The BQE: Sufjan Stevens's Ode to a Freeway
Sufjan Stevens is no stranger to the odd, ambitious musical project. His best known: a plan, launched with his 2003 album Michigan, to release one full-length record for each of America's 50 states. So far, he's completed just two (the other being 2005's outstanding Illinois). With The BQE, Stevens sets his sights on a more manageable geographical swath—New York City's Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—although he tackles it in his usual grand, symphonic style.
Commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The BQE debuted in 2007 as a multimedia performance piece featuring three side-by-side 16 mm film projections, a live orchestral score, and Hula-hooping dancers. This film doesn't document that performance but instead presents its tripartite film projection and accompanying score, which were shot and composed by Stevens.
The films consist of vintage-looking 8 mm and 16 mm footage shot on and around the BQE, traffic and architecture intercut with scenes of three colorfully uniformed, Hula-hooping muses (the "hooper heroes") gyrating their rings by the roadside. An unsubtle cut from hoopers to some tires indicates that these are goddesses of the perpetual motion of the highway system, patrons of all those wheels stuck spinning in traffic.
The three-panel format creates some engrossing visual effects. A sequence of synchronized, mirror-image shots casts the flow of cars as a kind of choreography set to Stevens's flighty woodwinds or honking brass, with traffic diverging and converging at the borders between the frames. Bridges double-joint and reconnect, forming artificially elongated landscapes; streets go on too long; nonsensical eddies and islands of traffic form; ships glide smoothly into each other along the waterfront and then disappear. Three Hula-hoopers spinning at different speeds slowly synch up for two or three twirls before falling back out of time.
There are other striking moments as the film passes into night: a sequence of sped-up, dashboard-shot night-driving footage set to an electronic rhythm track incongruous with rest of the score; lit-up Hula-hoops against footage of a carnival shot from a Ferris wheel; rivers of headlight trails; a crescendo of fireworks. One muse's smile keeps flaring up, unexpectedly bright.
As the credits roll, we see the BQE abandoned but for some bicyclists, lending only the slightest hint of urban-planning critique to an otherwise lyrical but seemingly neutral ode to an American freeway.