Review: STATION TO STATION, In A Realm Of Its Own
That it often features brilliant bands playing live on a train will perhaps evoke, for some, the choo choo cha boogie joy of 2006's Festival Express, which documented 60s musical greats traveling by train on a tour across Canada. Aside from the superficial connection -- both docs feature musicians on trains -- what's far more relevant is this: What made Festival Express such a marvel wasn't necessarily the shows along the way, but the spontaneous creative energies that occurred in between them. While the 60s were fraught with 'happenings', on a smaller scale, these intimate scenes were special because, without prior planning, they embodied the potential of artistic creation and chemistry simply because they happened.
The word 'happening' holds great stock for director Doug Aitken, a visual artist who recognizes the holy importance of bursts of creative energy. Recognizing that these happenings arise from a moment, Aitken aimed to bottle the significance of 'once in a lifetime' art arising from nothing, as a means of evoking the purpose of aesthetic expression. To do so, he employs a vast array of people -- bands, poets, photographers, train conductors, and anyone else he finds along the way -- who he feels are capable of bringing qualities of interest to the table.
One such musician, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, is especially eloquent on the topic of these spontaneous energies Aitken is driving at, in his discussion of how songwriting works for him personally, though I imagine the truth of Moore's words extends far beyond his subjective experience of creation. He discusses art coming from a moment of primordial animal instinct, wherein a song, like a concert, like a light show, is a happening in itself, wholly dependent on the circumstantial energies that surround its creation.
Station To Station, and its 60 minute-long chapters, is chock full of insight as to what it means to create and the holy significance of aesthetic experience in which the ends are never profit driven, but rather entirely to do with celebrating what it means to be alive. "The only reason we do this is to have fun," band number something-or-other offers, mirroring the integrity of Aitken's Station To Station project. The resulting feeling his compendium evokes ranges from visceral to ethereal to dazzling, and many other inarticulable emotions in between.
To prefer one band or artist over another is to miss the point of Aitken's goal entirely. Whether you're watching Beck at a rural drive-in movie theater, backed up by 40 gospel singers, blowing into his rambler's harp, or the artist who dips marbles in ink and then sets them loose on a canvas, allowing the momentum of the train to dictate the drawing, every portion of Aitken's odyssey is a worthy addition to his collective ode to ideas and the endless possibilities of aesthetic communication.
While Aitken is the film's maestro, along with his numerous like-minded artists, never has a film been such a collaborative effort. Yes, Aitken could have chosen the tour documentary route, egoistically tracking his journey, but that would've been a far simpler work. Instead, by taking himself out of the equation, Station To Station allows the events to unfold exactly as they do, and as they can't help but exist from the moment of their capturing.
Consequently, by going out of its way to abandon narrative structure, Station To Station itself exists in a realm entirely of its own, wherein the often unexplainable magic of life-affirming creation is communicated on levels viewers won't necessarily be capable of explaining. Instead it drives at a feeling and succeeds in kaleidoscopic, flying colors. Whether the film will succeed financially is laughably irrelevant. Station To Station happened, and that's more than enough.
Review originally published during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015. The film opens at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles for a limited run beginning on Friday, August 21.