|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.
A Delicious Sense of Understanding and Journey
film review by Emru Townsend
Download a Quicktime movie of T.R.A.N.S.I.T. directed by
Piet Kroon. 976K. © 1997 Illuminated Film
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
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.
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.