Friday, 4 May 2012

On Railways and the Movies

The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970) was a film I ardently watched countless times on television as a child, and, I have to confess, I have seen and loved it countless times since. I had certainly seen it long before I saw  L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat (Lumière Bros., 1895). I noticed the resemblance between the two films only when watching Jeffries' film again recently. But when I explored this, I was struck by the extent of their resonance, and by the uncanniness of the later film's pastiche of the earlier one: Bernard Cribbins' Perks revivifies, down to his moustache, the La Ciotat station porter; an identical luggage trolley lurks in the background; the beshawled woman looks like she stepped off the earlier train, except that she's in Technicolor.
     I began to figure, to fantasize, that the uncanniness of The Railway Children's penultimate sequence was not only set off by its graphic and musical evocation of the uncertainty of young Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) about quite why she was standing by the rail track, but also by its palpable haunting by the Lumière's originary scene, with its powerful, ghostly, urtext of a, much more bustling, railway platform just after the arrival of cinema.
 For me, of course, it will also always be the other way round: that The Railway Children, and this film's own afterwardsness, haunt L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare...
[From the introduction to "Uncanny Arrival at a Railway Station" by Catherine Grant

In the 'folklore’ of cinema history there is one anecdote which seems to be perennially fascinating to layman and historian alike. It might be summarised as follows: an audience in the early days of the cinema is seated in a hall when a film of an approaching train is projected on the screen. The spectators are anxious, fearful -    some of them even panic and run.
     This fearful or panicky reaction has been called 'the train effect’. It is such a common anecdote, cited by so many writers both at the time and later, that it has also been called `the founding myth of cinema’ or the cinema’s 'myth of origin. [Stephen Bottomore, 'The Panicking Audience?: early cinema and the "train effect’", Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1999

Rather than mistaking the image for reality, the spectator is astonished by its transformation through the new illusion of projected motion. Far from credulity, it is the incredible nature of the illusion that renders the viewer speechless. What is displayed before the audience is less the impending speed of the train than the force of the cinematic apparatus. [Tom Gunning, ‘An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator [1989]’, in Linda Williams, ed. (1994) Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. 114–133.]

Cinema as we know it, as an institution, as an entertainment based on the mass spectatorship of projected moving images, was born in '95, in the Golden Age of railway travel. As the prehistory and beginnings of cinema strongly suggest, film finds an apt metaphor in railroad. The train can be seen as providing the prototypical experience of looking at a framed, moving image, and as the mechanical double of the cinematic apparatus. Both are means of transporting a passenger to a totally different place, both are highly charged vehicles of narrative events, stories, intersections of strangers, both are based on a fundamental paradox: simultaneous motion and stillness. These are two great machines of vision that give rise to similar modes of perception, and are geared to shaping the leisure time of a mass society. [Lynne Kirby, 'Male Hysteria and Early Cinema', originally in Camera Obscura May 1988 6(2 17)]

Following on from Wolfgang Schivelbusch's now seminal account of the nineteenth-century railroad and the institution of "panoramic perception" as being emblematic of modernity, critics like Lynne Kirby and Mary Ann Doane have already explored the historic connections between film and the train's profound re-configuration of vision, with its mechanical separation of the viewer's body from the actual physical space of a 'virtual' 'perception. [Saige Walton, '[Review of] Jeffrey Ruoff (ed), Virtual voyages: Cinema and travel. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006', Screening the Past, 20, 2006]

Above, Film Studies For Free gifts to you another of its author's experiments with real-time video comparison (also a further exploration of cinematic pastiche).

This tiny videographic donation accompanies the links, below, to Omar Ahmed's truly wonderful, much more comprehensive and informative video essay series on trains in Indian cinema.

And below those links are others to further, openly accessible online scholarship that touches on the topic of railways -- a very cinematic apparatus indeed -- in the movies.

Bon voyage!

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