Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Q. Why have you focused so much on the metro?

A. For me it’s something like a test tube of humanity. It’s a little bit of a controlled environment. Every metro system is different but in some way they’re all the same. I suppose you could also say the same of the road transport system of a city, but there’s less distraction from around of what you see and hear. The quality of sound inside of the metro is significant for there is a natural reverberation as there is inside of a cathedral. But there’s other reasons. Everything in my work I can somehow trace back to childhood influences and I always had a fascination with trains and patterns of train systems. When I was a child I used to draw them and I made some of them first with wooden trains and then electric trains, which is a funny thing because in California, there are not a lot of trains anymore. As for the metro, there was none at all when I grew up. I never experienced one until I went to New York when I was eighteen. So, there’s many different reasons that I found this interesting, but it also just happened as almost an accident. It also just became a fascination. Like the Cubists painted guitars and journals, I chose metros

Q. In your film you show many different countries. Is it also a metaphor for travel?

A. It’s a metaphor for the dialectic of change and stability. I’m thinking of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddartha,” which is about a man sitting by a river who sees how everything changes but remains the same. There’s something similar about transport that you’re always moving and I think a lot about whether one is finding something new and different or finding the same thing, whether one is moving or staying in the same place. As we travel through culture, through civilization, we find the differences of language and of certain patterns of behavior and we find the same similarities amongst all people. It’s a cliche to say that we are all one, but when you see what goes on in this world as has been occurring in Yugoslavia, it’s just extraoarindary that human beings still cannot co-exist merely because they have different cultural origins, languages etc. When you see through as much experience as I now have from travel and having lived in different countries, you realize that people are people. We basically share the same problems everywhere. In our basic core of life we deal with the same issues. When you break everything down to that, I think that it’s really important to recognize and retain our identities but without building new walls.

The global village and the immediacy of communication is now a threat to many people, as is the fear of us all becoming the same, particularly caused by the influence of multinational corporations.

I personally did not choose to live in a foreign country in order to eat at Burger King. Yet, I find that all cultures have something to learn from others while we also share many fundamental similarities as humans and this is one thing that I wish for my film to convey.

McDonalds or Microsoft?

Q. So are you saying that the metro for you is a place of experiencing both differences and similarities?”

A. Well, this is the point I’m making. It’s like everybody has a different pattern on their fingertip, what we call fingerprints. Every one is different but they all look basically the same. These are the subtleties. When you don’t know a language it just sounds like a melody. It becomes more and more noticeable as you become exposed to it. The more you know about language, the more you have been exposed to different languages, the more languages you yourself know, the more you can distinguish people and someone’s cultural identity. So, this also is a type of focus, this dialectic between similarity and difference.

Also, talking about differences and similarities, throughout the film I am exploring universal languages, such as metro maps. At the end of “Antenna Man” there is a cartoon-like animation based on a still photo of Antenna Man playing the saxophone. He’s seen performing on the stage of the Paris opera house with these little neon-like images of various metro maps that are dancing like musical notes. Music, of course, is another universally understood language yet with distinctive cultural origins and several metro systems have become the perfect environment to become exposed to this on a daily basis.

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