The Train, The Cinema
Curated and introduced by Daniel Fitzpatrick
6.30pm / Wednesday 19 March
Irish Film Institute - 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin
All 16mm prints supplied by LightCone Paris
PLAYS OF REFLECTIONS AND SPEED, HENRI CHOMETTE, 1923–5, 6 MINS;
THE WONDER RING, STAN BRAKHAGE, 1955, 4 MINS;
DISORIENT EXPRESS, KEN JACOBS, 1996, 30 MINS;
L’ARRIVÉE, PETER TSCHERKASSKY, 1998, 3 MINS;
With Wind & White Cloud, Donal o'Ceilleachair, 2006, 3 mins
WRONG MOVES, PIP CHODOROV, 2006, 12 MINS.
Notes on The Train, The Cinema-
In a recent exchange between experimental filmmakers Rouzbeh Rashidi and Maximilian LeCain, Le Cain outlined the degree to which he now feels out of sync with a 21st Century moving image culture. Le Cain continued to be engaged instead with what he describes as a “very 19th century sense” of image culture; of the train approaching the station and the original sensation of “cinema as miracle”. Le Cain is referencing here the Lumiere’s film ‘Train Arriving at La Ciotat” one of the most well known, and frequently revisited scenes in cinema history. Many point to this as the key formative moment for the cinema, what Tom Gunning refers to as its ‘primal myth’, alluding not just to the film itself but to the frequently-cited image described in relation to early audiences and their extreme reactions to the film. An image of audience members who became so excited by the image of this approaching train that they either hid under their chairs or ran screaming from the room has by now become all too familiar. It provides a with a suitable distance for our more removed relationship to the screen, to the moving-image, and to the naiveté of those early audiences. Re-watching this film now we are unlikely to experience these same hysterical reactions, less likely to confuse any onscreen reality with our own everyday perpetual reality. This distance between our current relationship with the screen, and with cinema and the moving image, and the image of those first audiences experiencing a mechanised moving-image for the first time is striking, but, as is too often the case, there may be more to it than we think.
Gunning outlines that scene as the first of many myths that would spring up around the cinema throughout its history. As he acknowledges it is a scene that may never have actually even taken place, at least not in the manner it is typically described. Early accounts are hard to verify and the film is not believed to have appeared among the Lumiere’s very first screenings, ‘Workers Leaving The Factory’ is the film more typically cited as the first. As Gunning acknowledges however this has done little to reduce the power or the longevity of this mythic image, an image that gets to the heart of many of cinema’s potentials and possibilities. In a famous essay entitled The Kingdom of Shadows Maxim Gorky offered his own impressions of the scene-
"Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight at you—watch out! It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice."
For the cinema to thrive this threat and potential might have to be reduced and diminished. For its more mainstream iterations, some of its rough edges, and for some much of its potential, would have to be reduced and managed. The cinema experience began to strive for invisibility, attempting to create a closed, secure world which its audiences could safely inhabit. Any techniques that disrupted this immersive illusion, that reminded audiences that they were watching a film were reduced, made ‘invisible’, favouring instead a narrative form which audiences could lose themselves in for a set period of time, this was an impression of reality that carefully mirrored our own perceptions of reality. With these changes in place the cinema could become a more pervasive force, inescapable, it would help shape how the twentieth century was experienced. This was of course only one cinema, one potential direction and the avant-garde also emerged here as a corrective to this general tendency, a reminder of some of cinema’s uninhabited possibilities.
Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth
Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive
Peter Tscherkassky’s L’Arivee
The perceptual experience of train travel in the 19th Century offered several other parallels to the cinema experience, an all too similar uncanny combining of movement and stillness that mirrored the mechanics of film. A steady rhythmic flickering of objects passing too close to a window that stood in for the flicker of the screen, especially in those early days. An invisible turning of cogs and wheels that mirrored the cinema’s own, rarely visible, cogs and wheels and the views from a train, which upon entering a tunnel for example could suddenly shift from window to mirror, providing another essential analogy for on the one hand cinema’s immersive/realist capacity and the reflexive/reflective functions favoured by an emergent avant-garde.
Henri Chomette Jeux des Reflets et de la Vitesse
Cinema history should never be conceived of as a straight line, it is instead full of divergent paths and roads not taken, its progress never predetermined. All of these various histories sat on top of each other and intersected in often unexpected and surprising ways, and the cinema’s forgotten pathways are frequently rediscovered and unearthed. The train provided the cinema with a subject and a means through which it could explore these divergent possibilities and the films included in this programme present a number of potentialities in this regard- Stan Brakhage’s Wonder Ring, a film full of reflective surfaces which subtly warp and alter our perception, became an important document of impending obsolescence, recording a path through the city by a Third Avenue elevated train that was soon to be destroyed. Tscherkassky’s ‘found-footage’ film L’Arivee returns us directly to the Lumiere’s origin point, but here everything is visible, the scratches, pops and stabs of celluloid, even the ‘track’ along the side of the celluloid strip, an aspect designed to be heard but never seen. Eventually, after various manufactured collisions, it jumps to a close-up and from the film (the medium) and the train emerges Catherine Deneuve (‘the star’). Henri Chommette’s Jeux des Reflets et de la Vitesse (‘Games of Reflection and of Speed’) also plays with reflective surfaces and superimposition, only here we are placed in the subjective position of the train, just as we were in the early ‘phantom ride’ films, we don’t watch the train we are the train. Chomette described this as a ‘pure cinema’, not images for images sake. A variety of techniques and operations are on display here, double exposure, negative printing, accelerated speeds, all of which result in a ‘cinema of sensation’, freed from the bounds of representation. Ken Jacobs takes us on a similar journey working with a 1906 film and using an optical printer and split screen to disrupt and undermine any normative sense of space and time we still might have. Donal O'Ceilleachair’s ‘single-frame’ film returns us to Oscar Fischinger’s and collapses a journey from Istanbul to Berlin, fourteen days, down to three breath-taking minutes. Finally Pip Chodorov with Faux Movements creates a sense of motion, of moving through space through often unexpected means, yet another ‘phantom ride’.
|Stan Brakhage The Wonder Ring|
This programme of films is the third to consider the train, others included James Benning’s farewell to the filmic medium RR and Sarah Turner’s attempt to update the train film for the digital age Perestroika. As Maximilian Le Cain’s comments acknowledge the train seemed to tie the cinema to a set of concerns inherited from the 19th Century. The degree to which these concerns will remain central to the moving-image culture of the twentieth century remains to be seem. There are several other obsolescences on display here, most visibly the medium itself. The correlations between train and film outlined in these films and elsewhere will not necessarily continue into an age dominated by the digital image. In Tom Gunning’s essay on that early Lumiere screening of a train’s ‘Arrival’ he reminds that early audiences were likely far more aware of what they were experiencing than we care to admit. These audiences were not astounded and astonished by the train that was apparently about to burst through the wall and tear them asunder, it was something far more remarkable. These early audiences remained fully aware that they were watching ‘cinema’, early screenings often even began with a still projected photographic image, an image which slowly burst into life, introducing moving-image, movement and animation, were there had previously only been stasis. It was all the possibilities that this image/these images contained that filled these audiences with awe and wonder, this in and of itself was more than enough and this is the distance that we might now be sensitive to as we compare ourselves to those early audiences, to think otherwise would only present us as the naïve participants in this exchange.