Station to Station: film review

499903062_640I spontaneously went Train Mad* on the weekend (god it’s so tempting to say loco) and it all started with seeing Station to Station at Sydney Film Festival.

It’s totally amazing. I don’t want to talk it up too much but it’s The Best Film I’ve Ever Seen. Okay it’s not, but it’s still very, very good and an incredibly different film experience. If you want to take a trip without jumping on a train or dropping acid, this is the crazy journey movie for you.

In a nutshell, Station to Station is part of a public art project – 62 1-minute films of a 24-day rail journey across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and 10 ‘happenings’ that took place along the way. It’s the brainchild of Californian artist Doug Aitken and involves a host of artists and musicians, all of whom rode the train at some point and contributed creatively to the project in one way or another.

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The train I rode home on later that night. It was okay I guess, but could’ve done with a recording studio and some swivel chairs.

Giorgio Moroder. Giorgio Moroder’s 1970s moustache. Beck, Cat Power, Patti Smith, Ed Ruscha, Thurston Moore and Greg the train driver who loves his job all make appearances. There’s a mesmerising whipcracker leading a posse through a train station, Victor and his growling dog sitting in the Mojave Desert, talking about old times when the railway first arrived, the beautiful music of Black Monks of Mississippi, and much more.

Essentially the movie’s about what it means to be a creative person in the 21st century, and ways of expressing ourselves. It touches on inspiration, creative processes, artistic philosophies, technology, and how to create a fricking awesome disco yurt. It’s not really about how the project came about, how much of it was planned and how much actually just “happened” – for that, you can go watch this insightful interview with Doug Aitken, charmingly hepped up on caffeine.

Was it annoying watching 1-minute instalments over an hour-ish? No, there was way too much visual and aural stimulation to captivate you. It was break-neck paced and sped you along on the ride. But yes, I did want to know more about each film and seek out further information about it, and sure, it did take a little while to adjust to the style of the film. It had a certain rhythm. Some people found it soothing, like the woman next to me who nodded off a number of times. Meanwhile I sat there wide-eyed, trying to absorb as much as possible like a bug-eyed, radar-dish-eared sponge . . . person.

Okay so it’s a tiny bit of a sausagefest and it’d be nice to hear more female perspectives, plus it could do with more sweet marching bands. And okay, I found out later it’s *cough sponsored by Levi’s cough*, which made me start to feel a little uneasy, especially when I read some bad press surrounding this fact and one of the happenings. But I’m just going to glossss right over that with a flip ‘hey, someone’s gotta pay for it’ and cling to the sheer delight of the actual film-watching experience.

I loved the heck out of it and wanted to watch it ten more times and then do a whole lot of research on everyone and everything in it, especially where I can find a custom-made ‘light sculpture’ train, decked out in pretty lights, that can map the landscape it travels on with lasers!

If you’re a musician, artist, writer, filmmaker, any type of creator, or you love smoke, installations, landscapes, movement, lights, songs or, dammit, you just love trains – if you’re an alive person, watch this movie. Four and a half stars from me.

This review was largely tapped out at Town Hall train station and on the Inner West line, Sydney.

*Train-themed things I did after watching this film:

I rode this 1890s loco on the weekend. It was cool fun once I got away from the coal dust - could never have been a steam punk.
I rode this 1890s loco on the weekend. It was cool fun once I got away from the coal dust – could never have been a steam punk.
  • listened to train music (‘Carriages’ by Tiny Ruins, ‘Train Song’ by Feist and Ben Gibbard, ‘Train Song’ by Vashti Bunyan)
  • read train poetry (‘Travelling’ by Ania Walwicz)
  • rode a steam train to western Sydney and back
  • researched the Ghan and Indian Pacific trips up-down/across Australia.
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Pop and rock

In a week of spirit-sapping humidity and daily thunderstorms, I (mostly) dodged the weather and got out and about regardless. In your FACE, rain! (I just sometimes had really, really wet feet.)

On Wednesday night I saw the Pop to Popism exhibition at Art Gallery of NSW with friends. I love galleries at night. There’s just an excited vibe that’s lacking during the day – it’s kind of like being allowed to go into a sleepy library and yell swearwords at the top of your voice or something. It’s like an art party.

I think it can be easy for your eyes to start to glaze over sometimes with pop art – the Marilyn Monroes, the Campbell’s soup cans, the Lichtenstein comic-strip panels are so well known it’s hard to look at them with fresh eyes. But imagine how unreal it would have been when they first popped up (eep) on the scene, in the face of the art establishment and everything it upheld. Must’ve been wild times!

Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car (1963). Would you accept a ride from this man? Yeah you would - his hair is totally boss.
Roy Lichtenstein, In the Car (1963). Would you accept a ride from this man? Yeah you would – his hair is totally boss.

I loved Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol – who wouldn’t? We noted it would’ve been spectacular back in the day when the silver spraypaint was spanking new, but it’s still got it.

Really enjoyed the Roy Lichtensteins (because hell, it’s Lichtenstein) – especially In the Car. Not sure why; maybe because the guy looks like he’s on the verge of a murder spree and it’s INTENSE.

Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter (1962). It's just about a delicatessen counter. Right?
Wayne Thiebaud, Delicatessen Counter (1962). It’s just about a delicatessen counter. Right?

My fave artwork was of course painterly – Wayne Thiebald’s Delicatessen Counter.

On first look I don’t know why I was attracted to it, I just liked it – that was indeed a fat, juicy-looking wedge of cheese, for example. And it seemed pretty straightforward and accessible. Thankfully I passed it again and was drawn to the electric outlines/underpainting leaking out between the smallgoods: vibrant oranges, reds, greens in a mostly white and blue palette. This painting, well, POPS. Sure it’s about meat and cheese, but it’s about So. Much. More. (But really, it’s just about meat and cheese, I’m pretty sure.)

Mister
Martin Sharp, Mister Tambourine Man (1967). Pretty groovy, baby.

 

In a movement dominated by giants like Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, et al, it was great to see a roomful of Australian pop art. Martin Sharp’s works appealed and I particularly liked his Mister Tambourine Man screenprinted on gold foil, plus Richard Larter’s The Hairdresser is decidedly cool and of the time.

Great to see the women representing too, as there were so few female artists in the movement to begin with and unfortunately most have disappeared from its history. Rosalyn Drexter’s Race for Time is hot-hued, action-packed and movie posteresque, and Bridgid McLean’s fascination with the testosterone-laden world of car racing is demonstrated in Untitled (1969) among others – the brushwork and tones are so meticulous and subtle the painting looks like an airbrushed work.

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Rosalyn Drexter, Race for Time (1964). Hottt.

AGNSW has ensured visitors immerse themselves in the pop era of the 1960s–70s – it’s about the art but also the origins, the events of the time, music, film and other cultural products. Beatles songs and other ’60s tunes serenaded shoppers in the Pop Shop. There are fun interactive elements alongside the exhibition. We joyfully partook of pop art Twister (putting hands and feet on Marilyn Monroe’s face, naturally); decorated soup can outlines; and when we sat down to dinner and wines in the AGNSW café later, we did so with pop art–related colouring-in and activity sheets. Okay, these all might’ve been for kids, but why let that stop you?

So I need a segue into Friday night . . . Speaking of 1960s music (!), my Friday night involved an impromptu trip to the Factory Theatre in Marrickville to see Dog Trumpet. I saw them this time last year with friends, but before that I had been largely ignorant of this rock band featuring ex Mental as Anything members (and brothers) Reg Mombassa and Pete O’Doherty, as well as Inner West institution Bernie Hayes.

Dog Trumpet: 'Arguably the loudest soft rock band in southern NSW'.
Dog Trumpet: ‘Arguably the loudest soft rock band in southern NSW’.

I can’t really classify myself as having been a fan of ‘the Mentals’ exactly, as their heyday was slightly before my time, but they were certainly a feature of my formative years – kind of like the familiar geometric wallpaper of my childhood home. On the night, Dog Trumpet played the Mentals hit ‘Berserk Warriors’. Instantly it transported me back to being five; for Christmas my sister was given the compilation ‘1982 with a Bullet’ featuring that song, and it enjoyed high rotation at our house throughout the eighties. So there’s sort of a special place in my heart for Reg and Pete to begin with.

They are damn impressive musicians. The music is a mix of 1960s influences, roots, blues and light country, and it’s earthy, lively and fun – despite some potentially heavy subjects – and they just have a great time on stage. Highlights from the gig include the tribute ‘Made in the World’, which lists off important global figures who’ve all made significant contributions somehow, many of them now dead. ‘With Good Reason’ has a happy, upbeat melody that belies the lyrics laden with the number of ways things are a bit shit right now: ‘Oh Lordy what we gonna do, if the world is going to end then so will you’. The brothers joked at the end how Tony Abbott hates that song and refuses to acknowledge its existence, and a couple of Abbott impressions ensued and were much appreciated by the audience.

And then they broke out ‘Little Red Rooster’, with Bernie Hayes on vocals and acoustic guitar, Reg on face-searing slide guitar. Woo boy, it was goood. ’Cos it’s not enough to be one of Australia’s most well known and beloved artists, the sinewy-armed old bastard can PLAY. The whammy got a workout on a couple of songs too – bloody brilliant.

ODoherties
Reg and Pete working away in their studio on their amazing art and stuff. You know, just knocking up some freaking etchings before going to play a gig.

So you might think it’s enough that Reg and Pete are such talented musicians, that Reg and, it turns out, Pete are prolific, successful artists. But no, they also seem to be two of the hardest working artist/musos walking around: ‘Equally successful in the visual arts as music, these creative dynamos were asked to produce a whole exhibition’s worth of prints and etchings in seven days, all the while also strapping guitars over their shoulders and playing a few gigs around town.’ Wtf, guys.

They’re also very funny, laconic men. For me, their warm, witty banter between songs is an integral part of the show. Reg has a dry cool wit; his Wikipedia page reveals he is inspired by ‘the wind, semi-professional birthday clowns, heavy machinery and the behaviour of domestic animals’. (Actually, he might’ve been only half-joking.) And they’re just plain nice and incredibly down to earth, as evidenced when I sidled up to Pete after the gig for a signature and he was only too happy to oblige, apologising for the fact that his brother had ‘buggered off – but you’ve got the most important one so that’s good’.

Oh and did you know that an artwork by pop artist Martin Sharp appears on the Dog Trumpet album Strange Brew? Me neither until right then. Aaand there’s my pop art segue. Bam!