Derailment - Travelling as a Liminal Experience

Anne Marit Waade

Derailment (1993), a short fiction film by Unni Straume, tells a story about two persons who meet by accident on an overcrowded train. Their legs touch, and the woman falls asleep and has erotic dreams in which she wakes up in a bed with the man from the train.

The dream as a motif is used in other films by Unni Straume (e.g., Dreamplay., 1994). In this analysis I will concentrate on how the director uses the dream as a theme and an aesthetic principle, and furthermore I will look at the journey and the concept of travelling as a specific form of dream and a liminal condition. Finally, I will discuss different storytellers in the narrative structure of the film.

In the story, the woman falls asleep and dreams about curtains waving in the summer breeze, and that she slowly wakes up and smiles at the man beside her in bed. He turns his head towards her and smiles back at her. There are several signs indicating that they are waking up after having made love: the intimate way they look at each other, as if they share a nice secret together, their calm bodies and relaxed, smooth faces. In this way the dream is illustrated explicitly in the film. There are also various aesthetic elements in the film that represent certain dreamlike expressions: e.g., when the light blends and the contours disappear in the picture, causing the image to blur as though in a veil of mist. These dreamlike qualities of the image also serve as a contrast to the way the two persons' faces, and especially their eyes, are shown in close-ups with sharp contrasts and dark black shadows. The dark shadows and the long sequences of images of sleeping eyes illustrate another mode of the dream: a transformation from lightness to darkness, from being awake to being asleep, from outer images and concrete, tactile senses to inner conditions and mental fantasies. The camera guides the spectator from the appearance of the haphazard traveler, focusing on the lines and shadows of her face, and moving on to penetrate her eye, burst her retina, and follow the woman's inner fantasies and erotic images.

The transformation between being awake and asleep, and between the outside and the inside, is also shown in the director's choice of outer, physical surroundings. The subterranean veins of the Metro with its dark caves and hidden life which cannot be seen on the earth's surface, but at the same time busy activity and enormous streams of people and trains. The Metro may be seen as an image of the inner activity of the human body. In contrast to the dark inner life of the Metro with its sleepy, isolated individuals, the woman's dream shows a life of sunshine, breezes and social (erotic) interactions.

The windows and the billowing curtains in the dream illustrate yet another transformation between inner and outer life. On the one hand, the Metro shows the vital inner organs and circulation of urban life: blood and veins, life and pulse. The human beings are like white and red blood corpuscles rushing to and fro. On the other hand, the dream and the fantasy represent inner mental conditions, and in the Metro this may be characterized by the fact that it is living people circulating in the system; it is small lives, filled with emotions, dreams, hopes and initiatives.

Another dreamlike element is evident (or better: heard) in the soundtrack. The natural sound is replaced by only one sound track: the monotonous sound of the scraping metal, screech and rails of the trains, and their doors opening and closing. There is no dialog, no voice-over, no lines are spoken; nor is there small talk from other passengers or sounds from the loudspeakers and so forth, sounds normally characterizing the underground. In this way, the single soundtrack of the film is reminiscent of the way we are awakened by a sound or a noise - for instance, when taking a nap on the train and we are suddenly awakened by the sound of the train stopping or the coffee trolley passing, or when somebody is shouting or the alarm clock starts ringing when we are asleep in bed; it is only this specific sound that reaches us and sometimes enters our dreams. In this way, the film both tells about and shows the aesthetics of the dream.

At a metafictional level, it may be said that as a narrative medium the film has much in common with the dream; it may shift in time and place, cross the borders of reality and extend its possibilities, and it is structured by series of images. Fiction and dream also both serve as parallel universes and "fitting-rooms" in relation to individuals working out their identity and social reality (Waade, 2001). In this way the film reflects both the dream and the narrative structure of fiction as self-reflecting strategies in life.

Like the dream, the film also thematizes the journey as both a mental condition and cultural phenomenon. It is not the exciting exotic journey that is staged, but rather the travelling that characterizes our everyday and common life - for instance, how we get to work and back home again. It is this kind of journey that constitutes our everyday life, a necessity that includes automatic and unreflected actions which we know by force of habit: stamping the ticket, waiting for the train, getting aboard, finding a seat, waiting for the stop signal, getting off, getting out - again and again. This kind of travelling constitutes a basic frame for everyday living, and it is. everyday life. In spite of this, I still maintain that there is something extraordinary about the concept of travelling: it includes a process of transformation (transport) and liminality that allows for specific expectations, conditions and experiences.The ritual, as well as the journey, includes in its basic structure the progression "home - out - home", and it is in the passage between the positions and at their threshold that the extraordinary and liminal condition sets in. The liminal condition is described by anthropologists as a threshold state, an extraordinary condition that sets individuals free from conventions and rules of social behavior, and includes new possibilities for individuals.

Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial. As such their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions. Thus, liminality is frequently likened to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun and the moon (Victor Turner, 1969; 95).

Everyday travelling is in other words both ordinary and extraordinary; on the whole it is part of - and even constitutes - ordinary everyday life, but the journey itself also includes a specific transformation of a liminal, extraordinary space. The concept of moving from one point to another, from one place to another, to be on the way and to be transported, brings on a state of transformation and liminality. In this way both the journey and the dream include a condition of something unusual, something that opens up for intensified experiences, specific emotions, moods and expectations.

The tourist is a typical modern traveller. Zygmunt Bauman (1997) uses the tourist as a key metaphor for the postmodern experience of life: the tourist is both inside and outside at the same time, and the tourist is less concerned by the destination than the travelling itself (Waade 2002). The tourist represents new modes of fascination and an open mind in general with regard to new experiences and sense impressions. The tourist is not to be mistaken for the homeless, because the tourist is identified by having his/her home as a starting point and a place to return to (Rojek 1998). But the tourist is most concerned by travelling, which may be seen as a lifestyle and a life strategy. The modern tourist does not have any specific goal for his/her journey besides travelling, and he/she does not have any ambition to find the truth about him/herself or others (as did, for example, the explorer, the anthropologist or the young man on his educational journey) (Waade 2001). The modern tourist is not even in contact with the people and the culture he/she visits, and instead it is the story. and the images. of the locals that attract the tourist's interest.

Off-hand there appear to be no links between the tourist's hunger for experiences and the tired passenger who, half asleep, gets on and off the Parisian Metro. The tourist typically wants to get away. from these everyday rituals and ordinary experiences. But, just as the Metro trip is an everyday experience and at the same time contains elements of extraordinary qualities, it also includes a potential for the liminal conditions and intensified experiences of the tourist. It may be that it is this specific liminal state of being on one's way that basically fascinates the tourist - the kind of liminality that is constituted between two points and that gives rise to specific emotions, moods and new social and cultural rules and roles. At the same time, the journey includes an element of self-reflection: through the journey you are able to stage yourself and thus reflect yourself. Victor Turner and Richard Schechner see this as a part of liminality related to rituals, and they introduce the term "liminoid" to describe the self-reflecting strategy that strikes modern, secularized rituals (Turner, 1986:8).

Returning to the film, it is characteristic that it starts and ends with the trip itself: it starts when the woman gets on the train, and it ends when she gets off the train. The liminoid state constitutes the space between these to points. It is here that the dream and the specific sound set in. It is in the reflection of the window and the eye of the other that she can reflect herself, and it is in the fictive universe of the dream that one is able to see oneself. It is the trip itself that raises the possibility of erotic dreams, in which drowsy, accidental travelling companions turn into passionate lovers. Out of the inner darkness of the Metro, mental images of sunshine and summer love flow through open windows. The ambiguity of transformation is also evident at the moment in the dream when the woman looks at the broken flowerpot on the pavement, the pot having fallen out of the window due to the wind. The potsherds may symbolize broken happiness, but at the same time the image refers to the tradition of celebrating something new by breaking old pots and porcelain.

At one moment in the film, the story violates its own logic and aesthetic: at the moment when the dream becomes reality, when the soundtrack breaks and the frame of the story is exceeded. Or to borrow Richard Raskin's words: at the moment when the causality of the narrative is broken by one of the main figures' surprising choice and initiative (Raskin, 2001: 37). To be more precise, I am thinking of the moment, almost at the end of the film, when the man who was just smiling at the woman, stands up and gets off the train, and she spontaneously stands up, looks at him and, after some exciting seconds, chooses to follow the unknown man out of the darkness of the Metro. She leaves the freedom and liminality of the threshold, and takes a step out into a new reality.

Who is telling the story? The main character is the woman, and since there is no explicit storyteller in the film, it may be said that it is the woman's story about the dream on the train. However, approaching the gaze of the camera, we become aware of several storytellers. After having introduced the woman on the Metro, the camera shifts to show the man's point of view. The man wakes up, and his eye rests on the sleeping, dreaming woman. In this way, the focus shifts from the woman to the man, and for a short sequence, until the woman wakes up, it is the man who is the confidential storyteller for the camera. The camera is not limited to only revealing the sights and fantasies of the man and the woman; it is also lives its own life. I am referring to how we see the man and the woman on the train from different angles at the beginning of the film, and also to how in the dream the gaze of the camera floats around in the room and in and out of the window, as if it belonged to a flying invisible ghost that, like the curtains, flutters in the breeze. As long as the woman and the man are both lying in bed, it cannot be one of them looking at the broken flowerpot on the pavement. No, it has to be another person. Not necessarily a ghost, but still another narrative instance. The gaze of the camera on the train may illustrate the other passengers' view of the two persons. It may, for instance, be a travelling companion we do not see in front of the camera lens, a passenger who has erotic fantasies on seeing two persons on the train with their legs intertwined. To focus on this narrative instance that is seen in the camera's eye, another implicit storyteller also appears: a storyteller that guides the spectator around in the Parisian Metro, and with help of the seductive effect of the camera is able to show us exotic everyday persons in a European metropolis. In this way the spectator becomes a scanning tourist able to focus on single individuals and locals on his way. As a flâneur. in a modern city, the spectator is able to look at the crowd of people at a secure distance; and as a voyeur the spectator may be satisfied looking at a sleeping woman and her naked legs touching another person's legs. Thus, the dream does not necessarily belong to the woman, but it may illustrate the spectator's fantasy and daydreams.

In other words, different kinds of derailments take place in the film. The daydream serves as a fantastic derailment from monotonous everyday life, the journey itself illustrates a (liminoid) derailment from a standstill, and film fiction in itself is a kind of derailment and staged daydream in the spectator's everyday life. The film even includes another kind of "derailment": in the end when the woman breaks out of the dream, out of the soundtrack, gets off the train and crosses the limits of her own everyday life to follow a man that she just has touched with her legs and seen only briefly. And this kind of expectation and derailment is perhaps what leads us to go on dreaming, travelling, making films and seeing films: hoping that something unusual and extraordinary will happen.

Bauman, Zygmunt. "From Pilgrim to Tourist - or a short History of identity" in Question of Cultural Identity., ed. Stuart Hall and Paul de Gay. Sage Publications, 1996.

Raskin, Richard. Kortfilmen som fortælling.. Systime, 2001

Rojek, Chris. "Tourism and citizenship" in International Journal of Cultural Policy., vol. 4, no. 2, 1998.

Turner, Victor. The Anthropology of Performance.. PAJ Publications, 1986.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process - Structure and Anti-structure.. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Urry, John. The Tourist Gaze - Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Society.. Sage Publications, 1990.

Waade, Anne Marit. Teater i en teatralisert samtidskultur, resepsjonskulturelle mønstre i aktuell scenekunst.. PhD thesis, Centre for Tværæstetiske Studier, University of Aarhus, February 2002.

Waade, Anne Marit. "Teater i byens rom - om site specific teater og sightseeing" in Virkelighedshunger - nyrealismen i visuel optik., ed. Britta Timm Knudsen and Bodil Marie Thomsen. Tiderne Skifter, 2002.

to the top of the page