“As a machine of vision and in instrument for conquering space and time, the train is a mechanical double for the cinema” Lynne Kirby
‘Marx says that revolutions are ‘the locomotives of world history’ Things are entirely different. Perhaps revolutions are the reaching of humanity traveling in this train for the emergency brake.’Walter BenjaminIt is difficult to divest ourselves of the feeling, while watch James Benning’s 2007 film RR, that we are bearing witness to the death of a medium. The film, the author’s last shot to be shot on 16mm stock, makes a fitting swansong to the medium’s history and should this history ever need a full stop this would probably suffice. The train was the first reflexive tool for the cinema, providing a means by which it could marvel at the miracle of its own processes and stare aghast at a spectacle of mechanised movement. Wolfgang Schivelbsuch describes how, for early travellers, the world came to be seen “through the apparatus” of the train (1986: 57), the train representing a dramatic shift in spatial and temporal understanding. Lynne Kirby expands further - “the phenomenon of railway travel made deception easier…in part through high-speed, physical displacement” (1997 : 25), a disorientation that would later be extended within the processes of the cinema “where it translates into a visual questioning of what is true and false”. The perceptual correlations between train and film are contained most obviously in their twin ability to mechanically combine movement and stillness, yet their histories are more deeply connected than we might first imagine. Benning’s film acknowledges the scope of this shared history by returning us to the cinema’s starting point, its ‘primal scene’, inviting us to fill in the gaps of the history that has existed between this scene and our current vantage point.
The dramatic impact of the shift in perceptual understanding that occurred with the introduction of film is typically contained in shorthand within the unreliable image of the cinema’s first spectators. These earliest audiences, when met with the image of an approaching train in the Lumieres’ L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat (1895), allegedly found themselves unable to distinguish clearly between the reality of what was appearing on screen and their own everyday perceptual reality. Audiences became so struck by this perceptual disruption that they allegedly ran screaming from the room or cowered under their seats in terror. While Tom Gunning and others have rightly questioned the accuracy of these early accounts, the image remains as a powerful and persuasive myth of the cinema’s becoming. In spite of early accounts of panic and fear such as these, the reality illusions of the cinema would quickly become accepted and normalised, so much so that by as early 1901 the naiveté of early audiences was being self-reflexively mocked through the cinema’s own texts. RW Paul’s The Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901) re-enacts this early scene just a few short years later and in this film the earlier Lumiere film becomes a film within the film. Here a ‘rube’ replays the reactions of those initial spectators, becoming visibly panicked when faced with the cinematic image of an oncoming train, much to the amusement of the now far more sophisticated audiences, demonstrating a rapidly widening gap in audience expectations and demands.
Benning’s film which is essentially a series of static shots of trains passing a camera invites us to also examine our own spectatorial experience as it differs from those first cinemagoers, and to contemplate the gap that has developed over the interceding century. Contained also within the film however are hidden truths about the domestication of a medium. Through it we can begin to understand how the train was transformed through the cinema, from a powerful signifier of the revolutionary potential of the medium to the nostalgic signifier of a disappearing past. Looking back we also realise that the cinema had historicised its own processes in a similar fashion, long before it was necessary to do so. In a truly film appropriate temporal reconfiguration the medium had prefigured its own demise.
Lynne Kirby describes the train as a ‘protocinematic phenomenon’, a precursor to the cinema, rehearsing an ‘annihilation of time and space’ that would only be made complete with the arrival of film. With the cinema anything seemed possible, where the transport revolution of the 19th century had brought distant locations ever closer, the cinema could, it seemed, be anywhere at the blink of an eye, or within 1/24 of a second. For the train’s first passengers, it was impossible to divest themselves entirely of the potential for unfathomable catastrophe which the train journey seemed to contain. We see in initial reactions to the train, a set of fears and anxieties played out no less dramatic than those experienced by the cinema’s first spectators. In spite of this the train would be rapidly assimilated and incorporated within the fabric of modern everyday existence. An essential aspect of this process was the train’s domestication and Wolfgang Schivelbusch notes how as the bumps and bangs of train travel were ‘upholstered’ and cushioned, the private space of the Victorian home was recreated within the public space of the train, creating an illusion of safety. With the train all “outward perceptions of danger” were reduced, creating an “artificial environment which people become used to as second nature” (1986: 162). The correlation then between train and film in this regard is obvious as the modern film industry quickly settles on a form of realism which prioritises invisibility of form and largely rejects the revolutionary potential of the medium suggested so strongly in the period of its initial becoming.
When we look closely at the development of the train on film this becomes clearer still as we witness the train being transformed from a powerful reflection of the revolutionary potential of the medium to the nostalgic signifier of a disappearing and idealised past. The domestication of the filmic medium and its settling, in commercial terms as least, upon a narrative tradition which favours invisibility of form will by as early as the 1920s necessitate the rise of an alternative avant garde tradition, a tradition from which Benning springs. The train would retain its interest for filmmakers working within this tradition and would be a constantly recurring motif throughout its history, particularly for those filmmakers like Benning with an overt interest in the medium specificity of film.
Benning’s films, particularly his more recent ones, have often been referred to as ‘landscape films’, he also trained as a mathematician and is often described as a structuralist and in RR we get a little of both. Where in previous films, like 13 Lakes and 10 Skies, the structures were defined by the medium itself, essentially static shots of landscapes and skies, the duration of each shot was defined by the length of a single reel of 16mm film.
In RR however, the title of which is an abbreviation of railroad, the power of the filmic machine is ceded to the power of the on-screen machine. Here each shot begins when a train enters the frame, or a beat before, and only ends when the train has finally left the frame, or a beat after. As in earlier films like Landscape Suicide Benning continues to be preoccupied with the changing shape of the American landscape and here he examines the ways in which it has been shaped by the train and framed through the cinema. Benning uses songs, recorded speeches and other non-diegetic sounds sparingly throughout the film, adding some context here and there and deepening the film’s rhetorical intent. For the most part however these interventions are largely irrelevant as they generally reiterate meanings already present within the image, images that are at their best when simply accompanied by the location sound recorded by Benning. As Mark Peranson notes in his review in Cinema scope “RR is filmmaking at its most elemental, and most accomplished. And, typical of Benning’s work, it’s nowhere near as simple as it initially seems.”
Kilruddery Film Festival Dircetor
An interview with Benning