BIFF Film Review: Traveling Light

   Some sacred cows are never slain and, occasionally, its hard to tell why. For example, despite the juvenility and lack of craft featured in the Star Wars franchise, the films are still pushed upon our children in what I can only assume is an effort to stop them dreaming, having aspirations or an imagination of any kind and, instead, becoming autonomous drones intent only with purchasing the latest action figures and any materials which advertising executives can conjure. Closer to home I've never heard a bad word sad about John Grierson and the British Documentary movement (of the late twenties to early forties) despite the fact that, Humphrey Jennings' work aside, there was little rhyme or reason to any of their features.

   One of the most famous movies from the British documentarians of the 1930s can be found in Night Mail  (co-directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright) which, even taking the then youth of the "non-fiction" film genre into consideration, still rates as one of the worst features I have ever seen: it's pseudo-philosophical, faux "slice of life" smugness constituting a vapid, excrutiating twenty six minutes I shall never get back and which, whilst sat transfixed to my seat, felt much longer than even Shoah as time seemed to grind to a halt under its crushing banality. Whereas many bemoan the rise of reality TV as serially dumbing down media audiences, I can sincerely say there is an infinite amount more, on an emotive and philosophical level, that can be pruned from any random episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians than can be found in Night Mail.

   Sadly, when I read the words "train based docu fiction", my mind conducted an unwanted Proustian rush back to Night Mail and the moment my young, then un-jaded eyes were being left dumbfounded by what seemed like a never ending celebration of heightened inanity.Thankfully, this was not to be the film screening at Bradford Film Festival but Night Mail will, unfortunately, eternally hold my frame of reference in the (admittedly small) genre of "train based docu fiction". Sadly, however, this experience was to not be much better for me.

   Traveling Light is a feature which focuses on the train ride from Penn Station in New York down to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania taking in all the sights and sounds on route but, instead of focusing on a "kitchen sink style", provides the information in bursts of elliptical and oblique flashes. By this I mean the feature consists of "scene" after "scene" of a camera pointed outward from train windows during journeys from stations to their destination. At first I assumed that there was some mistake and that the director would be kicking herself when she realised that her camera had been accidentally left on during her voyage to amovie set to shoot something infinitely more exciting. Alas this seems to be intentional.

   Cinema at its best teaches us empathy and sincerity of emotions; whether this is taking us to new destinations or accurately providing characters we can relate with. Traveling Light, however, is a film without a subject: at points watching the film felt like it was a demo on the world's worst conceived sim game (Sim Passenger) starring an anti-social commuter who, having forgot reading materials or a source of audio entertainment, decided to look out of the window for hours. The movie does indeed perfectly replicate the grinding tedium of a long commute but this is not exactly something I think people will be clamoring to see.

   Somewhat coincidentally the film screening began at such a time that were I to commute via train to the cinema I would have missed the movie. As such, I had to pay for a taxi so as to make sure that I could arrive at the cinema on time to replicate the journey of being on a dull train ride; if I'd taken my regular route by rails at least I'd have had a good book to keep me company.

* Disclaimer: I walked out of this film thirty minutes in so perhaps there was an explosion or a romantic kiss in a tunnel at the end which I missed. I was not the first person to walk out of the film. The feature, which was receiving it's UK Premiere, was part of Bradford International Film Festival .

1 comment

  1. I love this film dearly. Well done for tapping out early and still cashing in on a review, though.

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