Traveling Light, the new film by Gina Telaroli, screened last night as part of the reliably inventive and exciting "Migrating Forms" festival at New York's Anthology Film Archives. This brief feature—it's a little under an hour, which might also qualify it as a lengthy short, but to my mind, it has particularly density that I don't associate with short films—is one of the most striking and exciting films I've seen this year. I can't wait to see it again.
I should get the disclosure out of the way now: I am friendly with Gina Telaroli, we have a bunch of friends in common, I find her an utterly delightful and disarming and engaging person, and she was very helpful to me with advice and material assistance on a couple of projects, and so on. On the other hand, I did not tag along with her and the group of her pals who where having dinner after last night's screening so maybe that buys back some of my journalistic integrity.
Traveling Light does not, or at least I don't think it does, take its name from the punch line of the really good joke about the photon checking into a hotel; rather, it describes in large part the condition of the film, which chronicles/simulates a train journey from New York's Penn Station to Pittsburgh. The movie emerged from the semi-ruin of a different project. Telaroli, whose first, and similarly excellent film, A Little Death, conveyed a painfully particular narrative in a a calm but relentlessly acute style, wanted to craft another narrative film, this one set on a train. A perceptive critical writer as well as a filmmaker, Telaroli has an affection for trains and train travel that I think is endemic to a certain kind of cinephile/cineaste. Consider the track of great train-featuring or train-themed films from the very beginning of cinema. Consider, too, the idea that a train itself is in a sense a rather gargantuan dolly track for a camera. Telaroli's scheme to cast friends as minimally-defined characters and have them improvise around a scenario set during a train journey from New York to Cleveland was scotched when a snowstorm made completion of the journey impossible. Telaroli reconceived the film as a non-narrative work, something she said she might have subconsciously had in mind in the first place. What she's come up with is a film that sometimes so convincingly simulates a train journey that it's kind of lulling. But this is no aimless impressionistic assemblage. As langourous and naturalistic as it can often seem, it's also quite noticably modular, and actually builds to an acknowledgement of the fact that you're watching something that could conceivably be interpreted as a salvaged by-product.
After some establishing shots of the typical dim orange fog-breath blur of a Penn Station boarding platform, Traveling Light lives up to both its title and the idea of locomotive-dolly with a dizzying shot in which the compartment from which Telaroli is shooting whizzes by another train packed with multi-colored containers. It's like a realist, geometrically-altered reiteration of the psychedelic light show near the end of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film settles into a rhythm of shots and sights that are somehow less conventionally mindblowing. Views of station platforms from dirty windows; it seemed to me that every one of the stations was in New Jersey, had to be; and of course I very vividly recognized the New Brunswick station, the Trenton station a little less vividly. Any Amtrak patron is likely to get something in the vicinity of a Proustian rush at some point during the picture. The views of a grimy grey present are alternated with shots that look like they could have come out of a silent picture. See, for example, the image at the top of the page. The near sepia-color, the blackness on either side of the 1.85 frame very much suggesting an iris-in shot. Extraordinary. This is not just beautiful in and of itself but an iteration and acknowledgement of cinematic consciousness. And as the film goes on, we have glimpes of "characters" leaving restrooms, looking contemplatively, and with actorly poise, out at the passing landscape. It almost seems as if the "narrative" is about to pick up at certain points, but it never does. And then there's a beautiful, impressionistic shot of dozens of frozen rivulets on a window, each one mutating the red light from the outside of the train like its own little lens, and there's some talk on the soundtrack that's clearly from the person who's getting the shot—yes, indeed, the effect is "awesome"—and so now we are in the realm of the near-documentary, or at least where the mechanics of the film begin revealing themselves, and a shot of the filmmaker herself a little later completes the effect. The viewer's innocence is taken away, and yet it's not; Traveling Light continues its particular spell to the very end.
I hope you, reader, get to see this film somehow. It's really wonderful. And while I don't want to end this review on a polemic, I'm afraid I can't help myself. This is a motion picture by an incredibly talented female filmmaker in her twenties. This is a blog by a white male of fifty-two years of age. I'm just gonna leave it at that, now that I think of it, and instead suggest that some forward-thinking programmer or five at the Film Society of Lincoln Center have a look at Traveling Light and consider it for at least a sidebar this fall.