Recently, I was offered a slightly unique opportunity: the chance to review a new movie in my own home. This offer came from the director, cinematographer, editor and writer, who all happen to be the same person, Nathan Maulorico of Unknown Films. This opportunity probably stemmed from the fact that we’re both in the Springfield Bloggers Gang (very violent, mostly focused on contraband trafficking and long drawn-out threads on the socio-economic impact of Lindsay Lohan), and that we’re fans of each others’ work. So when he asked me to do a review of his experimental short piece titled “This…Is The Orange Line”, I immediately accepted, knowing that the quality of his work would be well worth the time.
I was not let down in the least.
Now, to be fair, this film has several components that make me prejudiced to like it: it’s about trains (I’m a steam geek in the extreme…read here), it’s a documentary (as a function of getting older, I like this format more and more), it’s in black & white (makes me feel smarter for some reason) and it’s short (at around 8 minutes, 30 seconds, it appeals to my short attention span). The only downside I could see from the outset was that the score is a classical piece, a type of music which usually leads me to raging jags of depression and morose thoughts about the futility of man. But that’s my own deal, and I’m getting ahead of myself here. On to the movie.
The Press Kit came in a DVD canister, which immediately made me feel all special and privy to some sort of insider behavior – I’m easily amused and impressed, so at this point, the movie could have been about a steaming pile of dog waste and I’d be prone to liking it. But such was not the case.
The film opens with imagery of moving escalator steps and a transit train (the Chicago Transit Authority’s Orange Line…read here) journey across various landscapes of Chicago. I’ve never been to Chicago, but the imagery presented, even in the opening sequences, is very stark and beautiful, with the haunting music providing a component of loneliness that permeates the entire film. The first, and only, audio you’re going to hear is the occasional sounds of the train on the tracks (except for at the very end, where you are thanked for riding the CTA line by the pre-recorded voice). The contrasts in upward views of cloud-kissing skyscrapers and sub-track (this is an elevated rail line) views of small businesses such as “Gold Cost Dogs” gave me the surreal sense of crowded urban landscapes and overwhelming isolation. People move about, are on the trains and platforms, but you never get to see their faces in focus, so they blend into the entire production as extras, with the scenery itself being the star. Shots of old signal towers, abandoned cars in passing junkyards, idled semi-trucks in storage yards and always, that haunting music, give you the impression that the only semblance of anything organic are the train cars themselves, ushering you through some sort of apocalyptic aftermath, otherwise known as urban decay. Throughout, it is gritty and heavily sensory, punctuated by strong architectural symbols (cranes, high-rises, the rail tracks themselves), tempered by dismal weather, resulting in a very rich inundation of the senses. The streetlamps, lit in an indeterminable time of day, lend themselves to the film-noir-esque component of it all, as though it could be being filmed in 1940, not 2010. Some landmarks are captured, such as the Chicago Board of Trade, and then it’s off again, with you as passenger on some sort of spectral tour of the City. The non-dialogue speaks and is captured by way of highlighting signage in the trains, along the tracks and in the window reflections, keeping you the rider warm against the cold and rain that surrounds the cars on their journey.
The sole protagonist (at least, in terms of one that’s living) is the all-of-6 second-star, a bobbing pigeon, who seems indifferent to his role in the film, but postures up nonetheless, strutting around a station platform. He seems perfectly content to occupy the abandoned way station, irked at not being offered a gift of food for his efforts.
The end of our lonely journey is at the platform labeled “Midway” with a picture of an airplane on the sign. We are thanked by the robotic voice of a non-existent conductor on this ghost train of sorts and the movie is over as quickly as it had begun.
Nathan does an excellent job in introducing a neophyte such as me to the world of interpretive and experimental documentaries. The film was dark and haunting, and since I’m a curious type, I was immediately taken by a desire to ride the Orange Line and explore Chicago for myself. I hope that this is only the beginning of his efforts in this form of art, because at the very least, he’s gained at least one more fan. Nathan’s efforts have certainly yielded impressive results, and if you get the chance, take a look at this graceful composition. Who knows? I may even end up liking classical music some day, too.
For now, I’ll stick to my love of trains, especially those captured in black & white.