Director: Duro Howard Jr.
Writer: Brad Pike
Cast: Brad Pike
Running time: 6mins
When a submission comes in to IFL emblazoned with award medallions from a host of indy film festivals, your reviewer’s critical antennae tend to sway and bristle. Hey, maybe our colleagues in the indy film world have missed something? Surely, there must be areas where we can help the filmmakers to develop their skills? I have to report that any qualms I may have had disappeared after I had watched Experience the World – The Train: the film is a marvellous piece of work, a wonderfully funny and poignant meditation on how we are made to live our lives in 2022.
ETW is a collaboration between Duro Howard, as animator, and Brad Pike, a writer. The film shows a journey on the Chicago subway taken by Pike who narrates an account of what happens – spliced together with an interior monologue. Pike also takes the voice of the various characters encountered, as well as voicing the robotic statements made by the subway PA system.
The journey is hell – in two parts. The first is quotidian; Howard and Pike depict a trip where all your worst experiences of riding the subway are seamlessly woven into just under three minutes of action. The only horror, I, myself, have yet to encounter is the pissing baby being held aloft by its mother. In the measured words of the narrator, the baby pisses omni-directionally. The second, when the narrator changes trains, is a fantastic dystopian nightmare lasting again around three minutes. They board not a train, but a being that has come through a rip in space from a place called the cancerverse. Naturally enough, each compartment of the train is a stomach to digest its passengers. Both sequences are extraordinarily well-worked.
According to the production notes, Howard has been in the animation industry for ten years, but this is his first film as director. On the evidence of ETW, he has a gift for animation and storytelling. Howard eschews the digital pyrotechnics, which are so seductively available nowadays, for an old retro style reminiscent of The Simpsons or South Park; and this helps them to provide depth to their characters – in particular that of the Narrator – so that we really do feel their pain.
Another technique used that is simple but so effective is when the film depicts crowd scenes. The crowd is coloured in variations of greys and blues while the Narrator is in full colour. Watch out for what appears to be the visage of a lone horse amidst the sea of human faces as the doors of the train open. Some of the detailing is spot on – at one of the train stops, as the doors open, you will catch a glimpse of a large, belligerent rat making its way across the bottom of the frame.
My favourite individual sequences of animation came in the final nightmare part of the movie. Here, Howard shows us the train door turning into a mouth with jagged teeth and, exquisitely, an Evian bottle filled with piss (there’s a running theme here) rolling around the floor of the train carriage – an image which will make any regular train passengers in the audience shudder.
In the screenplay, Pike gives a beautifully nuanced take on a well-used trope – the pilgrim, or reasonable Everyperson making their way through a distinctly unreasonable world. The Narrator is unfailingly rational and polite when confronted with the natural and, later, supernatural horrors unfolding around them. We identify with them – they are you or me. The Narrator uses a slightly literary diction which works a treat – he hopes that he will get home in a timely fashion. Pike is aided in the delivery by possessing a truly gentle mellifluous speaking style which conveys innocence yet with a hint of irony.
The music soundtrack which plays throughout the film is by Ben Kinsinger and it is superb. Kinsinger gives us a keyboard setting of vacuous, soothing harmonies which interplay well with the reassurance of the subway announcements as the Narrator descends into abject terror. The music would not be out of place in one of those ghastly corporate training films that promote Wellbeing and Positive Thinking. Intriguingly, the ambience of the music stays the same throughout the movie – the filmmakers resist the temptation to use the score as a signpost to the audience that we are moving from the natural to the supernatural. A good call – as the apocalypse unfolds, when the bomb finally drops – we all kind of know that the background muzak will continue playing up to the end of times.
The film resonates and certain images stay with the viewer, welcome or otherwise. Even the recurring piss gags. For me, though, the final scene in particular kept coming back to mind. Urine, once again, features. I will not go into details and be a spoiler and lessen the impact of the scene for future audiences. However, I would be interested to know the filmmakers’ intention as I get the impression that they may be offering us a parody of the sacrament at the heart of Christian worship – if this is the case, the scene is an outrageous and provocative piece of cinema. Or, conversely, it might just be Good Fun.
Catch the movie – it will be part of IFL’s 2022 Halloween Horror Showcase, this October – and have a think about it.
ETW is right up there – this is seriously good cinema. I find it astonishing that the movie is Howard’s first attempt at filmmaking. The production notes do not tell us anything about Pike, but I get the impression they are also relatively new to cinema. On the evidence of ETW, the pair work together brilliantly. I do not know whether the collaboration is a one-off, but I would advise IFL readers to keep any eye out for future work from these two formidably talented individuals.