Doug Aitken’s Station to Station (2014) immediately states its intent. This is to be “a journey through modern creativity”, shot over 24 days, spanning 4000 miles from Atlantic to Pacific. It’s not specified that this will be across the US, but it quickly becomes clear it couldn’t have been anywhere else. Aitken’s train and the troupe of artists he invites on it move from state to state like a travelling circus, deploying for ten carnival-like ‘happenings’. Among the 50 artists featured are writers, architects, photographers and an array of musicians, old and new. Station to Station consists of 62 one minute films sown together by Aitken’s editing, as he asks the artists to explore their creative processes.
The 62 film structure can seem awkward, but the viewer does fall into a certain rhythm, as with the periodic ‘jud-jud’ of a train’s wheels on its tracks. Aitken describes his train as a “kinetic light sculpture”, its carriages peppered with lights that pulse and change colour as it cuts through the soft evening light over the American prairies, like a Ferris wheel bowled straight through Americana. The happenings themselves are coordinated chaos. In one, a choreographed parade, led by a man cracking two whips, leads to a stage where the musician Beck is backed by a choir in a frantic harmonica rendition of a steam train’s acceleration as a helicopter dangles a psychedelic LED lighting rig above the crowd.
Before you watch Station to Station, prepare yourself for a lot of art-speak. As Aitken says, “This is not a tour, not a package, not a system, it is something that is ever-changing”. It is suggested that the “syntax [of art] we use is outdated” and a new aesthetic rooted in collaboration, movement and transience – art for the TedX and Twitter generation – could be the future. Aitken’s presence is light in what we see, but his editing is central to the documentary. Alone, none of the artists get enough screen time to really say anything. Therefore how their words and art have been cut and stitched together by Aitken ultimately speaks for them. It is rarely flattering. Squinting artists offer canned insights: “It’s all relative”; “It’s all about perspective.” With more screen time they may have developed their thoughts but, in spite of the good intentions, it grates.
After listening to Ariel Pink, in his Béla Tarr / Black Flag T-shirt, it is a divine relief to hear Greg, the train’s engineer, telling us why he likes trains: “No rush, I get there when I get there.” The train, the American landscape and being on the road are the stronger elements of Station to Station. This half of the documentary is beautiful, shot during the ‘magic hour’ of Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). The other half, dominated by musicians and their fans, comes off like a Coca Cola advert. For once, when the near constant backing music pauses, we get one of the best clips: the grey-eyed, weather-worn folk singer, Jackson Browne, simply reading his lines: “Station to station, coast to coast / Not that much of anything in mind / No expectations, way less than most / But I wanted to see Winslow one more time.”
Station to Station is released in UK cinemas on 26 June by Dogwoof, and available to stream via MUBI.