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All Stations to Cinema

Tracking the historical relationship between trains and film.

Art by Altay Hagrabet

Since the Lumière Brothers first developed their Cinématographe, cinema and trains have been intrinsically linked. Every advancement and transformation in the medium of film has coincided with new representations of the moving locomotive. And it’s no wonder, as both the film camera and the train can be seen as symbols of innovation and kinetic motion. With each major push of cinema into new unexplored boundaries – from the early actuality films, to the extreme realism of 1970s Hollywood, and even the modern day turn to Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and Digital Cinema – so too do representations of the train and its relation to the human body push into more interesting theoretical terrain.

Emerging in the early 1800s, steam locomotives were able to transport people from rural communities to the big city and move materials back and forth quicker than horse drawn carriages. If it weren’t for the development of steam technologies and the subsequent evolution of the train, it’s hard to imagine the Industrial Revolution looking like it did, or even our modern society developing the way it has. During this epoch of scientific and industrial excess, photographic technologies also began to take the world by storm. One can see the internal cogs of the camera apparatus and the rotating wheels of the train as symbols of the continual movement towards progress that captured the imaginations of inventors during this tumultuous time in history.

It is no wonder, then, that when the Lumière Brothers developed the first motion picture camera to project images to a large audience, they presented an image of a train arriving at a station. The rumour goes that when they brought an audience in for their first public screening of The Arrival of a Train on December 28, 1895 at the Grand Cafe on Paris’ Boulevard de Capuchines, audiences fled the room or screamed in their seats at the sight of the locomotive coming straight for them. While this is not true, as reports of this occurring didn’t crop up till decades later, and audiences were already used to moving images thanks to Edisons’ Kinetoscope, the rumour still stuck, but it does raise an interesting idea. The idea that viewers were so frightened by the footage creates connotations between advancements in film technologies and an intimate connection with the body. Here, the documentary-like realism of a train arriving at a station creates a firm grounding in spatial reality, and the audiences’ proximity to that space and thus their bodily connection with the scene evoked through fear is heightened by these evolutions in film technology.

From there, the attraction of seeing motion pictures grew. One genre of cinema that emerged was the Phantom Ride films. These were shot around the world and depicted the point of view of trains going along tracks in these exotic locations. The phantom ride films allowed the human form to be liberated in a way that other actuality films couldn’t, transporting audiences across the world into new spaces in the blink of an eye, and imbuing us with the industrial power of the locomotive itself through the use of POV shots. The phantom ride films have actually endured to this day, with livestreams on YouTube readily available of train journeys in all sorts of fanciful locations across the globe. In an era of digital streaming, these unending phantom ride streams evoke how the body can be transported to new spaces concurrently while the action is being filmed.

Jumping ahead in time, 1970s Hollywood New Wave cinema brought us works such as The French Connection, where the film presents a nail biting action scene of Gene Hackman’s Jimmy Doyle racing his car through the city streets of New York in order to catch up to an assassin who’s hijacked a train. In order to combat the melodrama and extreme censorship of the previous few decades, Hollywood in the 1970s relied on an enhanced sense of realism that was mostly inspired by International Films, particularly the French films of the 1960s. At the same time, evolutions in filmic technology allowed for more mobile cameras and sound equipment, meaning an end to the more staged sequences of earlier Hollywood and a shift to a more improvisational, cinema verite style of filmmaking. All this culminates in a closer relation between the camera and the moving body, with the camera able to move in conjunction with the rapidity of the train and the violent driving of Doyle, unlike anything seen prior.

The biggest advancement in film in the last few decades, however, has to be CGI. With films such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo being emblematic of the ways in which representations of the train and its relation to the body coincided with evolutions in cinematic technologies. In Spider-Man 2, the penultimate climax to the film sees our hero chasing after an out of control train, flying through the sky and catching up to the increasing speed of this technological behemoth. Through the evolutionary power of digital cinema, the human body is elevated to new heights in synergy with the rapidity and boundless energy of the moving locomotive. The opening sequence to Hugo, features a dissolving of time and space, as the camera descends from an apotheosized God-like perspective over the city of Paris, as it transitions through various seasons and the audience is flown through the legs of a number of train station attendees before resting on an extreme close up of the eponymous character, Hugo’s, eye. The computer generated representation of the train is in direct correlation with the cinema’s ability to now break down traditional representations of the real and the human bodies relation to that.

As we stand on the cusp of a new dawn of cinema, with theatre chains closing down, and streaming services becoming the norm, I advise readers to keep an avid eye out for any new programs or Netflix originals featuring these metallic goliaths of the Industrial Age. Who knows what the train in the age of streaming will be? Or should I say, the age of steaming?

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