By David Finkelstein | May 20, 2013

“Travel Dream” and its companion piece “Dream Travel” are a pair of beautiful, compelling video shorts by Van McElwee. These films both utilize travel footage that McElwee shot in the 1990s, but they are not simple travelogues, recording exotic locales. Rather, McElwee has used sophisticated artistry to create a pair of poetic meditations on the notion of travel, and the part that it plays in our desires and memories.

“Travel Dream” begins with an image of a wooded landscape rushing by, seen from the window of a train, but we also see the reflection of a hand in the window. It is as if the hand is longing to touch the passing landscape, or even to touch the elusive experience of “travel” itself. Much of the footage in “Travel Dream” is of an unspecified Asian country, but it has been altered with video effects to create abstract compositions of textured color which look a bit like batiks, crayon rubbings, or cubist paintings. Fragments of color sparkle on a black background, like bits of colored glass. It is as if you are half asleep and trying to recall images from a long ago voyage, but all you can remember are fragments. Occasionally, these images become startlingly clear for a moment, and we see shots of crowds along a riverbank, or of carved gongs in a temple. The effect is very much the way that crystal clear images can suddenly erupt from your indistinct visual memories. The sound collage mixes electronica with location sounds from the original footage, again as if one is slipping between dreams and memories.

The companion piece, “Dream Travel” is likewise an intricate montage of travel footage which looks like it might be from Java, India, and Italy. Through most of the film, at least three or four of these images are matted together in intricately colored compositions. The soundtrack, too, blends multiple layers of processed sounds: temple bells, crowd sounds, and music.

“Dream Travel” opens with a dramatic shot into the dark mouth of a cave, followed by a reverse shot from inside the cave, looking out through the hole into the light outside. It’s a very basic image of a window, a way of looking from one world into another, which is perhaps the essential experience of travel. This visual motif of a window, door, or hole is carried in one way or another through almost every shot in the video, where circles or openings are almost always an element in the visual composition. The window motif is an evocative symbol of the ambiguity inherent in the experience of travel, since a window can be used both for looking out and for looking in. When an American visits an exotic, unknown place, obviously he is looking through a window at the unfamiliar world. But the people he meets are also looking at the American reality by looking at him.

One essential part of the experience of travel is the mental overlapping of what you see with what you already know. The exotic is understood by the ways in which is it different from or similar to the familiar, usually both at once. Our knowledge of the familiar overlaps what we see on our travels. This process of overlapping is beautifully visualized in the video, with its constantly overlapping layers of imagery. We see an escalator superimposed over a waterfall, an institutional “drop ceiling” juxtaposed over an ornate Opera House ceiling, and the dome of a jellyfish swimming over the interior dome of a building.

The last third or so of the piece is deliriously ecstatic, mostly because of the kinetic quality of the shots, as the camera slides over flying kites, symphonic rotating domes, and bizarre sea serpents. It is thrilling to roll along in this visual flight. “Travel Dream” and “Dream Travel” not only will take you on a trip, they illuminate the enduring appeal of wanderlust.

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