­ed inter­est in glam­or­iz­ing any­thing to do with four wheels, includ­ing the process that put maps in a sup­pos­ed­ly adven­tur­ous, car-buy­ing pub­lic’s hands. Caught Map­ping (1940), like so many of the short, infor­ma­tive films the auto­mo­tive giant engi­neered with direc­tor Jam Handy and “the coop­er­a­tion of State High­way Depart­ments,” has all the ear­marks of its time:

Gor­geous black and white cin­e­matog­ra­phy? Check.

Fetishis­tic regard for any­thing that might pos­si­bly be described as “the lat­est tech­nol­o­gy” (includ­ing a big sheet of acetate and a real­ly big cam­era)? Check.

Jaun­ty male nar­ra­tor suck­ing all the non­cha­lance out of peri­od slang? Say, fel­la, what are you “dri­ving” at? Check.

Of par­tic­u­lar inter­est to those accus­tomed to nav­i­gat­ing dig­i­tal­ly is the sheer grit­ti­ness of the endeav­or. Com­pare the ear­ly Euro­pean explor­er shown pon­der­ous­ly wield­ing a sex­tant to the per­spir­ing road scouts (or “map detec­tives”) criss­cross­ing Death Val­ley in an un-air­con­di­tioned vehi­cle, chas­ing down the sort of con­struc­tion-relat­ed detours or topo­graph­i­cal devel­op­ments that could ren­der a paper map obso­lete. One steers;  the oth­er updates the most recent­ly pub­lished edi­tion in ink, imper­vi­ous to such haz­ards as car sick­ness and bumps in the road.  Even­tu­al­ly, the eggheads in the lab take over, trans­lat­ing the intre­pid road scouts’ field­work into a series of sym­bols and sig­ni­fiers as mys­te­ri­ous as hiero­glyphs to the mod­ern view­er.

Tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments aside, it’s the hands-on aspect that proves most thrilling. Some­one should make a movie about these guys for real.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.