VOD film review: Station to Station
Ivan Radford | On 26, Jun 2015
Director: Doug Aitken
Watch Station to Station online in the UK: Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Dogwoof TV / Google Play / iTunes
There’s something magical about trains. You can fall asleep in one place and, without moving, wake up somewhere entirely new. Doug Aitken’s Station to Station, which follows a train travelling from New York to San Francisco over 24 days, captures some of that transitory enchantment.
Of course, just how special a cross-country rail trip is depends on the people travelling with you. The Venice Biennale prize winner has certainly amassed a diverse bunch, from musicians and poets to artists and sculptors. He splices them all together into a kaleidoscope of ideas: 62 films, each one lasting no more than a minute. On the one hand, that means a freight journey fraught with earnest discussions of locomotives, inspiration and existence – the kind of people some might be tempted to throw out the window, if stuck with them for too long between stops. On the other hand, it means you never get bored, because the passengers are always changing.
Some are fascinating: Olafur Eliasson’s installation sees an ink ball move along a white sheet of paper in time with the movement of the train – something that revolves into a looping spiral of scrawls, which act as an oddly accurate map of the train’s progress. Flamenco dancers, tapping their rhythm against the metal carriage floor, form a natural pairing with the sun-drenched landscapes of the day, while rock and pop groups become the accompaniment for on-stage performances during the night.
Familiar faces, such as Beck singing with a gospel choir in the Mojave desert, will reward eagle-eyed spotters, while others – a man talking quickly, in the style of an auctioneer, repeating numbers like a song – blend together into dazzling split-screen studies of counterpoint. It’s the normal folk, though, who prove the most memorable, as one recalls why he likes working with trains (“I get there when I get there”) and one band (Bloodbirds) struggle to put their music into words.
They speak of it as “part of our relationship” in one clip. In the next, Aitken asks them to describe it. They fall into awkward silence. Is it a trick of the editing that makes the two things happen in the opposite order?
“Most of us are in motion,” narrates Aitken, in one of the film’s heavier voice-overs. There is certainly an appreciation of the kinetic nature of film: the relationship that is automatically imposed by the camera, as your brain tries to find a logical progression from one frame to the next.
Austin Meredith cuts between the separate strands with an infectious energy and a pulse powered by the soundtrack. After 30 minutes, the multi-coloured montage sees them blur into one confusing haze. Will that alienate some? Is it the intention? Either way, the strict one-minute chapters stop the momentum from flagging.
Several of the contributors speak of trains as a symbol of bettering oneself, of being able to move on. One gang hooks lasers up to the train (already sporting Aitken’s own neon stripes down its flanks) to map the vehicle’s trace upon the environment, but its light fades with inevitable speed, as the track passes underneath. As Station to Station finishes its vibrant tour of the imagination, it emerges as a tribute to the transient nature of life as much as an ambitious commute: whether travelling to work or fleeing to pastures new, trains, like art, offer a fleeting moment of escape. You sit around waiting for a moment of creativity. Then 60 odd come along all at once.