projection 39

The Train, The Cinema 

Curated and introduced by Daniel Fitzpatrick

6.30pm / Wednesday 19

Irish Film Institute - 6 Eustace Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 
All 16mm prints supplied by LightCone Paris





With Wind & White Cloud, Donal o'Ceilleachair, 2006, 3 mins


Notes on The Train, The Cinema, an Experimental Film Club screening at the IFI

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. This 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 us with a suitable distance for our more removed relationship to the screen, to the moving-image, and to the naiveté of those audiences. Re-watching this film now we are unlikely to experience these same hysterical reactions, less likely to confuse an 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 instead 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."

Gorky’s quote captures a lot of the early anxieties that existed in relation to the cinema. Often considered a den of iniquity the cinema was initially considered only to appeal to the basest of instincts, it blurred class distinctions, it catered to an unedecated and unrefined crowd and its darkened rooms seemed to invite and suggest all kinds of illicit behaviour. The cinema was dangerous, it suggested a real and considerable threat to civil society and to the psyches of those that experienced it. Early accounts of the cinema’s impact were equal in their hysteria to those that sprung up around the Lumiere’s ‘Arrival’ film, describing a profound and disruptive impact these experiences were likely to have on an impressionable, corruptible populace. In spite of the questionable veracity of these accounts the distance between our current relationship with the screen and the experiences of early audiences would seem all too clear. In these early reports the cinema appeared ‘suddenly’ at the turn of the 20th Century as a potentially revolutionary force, an untameable machine and for some time to come this would remain as both the promise and the threat of cinema.

For the cinema to thrive this perceived threat and potential would have to be reduced, diminished, domesticated. For its more mainstream iterations, some of these rougher edges, and for some much of its potential, would be reduced and managed. This cinema experience began to strive for invisibility, attempting to create a closed, secure world which its audiences could inhabit safely. Any techniques that disrupted this immersive illusion, that reminded audiences that they were watching a film, were reduced and made ‘invisible’ in favour of a narrative form which audiences could comfortably lose themselves in for a set period of time. This was a cinematic impression of reality that carefully mirrored our own perceptions of reality and with these changes in place the cinema could become a more pervasive force. It became inescapable and it would help shape how the twentieth century was experienced. This was of course however only one cinema, only one potential direction taken and an avant-garde also emerged as a possible corrective to this more general tendency and a reminder of some of cinema’s still uninhabited possibilities.

The Lumieres had succinctly grasped many of the key potentialities of the moving-image at the moment when they placed their camera to the right of an approaching train in the small French town of La Ciotat. Their framing of this machine captured the breath of cinema’s depth, and exploited a variety of exciting possibilities for foreground/background juxtaposition. Audiences immediately recognised themselves in the passengers they saw on the platform and alighting from the train. More than this however the cinema in its looking at a train had found a way, at this early stage, to look at itself. The train had become the perfect on screen stand-in for the cinema and its processes, mechanical and otherwise, making visible what was often felt as an invisible presence. The train could now serve as a reflexive device for the cinema, a means for reflective self-examination. The cinema then, and throughout its varied histories, would return to this scene repeatedly-    

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 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 should instead be thought of a plurality and it is full of divergent paths and roads not taken, its progress was never predetermined. All of its histories sit on top of each other and intersect in 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 some of 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, was also 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, only here everything is visible, the scratches, pops and stabs of celluloid, even the ‘track’ along the side of the celluloid strip, an aspect of the film machine designed to only ever be heard and not seen. Eventually, after various manufactured collisions, the film jumps to a close-up and suddenly from the film (the medium) and the train (the machine) 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 no longer watch the train we are the train, we internalise its processes. Chomette described it as a ‘pure cinema’, not images for images sake and a variety of techniques and operations are on display here, double exposure, negative printing, accelerated speeds, resulting in a ‘cinema of sensation’, freed from any of 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 processes to disrupt and undermine any normative sense of space and time we might still retain. Donal O'Ceilleachair’s ‘single-frame’ film returns us to Oscar Fischinger’s ‘city symphony’ films collapsing 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 what are 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 can remain central to the moving-image culture of the twentieth century remains to be seen. There are also several other obsolescences on display here, most visibly that of 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, in fact it was something far more remarkable. These early audiences remained fully aware that what they were watching was ‘cinema’, early screenings often 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, as hard as it may be for us to now grasp this was in and of itself enough and it is this distance that we might now sharpen ourselves to in comparing ourselves to those early audiences, to think otherwise would present us as the only naïve participants within this exchange. – Daniel Fitzpatrick