First Man
Transit (Christian Petzold over)
Living the Light — Robby Müller (Claire Pijman over)
slow criticism | Forever Changed: Cinema, Travel and Dream
Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López checked in from Barcelona and travelled the whole wide cinematic world in this introductory essay for this year's Slow Criticism special: The Other Side(s) of the world.

Train entering the city.
I lost myself and never come back.
Took a trip around the world
And never came back.
— John Cale and Lou Reed, "Forever Changed"

The metaphors proliferate in everyday speech: films move us, they even transport us. Movies and means of transportation: books have been written about this duet for modernism. Gilles Deleuze, for instance, tagged Franz Kafka as the exemplary 20th century artist who grappled with depicting the disconcerting mutations of the modern world: he imagined, for the first time, strange 'mixtures' or 'phantom machines' — 'a telephone in a train, post-boxes on a boat, cinema in an aeroplane'. Kafka's fiction tuned, prophetically, into the merging or interpenetration of the two great mechanical-industrial systems of the last century, the system of transportation (plane, train, automobile) on the one hand, and the system of recording/communication apparatuses (photography, TV, film, video, computer) on the other. 'Is this not the whole history of cinema?', asked Deleuze: to knit together these phantom machines, these hybrid monsters of movement — summed up in the fact that a tracking shot in filmmaking, which usually involves the laying of rails for the camera to move on, is also known as a travelling shot? Sigmund Freud, with his dangerous method, even managed, rather well, to connect transportation (he was thinking, in his time, specifically of train travel) with sexual excitement: an irresistibly 'compulsive link', as he noted, 'clearly derived from the pleasurable character of the sensations of movement'.

Does this begin to explain why so many titles of cinema magazines today (we see it most clearly in the example of Spain) boast travel motifs? Transit, Tren de sombras, Détour... and elsewhere in the world Moviement, Film International, Undercurrent... Is there some yearning in this to get away from those more classic magazine titles static invocations of geographically fixed picture palaces and halls (Bright Lights, 16:9 or — most sinister of all — Empire) or, on another register, the solipsistic gaze of an eyeball glued to a screen (P.O.V., Close Up) or, on another register again, the sedate, solitary culture of writing (all those cinema cahiers and papers, film krants and comments, digital media journals...)?

Face it: most science fiction, all those tales of teleportation and leaping through time — whatever the genre's sophisticated allegorical alibis — is really only a pretext to elaborate one of mankind's oldest fantasies: to be able to travel through time and space, take a short-cut through all such painstakingly linear co-ordinates of the physical world, and just be somewhere else right now. But as intensely as we will it, as laboriously as we research it, we cannot free ourselves from one second at a time, plus one step at a time. We are condemned to dull reality. Sleep, drugs, dreams, love: these things allow us momentary ellipses or accelerations, trance-like zone-outs or ecstatic rushes. Intensive or slack times; passionate or distended spaces. But while time and space can get rubbery, they never lose their shape altogether: they snap back into place.

Travel joins this list of ways we fight time and space, in reality as well as in fantasy. Serge Daney included it in his intriguing shortlist of the greatest adventures of his 1960/70s generation: drugs, the couple, travel. We all know the strange thrill of jumping backwards a day as, in the air, we cross an equator (time is on our side, yes it is) — and the killing drag of having to pay it back with a corresponding lost day on the return voyage (where did it go?).

There has always been an intimate connection between cinephilia and travel (this was another of Daney's keynote themes, in his work and in his life). Partly because cinema has stood for — and it is worth reminding ourselves of this at the moment when the cultural pendulum is plonking us back, ever more firmly, in front of the large-screen TV set for all those 'quality' mini-series — precisely the attraction that got you out of home. With all the illicit pleasures and sentimental education implied by that move.

On a related level, cinephilia's natural state — at least for those can either afford it, or somehow wangle it — is to be in as constant motion as often as possible, to and from film festivals. Nobody who stays put in their home city — even those cities best upholstered with specialist art, underground and repertory screening venues — can really claim to be living the heady experience that today goes under the label of World Cinema. Discoveries happen in the places where you are wrong-footed, stumbling through an unknowable, unmasterable timetable and agenda.

But, ultimately, what it comes back to, in every instance — at home or away — is the relationship between the screen and the spectator. The aesthetics, and the special fantasy conditions, of that. Long before the personal computer boom, a humbly surreal arrangement on an interstate bus coach service in Australia nailed a TV set to the ceiling next to the driver, promising in its ad slogan that passengers would 'fall asleep in front of the television and wake up in a different state': something straight out of Kafka, and also a perfectly Freudian condensation of mobility, unconsciousness and fantasy. Raúl Ruiz, in a similar vein, seriously advised his friends during the early 1990s that a propitious film to intermittently sleep (and dream) during was Wilm Wenders' globe-hopping Until the End of the World, because "you fall asleep in Lisbon or New York and wake up in the Central Desert of Australia..."

One of the most fascinating aspects of the relation between cinema and travel is the way in which the former dreams the latter. While traditional science fiction invents sophisticated machines to realise that eternal fantasy of crossing time and space, some directors know that this machine already exists. Among the best experiments of recent cinema, an apotheosis of the relation between cinema and travel is offered by David Lynch's Inland Empire (2006). In this movie, the characters travel ceaselessly through different geographic places and different times, constantly passing from one reality to another. Lynch does not need to invent a complex futurist mechanism to enable this; it is enough for him to operate the possibilities of cinema as a medium, and to embellish them with a magic ritual. We travel, in the blink of an eye, from Los Angeles to Lodz, a tracking shot sending us backwards along new spatial co-ordinates we could not imagine; while superimposition is revealed to be not only the fastest and most effective means of transportation, but also something that allows us to get a glimpse of those ghosts who agonise within that passage from one image to the next.

But Inland Empire goes further than simply realising the film = dream equation, since it is also among the great movies that delves — following Kafka's early lead — into cinema as a generator of 'unexpected aspects' of Utopia, unforeseen textures of the techno-dream of our time. This phrase comes from Ruiz who in his Poetics of Cinema, taking as an example the "smooth transition from one picture to another", draws our attention to those unexpected details that can arise or mutate within "every reasonable aspiration". In fact many of Ruiz's works propose imaginative variations on the idea of travel, variations that take their shape (as in Poetics) from the "unexpected aspects" of this activity. In the final pages of Flows of Melancholia — precisely in relation to the dénouement of Inland Empire — Carlos Losilla lassoos Daney's description of the beginning of Ruiz's Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979) where 'the camera frames, frontally, a painting along which it slides mechanically, obliquely, anamorphosing it, getting behind the image and carrying us with it'. And this 'possibility that is offered to the spectator to slide slowly along images that also, at the same time, slide from one to the next' is also an invention of cinema, an unexpected aspect of mankind's desire that only cinema is ready to dream.

For Deleuze, the initial burst of industrial genius, cinema plus travel, was, finally, not enough: the collapse of transportation into the audio-visual condition, of travelling into tracking, too swiftly and easily became a kind of prison for the senses, an ersatz emotion, as well as an artistic cliché. The powerful affects, the surprising feelings and sensations, start to go missing. Too many happy people on screen hanging out of cars and trucks waving and yelping for joy, too many outstretched hands from bodies triumphantly posed atop bicyces and motorbikes while stirring music sparks up. Only some special and/or strange films (including Ruiz's Lost Domain, Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart and Julio Medem's Lovers of the Arctic Circle) can reproduce for us the childlike thrill of flying through the air, just as it takes the minimalist car, bike and train rides in Hou Hsiao-hsien or Abbas Kiarostami to return us to the simple, silent-cinema joy of everyday sped-up movement.

What is needed now, more than ever, is (as Deleuze attested) the continual invention of 'singular, ambiguous combinations'. He pleaded for modern cinema — and, we would add, audiovisual media in general — to 'go beyond the states of things, to trace lines of flight', via a 'compound affect of desire and of astonishment'.

My old life's behind,
I see it quickly receding.
My life's disappearing,
Disappearing from view.
— "Forever Changed"

Adrian Martin | Cristina Álvarez López