I’d like to take a look at two films using a dichotomic model to explore pacing, motion and meaning in cinema: Jay Rosenblatt’s “The D Train” and Su Friedrich’s “Gently Down the Stream.” Both films have some base similarities, the most obvious of which is their experimental attitude. While “The D Train” certainly follows a very linear and traditional plotting, its use of found footage results in a heavy metaphorical form of communication that gives it its experimental quality. Su Friedrich’s piece, “Gently Down the Stream,” on the other hand, contains hardly any traditional narrative methods; and it is certainly debatable whether it possesses any narrative qualities at all, at least in terms of the way pure poetry and pure narrative might occupy different ends of the spectrum within a particular paradigm.
The elusiveness of “Gently Down the Stream” makes it the more difficult of the two films to approach critically, for no better reason than that, I’m going to start there.
“Wander through / large quiet / rooms.” That is the first, and perhaps most easily apprehended, part of Friedrich’s film, “Gently Down the Stream.” Those words float, barely moving, but the pacing of the edit is fast, and with the snap of the first cut, like a taut rubber band let loose from a finger, the film launches, without so much as a sound, into a competitive melee for my attention. Flickering images, dancing words, blown out whites and crushed blacks, it’s all so extreme, especially the motion.
The film ranges from moving at a seizural pace to being frozen in time. It is almost pure motion. The three most distinguishable elements of motion would be: the text; the images on the film (which includes images captured by the camera as well as various scratches, alignment marks, etc.); and third, the kinetic pacing from the editing. None of these elements operate in isolation, and are often at odds with each other.
Overall, it is difficult to determine a definitive rhythm or structure in the language of the film’s editing. At the beginning there is an off-beat visual rhythm: white, textured words flash sequentially over a black screen; followed by a slipping, jumping, pausing image of The Virgin Mary. This visual pattern repeats twice before the words begin to slip, too; the word “think” begins to slip. Then a woman shouts in white letters: “Why do you come here and spoil everything?” I’m beginning to sympathize with her. The rhythm is disrupted, the mid-sentence of changed have parameters form the. Exactly. What I said was, the parameters of the form have changed mid-sentence. The only thing I am sure of at this point is that any meaning I was beginning to form based on the language of the edit, its pacing and rhythm, is gone––and there’s still ten more minutes to go. In short, the film’s pacing and rhythm is constantly disrupted throughout the film, and the language of the edit never seems to establish the level of consistency required for effective communication. If Friedrich has a secret method behind her editing decisions, a secret language, it feels like she’s doing her best to keep it to her self.
The next two elements of motion: the images that appear on the screen and the text, are tough to consider separately, which makes sense, since the text is itself an image, albeit a vastly different type of image compared to the geometric shapes and live action. Because of this difference, which is too nuanced to indulge in this paper, the text tends to compete with those other images when occupying the same space within the screen. The text certainly screams for my attention in these instances, jumping around and waving wildly, but it doesn’t always get it. There’s a particular instance where a white square takes up about three-fifths of the screen and is positioned in the upper right corner. It just sits there, motionless, while very nervous and scratchy words flash across the bottom left corner. A similar composition appears at least a couple other times, but with live action: a woman on a rowing machine and a woman getting in to a swimming pool. Each time this dueling composition appears, maniac text versus stationary image, I choose the calm image, I ignore the text––as best as I can anyway. There’s just so much motion: the dust particles, the freeze frames, the gate slips, the arrhythmic edits, the white flashes and black voids; every time I’m given the chance, I gravitate toward the stationary, a welcome relief from the anxiety of all those nervous words. Does Friedrich want anyone to apprehend her film? It’s certainly hard to catch.
When the images or the text do occupy the screen independently, there’s a certain amount of access granted, but the lack of context, the lack of limits imposed by the filmmaker, make it tough and tiresome to create meaning.
On the independent film streaming service Fandor, the logline for Su’s film reads:
GENTLY DOWN THE STREAM can be described about as easily as you can hold on to a handful of water.
I don’t know who wrote it. Usually, the filmmaker supplies that sort of thing. If that’s true here, then if one wants to speak of intentionality in the case of Su Friedrich’s “Gently Down the Stream,” the film’s chaos, generated in no small part by the intense motion, is perhaps the most obvious candidate for subject matter.
Even though “The D Train” deserves its experimental label, Jay Rosenblatt’s film can certainly serve as a representative for more traditional film techniques in this dichotomic presentation. Rosenblatt’s editing techniques are subtle and predictable, thus less noticeable and effortlessly understandable. Jay doesn’t just speak to the viewer in a language most people can understand, he invites them in to his world, offers up his own comfy seat, brings a tray of tea and cookies, and says, “Stay a while.”
At its most basic level, this film is about moving through life; there is a kinetic energy in each shot and every edit that moves us through a life. One of the more prominent aspects of Rosenblatt’s use of motion in “The D Train” is the use of live action with motion that simultaneously contributes to both the form and the content of the film. There are two main motion-based shots whose repeated and predictable appearance creates a rhythm of anticipation and fulfillment that helps to establish a major “progression through life” theme, providing a context for the other shots and giving the film its potential for meaning. The first of these, which is central to the main plot, is the old man’s train ride, where the world whizzes by outside the windows, like the moments of his life. Literally, he is moving from point A to point B, from the station to a park bench; symbolically: from conception to death. The other shot is a pedestal up shot, or an elevator shot, inside of a business complex. This shot is used to symbolically represent major life shifts, bookending “stages of life” montages made from touching representational images and the occasional metaphorical shot or two. For instance, we see all those parachuters, who look vaguely or quite like an army of sperm, before the arrival of the car baby. Then: ped up, “Next floor: toddler time.” Crawl, push your sister, piss off your mom, jump in a pool, swim underwater; then, ped up and your mowing the yard with your dad and other Rockwell-esque life events. How does it go: First come loves, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage? All packaged nice and neat between a ped up elevator shot. “Next floor: grandchildren.”
Eventually, the montages reach the top floor, there’s nowhere left to go. The train pulls into the depot. We are back in the present. Our hero has arrived at point B, the park bench, the last stop. The reflection ends, reality sets in, check your watch, your time is up; clean up the fallen leaves, there will be more.
It’s definitely worth noting here, too, that Rosenblatt uses several shots with motion in the action to evoke a particular climate. The group of people sliding down the giant slide, the merry-go-round, the carousel, all these shots have a fantastic kinetic energy that emotes a blissful feeling and sense of freedom. The success of these shots to communicate such a particular feeling depends, at least in part, on limits set by the filmmaker that define the fictional world of the film.
All in all, the use of kinetic pacing and motion in Friedrich’s film feels like obscurantism, a device to keep her secrets secret; while Rosenblatt seems to use kinetic pacing and motion to clarify and compliment his story.