Saturday, June 10, 2006
Ferrara's Love on the A Train
LOVE ON THE A TRAIN
Abel Ferrara, U.S.A., 1997, 8 minutes
Source: SUBWAY STORIES – TALES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, VHS 5254
The premise of the collection entitled SUBWAY STORIES is that in 1995, HBO invited New Yorkers to send in stories of their experiences on the New York City Subway for a contest. The winning stories inspired the 10 shorts that comprise this film, with each short taking place on and around the N.Y. subway. Each short is titled separately and one short flows directly into the next, as if from one scene to another. There are no interconnected characters or storylines, and the shorts vary widely in tone and content (each having a different director), with each one depicting an out-of-the-ordinary subway experience. The short that I chose is “Love on the A Train,” since it is the most memorable short out of the 10. I first viewed the larger work when it aired on HBO in 1997, and this is the only short that stayed in my memory.
Every morning, a married man and his wife enter the subway, buying a newspaper and coffee together before taking separate lines (the man takes the A Train of the title). One day, as the man is standing in the aisle of his train, leaning against the support pole while reading his newspaper, a strange woman touches his hand. She slides his hand down the pole and begins to discreetly pleasure herself with it. The man looks over, only to see that the woman is nonchalantly reading the newspaper, as she continues to pleasure herself with his hand. No words are spoken between them. The next day, the same encounter takes place, with the woman boarding the train and hovering over toward the pole by which the man is standing. This time, his hand is already waiting lower on the pole. These daily, wordless encounters between the man and woman continue over a nine month period. One day, the man tries to break the silence with the woman, but she refuses to reply and leaves the train. The next day, they return to their previous “relationship,” with the man content to be silent. Finally, the man realizes the potential cost of these encounters to his marriage, and decides to abandon the A Train for an alternate route (the F Train). Months later, as the man is walking with his wife into the station, he crosses paths with the woman once again. They exchange knowing looks, and then continue on their separate ways.
One of the most effective things the short does is compress a period of more than a year into an eight-minute format, showing the evolution of these characters over time in a way that is believable and concise. In particular, we are shown the progression of the man and wife’s marriage as this side “affair” is taking place. This progression is shown through a series of “snapshots,” whereby we see the man and his wife as they interact before the train arrives on four different occasions. On the first occasion, we see the man and his wife with happy expressions, engaged with one another in dialogue; the wife puts her arm around the man, and they kiss before parting. This is on the day the man’s first encounter with the strange woman will take place. On the second occasion (the next day), we see the same medium close-up shot of the man and his wife through a kiosk window, but this time, the man is shown looking at his watch, preoccuppied; his wife talks to him, but he is oblivious, only interested in making the train in time for his next encounter with the woman. On the third occasion, which happens months deep into the encounters, the man and his wife stand with distance and silence between them, a sorrowful expression on the wife’s face; they do not even touch as they part ways. The fourth and final time we see the man and his wife, which occurs after the man has abandoned the A train and its extra-marital encounters, the wife is now noticeably pregnant; the couple is once more physically close and engaged in lively conversation, smiling as they talk. We thus experience the complete narrative arc of the couple within what amounts to a few carefully-selected shots. In terms of the man’s illicit train encounters, a similar passage of time is depicted through a series of long shots that dissolve into one another, showing the man and woman by the pole on various days and in various outfits, appearing as they might appear to unsuspecting passengers on the train.
On a basic level, the film is engaging for its intriguing narrative setup. The premise of these wordless encounters taking place between the man and woman on the train is enticing, and the fact that the man is married adds an element of suspense. In technical terms, these wordless encounters are depicted in part through suggestive close-up. We often start with a close-up of the man’s hand as it grips the support pole (his wedding band looming large upon his hand), then see the woman’s hand enter the frame, touching his hand on the pole and guiding it downward. We also often see the woman’s face, with its expression of ecstacy, in close-up. Much of the narrative relies on the body language of these two actors (Mike McGlone and Rosie Perez) – meaning much of the story relies on what is “shown.” But the narrative also has an element of “telling,” in its engaging use of a voiceover track. It is the only short in the collection to attempt such a feat. We hear the man narrate the story retrospectively in the voiceover track. His observations provide exposition that helps condense the narrative, in addition to adding humorous insight. For instance, when the woman refuses the man’s attempt to verbally communicate, exiting the train, he calls it “our first fight.” He also comments on the unspoken rules of the encounters: “Expressions of greeting and farewell were unthinkable – not even a shared glance or smile.” The short therefore combines “showing” and “telling” in a seamless and entertaining way.
In terms of how this short fits into the larger work, there are several other tales of “romance” in the larger work. For instance, in one of the shorts, a couple has an argument on the train, and the girlfriend boards another train car, only to reconcile with her boyfriend at the end. In another short, a boy who has just been dumped by his girlfriend encounters a mysterious older woman who begins to make out with him. But the latter shorts, like many of the other shorts in this collection, are anecdotal and vignette-like, with little ultimately at stake in their respective narratives. “Love on the A Train,” however, has a strong premise (a wordless carnal relationship between two strangers), shows an evolution of several characters over a pronounced narrative timespan, and contains a complete, self-contained narrative arc. It takes risks with the fullness of the story it ventures to tell and the manner in which it “shows” as well as “tells” it, and ultimately stays in the memory as a result.
Addendum to post: SUBWAY STORIES is what I would consider a "textbook" omnibus, in the sense that each short is self-contained in terms of characters and plot, and the collection is arranged around a unitizing theme (the N.Y. subway).