Subway Stops, directed by Joe Zakko
Program 2: April 22 at 5pm
Subway Stops is structured in way that mimics the experience of riding public transit. Train passengers grow accustomed to the alternating periods of acceleration and movement punctuated by the brief stops at each station along their journey, and director Joe Zakko’s film points to that experience with segments that alternate between stylistically experimental and conventionally narrative treatment of the material. For instance, the film opens with soft-focus rounded-corner rectangles of light pulsing past as if the camera is waking from (or falling into?) a dream—it takes a moment to see things clearly. Then, when everything is in focus, the camera appears content to stand at a polite distance as a pair of street performers ready their plastic drums for a virtuoso performance.
In fact, the camera continues this alternation between 1st person POV and 3rd person-observer status thought the film. The POV shots where the viewer is immersed in action that seems directionless like when the camera looks blankly out the windows and doors of the train or walks viewers through busy stations stitch together the little dramas taking place. These segments convey energy, movement, and acceleration, but without any destination in mind. This feeling is most clearly depicted in the scene where an aluminum can bounces aimlessly across the floor of an empty train car. These segments invite loose, personal metaphorical interpretation.
The third-person, conventional camera is reserved for the actions of tangentially-related characters Zakko invents for the film. There’s the panhandler who struggles with his walker to navigate a long, maze-like ramp to access the train platform. A woman struggles to pull her luggage up a painfully long flight of steps. There’s a man in a white shirt who, while rushing through a station, drops some coins in the panhandler’s cup. Then there’s the group of street musicians near the end of the film performing Sam Cooke’s "A Change is Gonna Come." In each of these scenes, the viewer is safely distant from the action, a removed—even if potentially empathetic—witness to some of the everyday struggles people face on the subway. This conventional narrative approach appears most clearly near the end of the film when the panhandler’s sacrifice is rewarded with the unexpected flourish of colorful tunnel walls he glimpses on his otherwise lonely train ride.
The panhandler’s story, it turns out, provides the through line for the film, and shows that the ambiguity of the film’s opening transition from experimental to narrative style leans toward falling into a dream: though recorded using black and white film, it’s a portrait of the New York subway system through rose-colored glasses.
- Bryan Cardinale-Powell, Associate Professor and Chair of Film, Oklahoma City University