Station to Station opens with a clear explanation of exactly what we’ll be watching. A train has traveled across the country, from New York to San Francisco, over 24 days, stopping at 10 stations, which set in motion a series of unique art events or “Happenings” including dance, music, sculpture, etc. These happenings were captured in 62 one-minute films, which we’re about to see.
After a title card completes its explanation of the project along these lines, Station to Station then runs through this exposition again, juxtaposing titles involved against rapid cuts to what the film’s ad copy describes as a “kinetic light sculpture” adorning the train. If the conceit informing this film’s already scant 70-minute runtime weren’t doubly clear by this point, Station to Station then reviews the film’s conceit for a third time, for the first of the short films is a banal interview with the project’s architect, multimedia artist Doug Aitken, reiterating the concept for any viewers who haven’t yet gotten a grasp on it. This, unfortunately, is not the last we see of Aitken, who reappears with audio narration that stretches the film’s already thin metaphor with show-stopping insights like, “There are really two movies on this train. The one that’s happening out the window, and the other that’s happening in people’s minds.”
At the risk of critiquing a strained metaphor with a mixed one, this opening encapsulates how Station to Station never really gets off the ground. The film’s one-minute sectioning off of its various Happenings proves incredibly limiting and rather arbitrary, forcing Aitken to treat what is ostensibly intended to be an intersecting, collaborative and diverse array of art projects with stifling monotony. The Happenings are thus rendered into a series of episodes that are simultaneously too short and too long, never allowing its audience to immerse themselves in the specific work being done but also rendering each performance unable to convey any individualized, unique form of expression beyond “here’s another thing done on/off of that train.” It doesn’t help that all the pieces are photographed by Aitken and Corey Walter with a superficially pretty but rather soulless gloss that undercuts any potential sense of a multifarious artistic tapestry with the sheen of a Vimeo reel for a an aspiring music video cameraman.
Station to Station never resonates as more than an oversized advertisement for the interactive instillation of which this film is part. I have no reason to believe that Station to Station doesn’t make for a fascinating exhibition in its current residence at the UK’s Barbican, but as a standalone film it leaves any insights that may have resulted from this project hidden from the audience. There’s nothing here that’s as heterogeneous as the project’s mobilizing concept suggests. Instead, every artistic contribution is portrayed within an identical — and identically uninspired — framework. Aitken effectively undercuts the potentially unique contributions of his many, many collaborators whose talents are silenced by his perfunctory approach.
Trains, a moving product of the industrial age not unlike cinema itself, have provided a potent site of inspiration and metaphorical power for filmmakers ranging from the Lumière brothers to Buster Keaton to Bong-joon Ho. With all its flashing light, distracting noise and vacant pretense, Station to Station brings the potent energy previously exhibited in the union of cinema and locomotives to a standstill. For an artistic project that pays so much lip service to free expression within a plural, expansive definition of art, Station to Station is remarkably strained and without momentum, a train that is perpetually excited about the possibilities of movement but rushes to the end without having ever really gone anywhere.