tue 26/05/2020

Station to Station | reviews, news & interviews

Station to Station

Station to Station

Weak documentary about a transcontinental rail journey freighted with art 'happenings'

Train in vain: technology meets nature in 'Station to Station'Dogwoof Pictures

Station to Station documents the transcontinental American rail trip taken by a group of musicians, visual artists, and performers in 2013. Local artists and marching bands also contributed to the series of "happenings", often enhanced by light shows and pretty effects, which included rock concerts staged at each of the 10 designated stops on the westward journey. Organised by the artist Doug Aitken, the marathon must have brought the contributors and audiences much pleasure.

Station to Station documents the transcontinental American rail trip taken by a group of musicians, visual artists, and performers in 2013. Local artists and marching bands also contributed to the series of "happenings", often enhanced by light shows and pretty effects, which included rock concerts staged at each of the 10 designated stops on the westward journey. Organised by the artist Doug Aitken, the marathon must have brought the contributors and audiences much pleasure. His film of it is underwhelming.

It's not for the want of big names, indie rock being particularly well represented. The musicians include Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, Beck, Thurston Moore, Mavis Staples, Giorgio Moroder, Cat Power, and – mysteriously given the film's Americana vibe – London post-punk revivalists Savages. The photographer William Eggleston and the artists Lawrence Weiner, Ed Ruscha, and Mark Bradford were also involved.

The vistas - whether of urban blight or arid plains - speak for themselves

Part of the movie's problem is its format. Constructed of 62 one-minute films, mostly featuring the participants, it's frustrating for anyone who wants to see more of the shows or to understand why the artists and performers' lives or work is relevant to this kind of odyssey. The songs sung by Patti Smith and Beck chosen for the film offer childlike views of train rides. Mavis Staples's rendition of "Holy Ghost", though, is trenchantly intercut with travelling shots – like those in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law - of the kind of decaying rural towns where many poor African Americans spend their lives. (Mavis Staples pictured below)

Cat Power identifies with the rootlessness associated with train travel because, she says, she didn't meet her biological parents until she was three or four. The singer-songwriter was filmed performing in a cave, seemingly in a desert outcrop. It's bathetic, but it captures her sense of herself as isolated.

The vistas – whether of urban blight or arid plains – speak for themselves. Much of the linking footage shows the speeding train at night. Images of landscape and a machine roaring through it can never fail to invoke the tension between wilderness and civilisation central to the American myth, so Aitken's crew didn't need to decorate their vehicle with gaudy lights. Nor is it instructive to hear the director-curator hypothesising that America's old rail network was the original Internet, or speculating that in the future "the road" might be "where the entitled and the dispossessed will meet face to face", unless – and it isn't clear – he's speaking of a time when cities have become uninhabitable.

The train that Robert Louis Stevenson rode on his arduous 12-day trip from New York to San Francisco in August 1879 wasn't crammed with artists and musicians. But Stevenson had only to project himself onto the passing land as an imaginary witness to give a sense of an infernal drama unfolding.

“Mile upon mile, and not a tree, a bird, or a river," he wrote of the deserts of Wyoming in Across the Plains (1892). "Only down the long, sterile canyons, the train shot hooting and awoke the resting echo. That train was the one piece of life in all the deadly land; it was the one actor, the one spectacle fit to be observed in this paralysis of man and nature.”

Stevenson was, in a sense, prophesying the roles of the future cinematographers, who – positioned on prairies in countless Westerns, or, say, among the kaash grass of rural Bengal in Pather Panchali – would catch the convergence of two implacable forces. Though it had the potential to do so, Station to Station fails to make so significant the convergence of travel and the arts.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to Station to Station

Constructed of 62 one-minute films, Station to Station is frustrating for anyone who wants to see more of the shows

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