The ocean liner the SS United States, docked across from the South Philly Ikea for nearly 25 years, has come close to being repurposed as a casino, a restaurant, and more. In the great ship’s latest side gig, its interior is starring as the backdrop to a haunting music video on YouTube.
In Liminal Highway, flutist Tim Munro is seen in various parts of the ship — from the ballroom and various passageways to the small theater — playing electronically altered flute music that captures the netherworld between sleeping and waking, written in 2015 by Pulitzer Prize finalist Christopher Cerrone.
The 990-foot-long passenger liner has long been stripped of its once-ornate decor, and film director Evan Chapman of the Philadelphia-based Four/Ten Media has used its barren spaces to give Liminal Highway a postapocalyptic look that prompts memories of the Titanic’s submerged wreckage.
“The idea to shoot [the music] in a massive and empty indoor space came first … and the ship fit perfectly into that,” said Chapman. “The music is also introspective and dramatic, so it felt more fitting to place Tim in the dark depths of the bowels of the ship.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much a sense of being alone in the world in this cavernous forgotten space that would’ve been full of laughter and drinking and carousing,” said flutist Munro in a postproduction interview. “And there I am, alone onstage, looking out on a space with nobody there.”
The ship’s weather-beaten exterior masks a perfectly sound interior, which had all the necessary power sources for Chapman’s film shoot last October. It had previously hosted two documentaries and the 2013 box-office flop Dead Man Down starring Colin Farrell.
Liminal Highway was released Aug. 21 under the auspices of the Miller Theater, Columbia University’s new-music venue. It also has an accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary about the shoot aboard the SS United States. The audio has been released on New Focus Recordings.
The now-retired, early-1950s ocean liner once set trans-Atlantic speed records. Its passengers included Marlon Brando, Coco Chanel, Sean Connery, Gary Cooper, Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Taken out of service in 1969, it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. The SS United States has been an incongruous presence on the Philadelphia landscape since 1996, awaiting numerous rehabilitation plans with funds from the likes of H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and Bill Clinton while gathering rust at Pier 82 along Columbus Boulevard.
The current plan by the tenacious nonprofit SS United States Conservancy is to turn the once-majestic ocean liner into a living museum and mixed-use development in a yet-to-be-determined waterfront city. The conservancy owns the ship and pays its estimated $60,000 per month maintenance and docking fee.