Emru Townsend reviews Piet Kroon's new film, T.R.A.N.S.I.T., a fascinatingly complex journey of imagery and story.
Download a Quicktime movie of T.R.A.N.S.I.T. directed by Piet Kroon. 976K. © 1997 Illuminated Film Company/Picture Start.
You know how that Hollywood self-referential game goes? The one where you describe something by comparing it to something else, like, "It's Star Trek crossed with My Best Friend's Wedding," or "It's Sailor Moon meets The Spice Girls?" (Say, that's not bad ... better call my agent.) Well, I can do the same thing to describe T.R.A.N.S.I.T. Ready? Here goes: T.R.A.N.S.I.T. is a 1920s Æon Flux crossed with an episode of Seinfeld and mixed with Anijam.
Wait! Don't leave! Let me explain.
Understanding the Comparison
T.R.A.N.S.I.T., you see, is the story of a woman, Emmy, tragically intertwined with two men, Oscar and Felix, in the late 1920s. The story takes place in seven locations (Venice, the Orient Express, Amsterdam, Cairo, Baden Baden, St. Tropez, and on board an ocean liner to the Americas), which are signaled by stickers on a suitcase which follows the characters throughout this trans-oceanic tale. Each location has its own self-contained story and definitive art style, animated by a different artist, much like Anijam and other collaborative films. Each segment is bracketed by close-ups of the stickers on the suitcase.
Much like the first six Æon Flux shorts, the 12-minute film is completely without dialogue. The story is told entirely with visuals and audio, such that you have a good idea as to what's going on but a second viewing will probably make things clearer, as you pick up on the more subtle clues you missed the first time.
Finally, like a recent episode of Seinfeld, the entire story is told backwards. Sort of. The segments are shown in reversed chronological order before jumping back to the beginning/ending, leaving us to watch the effects before learning the causes.
T.R.A.N.S.I.T. by Piet Kroon. All images herein are courtesy of Piet Kroon and © 1997 Illuminated Film Company/Picture Start.
From an analytical viewpoint, what makes T.R.A.N.S.I.T. so fascinating is that these three unusual elements aren't just there for show. The film needs them in order to work.
First, the art styles. Though the film was written and directed by Piet Kroon, director of DaDA, production designer Gill Bradley actually created the designs for each segment based on art styles popular around the time of T.R.A.N.S.I.T.'s setting. The result: seven examples of individual artistic sensibility unified by the vision of one person. As well as a different location, each segment also uses a different palette and evokes a different mood, providing a kind of visual barometer of the emotional ups and downs of young Emmy's life. What's amazing is that despite the different styles and directors, a casual viewer could look at any two sequences and never doubt that they're from the same film.
A Unique Structure
Next, the reversed storytelling. Whereas Seinfeld used this device for comedy, T.R.A.N.S.I.T. uses it for tragedy. In the first (last?) four segments, we see three lives being destroyed; in the last (first?) three, we see the events that led up to it all, and experience a certain sense of inevitability. We want to warn Emmy of what her actions will bring. As more is revealed, we also want to warn Felix, then Oscar. However, like some mythical prophet, we've seen the future and all we can do is observe.
Reversed storytelling is a wonderful device when it works, and it works well in T.R.A.N.S.I.T: seemingly straightforward events are all the more significant because we know the consequences of the characters' actions. T.R.A.N.S.I.T. combines many of my favorite aspects of Peter Chung's Æon Flux, not the least of which is stellar, non-linear, dialogue-free narrative. It's relatively easy to find films that effectively tell stories without dialogue. What's harder is finding films that tell complicated, emotionally laden films without dialogue. Narrow those down to the few that use unconventional structure, and you're left with a scant handful. T.R.A.N.S.I.T. is one of them.
T.R.A.N.S.I.T. also features an evocative score which wraps around the viewer and draws him into the story; a story which requires the viewer to pay attention to detail and actively think about the events on the screen, rather than have everything spelled out. Revelation and understanding are earned as the mysteries of the past are peeled away. It's a feast for the mind as well as the eyes and ears.
The Journey of T.R.A.N.S.I.T.
All of this leads to my disappointment with the film's end, which I won't reveal here. First, we see the seemingly immortal suitcase meet its demise. Second and more importantly, subtitles come up to tell us a little about Emmy and Felix, and what happened to them. After brilliantly unfolding the events over ten minutes without titles or dialogue, to have this final morsel revealed so blatantly is just out of place. It doesn't exactly wrap things up, but it detracts from that ingredient we had savored throughout the rest of the film; that delicious sense of gradual, though maddeningly incomplete understanding. Ultimately, the real pleasure of T.R.A.N.S.I.T. is not in the destination, the film's ending, but rather in the journey we took to get there.
Emru Townsend is a freelance writer who won't stop talking about cinema, animation and computers. He is also the founder and former editor of FPS, a magazine about animation.