Next Stop, Analysis: The Contradictory Trains of Cinema


Trains can be used for almost anything. Whether you want a captivating chase or a
charming encounter – action, romance, horror, mystery – there’s a train for that. It’s embedded in both English and cinematic
language, with too many iconic scenes and potential puns to ever fit in one video. But while the Lumière brothers’ ‘Arrival
of A Train At La Ciotat Station’ in 1895 has forever entwined the train with film history,
according to Lynne Kirby, the relationship between trains and cinema runs deeper than
just subject and medium: “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” and “both are based on a fundamental paradox: simultaneous
motion and stillness.” This undercurrent of deception and contradiction
mirrors the train’s ability to become the setting of any genre, and to blur the line
between excitement and fear. Even in the context of romance, fantasy and
adventure – trains are often a symbol of peril. [Stand by Me: “Train!”] With the arrival of the industrial revolution,
trains appeared as the ultimate mark of progress and they persist as a symbol of an imagined
future. From their presentation in our more recent
past to current ideas of innovation. But it’s with sarcasm that Charles Dickens
describes how “the yet unfinished and unopened railroad was in progress; and, from the very
core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation
and improvement.” This skepticism
towards new technology isn’t surprising, especially as the rapidly changing technological landscape
remains a source of anxiety today. [Brass Eye: Science – “Technology! Oh my god!] But while the disruption to everyday life,
destruction of homes and not infrequent accidents, did provide reasonable cause for concern,
I think there’s more to the Victorian perspective than just a fear of, or anger towards, trains. [Belleville Rendezvous: dog barking] In The Signal-Man, written in 1866, a year
after Dickens’ own involvement in a train accident, the railway emerges as a location
haunted by a contemporary anxiety. But not necessarily around technology itself,
rather the feeling of being overwhelmed, isolated, that came with it. The feeling of helplessness in the face of
an unstoppable, unrelenting force. The train acting, not only as a double for
progress but, perhaps, death itself. The titular character is troubled by visions
of a mysterious figure, one arm across their face, the other waving. [The Signalman:
“as if to say ‘for god’s sake, clear the way’”] It warns of a danger but one that the signalman
is always powerless to prevent. And, like the unstoppable train, this devastation
is cast with a certain inevitability, as finally the signalman falls prey to dickens fascination
with those drawn towards their own destruction. But the train can also be a place of possibility,
uncertainty. Where catching or missing a train could lead
to entirely different narratives, like the alternate timelines that emerge in the film
Sliding Doors, from 1998, or more dramatically in Mr. Nobody, a film from 2009. Whether it’s a vehicle of fate or chance,
trains frequently serve as a reminder that time waits for no protagonist. Like the repeated interruption of the train
bell in Brief Encounter, from 1945, that indicates these brief encounters at the station must
come to an end. They have a train to catch. The bell also makes an intrusive appearance
in The Signalman, signaling not only the approaching train but also the arrival of the apparition. This isn’t so much a reminder of time running
out, although it always is, but more that there’s no time to rest. That the progression of time, or death, or
progress itself, is relentless. And the phrases repeated throughout the story,
“hello, below there. For god’s sake clear the way”, equally speaks
to the relentless speed of a force that would destroy anything in its path. Criticisms of the speed of modern life have
always found a home in the modern zombie. The running zombie, made famous by films like
28 Days Later in 2002, whose ‘rage’ virus recontextualised the zombie as a figure of
the rapid development of science, technology and just generally how life comes at you fast. And I know I talk about zombies a lot but
this is still about trains I swear. Because the 2016 film Train to Busan effectively
combines this existing zombie metaphor with the train’s association with speed and progress. And to try to move away from zombies – here,
the re-animated dead could equally be made in the image of Frankenstein’s monster. Mary Shelly’s vision of the modern Prometheus
frequently interpreted, although a little reductively, as a warning of technology gone
too far. Our ability to create things that take on
a life of their own. The ‘technology, oh my god’ dilemma which
is now a familiar narrative of science fiction. [Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied
with whether or not they could that they] [didn’t stop to think if they should”] But while the
virus in Train to Busan can be vaguely attributed to some kind of biochemical leak, it’s economy
and business that are more firmly implicated in the outbreak, and emerge as the real villains
of the film. This is a speed that values efficiency and
conformity – but it comes at the cost of humanity and personal identity, and judging by the
film’s emphasis on uniforms, these characters were dehumanised long before they joined the
undead. But, in the very niche genre that is ‘trains
as metaphor for economic and political systems’, no film is more overt than Snowpiercer, from
2013, whose carriages can be seen to enact the class system under capitalism. The poorest at the back, the rich elite at
the front. But this is a train without a destination,
in an endless loop, always pushing forward but never really going anywhere. Rather than progress, this is stillness with
the illusion of movement. Recalling Maxim Gorky’s response to that first
Lumière film, the force of illusion that has haunted film from its very inception:
“It is terrifying to watch but it is the movement of shadows, mere shadows. Curses and ghosts, evil spirits that have
cast whole cities into eternal sleep come to mind and you feel as though Merlin’s
vicious trick had been played out before you.” Snowpiercer’s train creates
an illusion of progress when its occupants are really only trapped in a system that perpetuates
itself. The rapid motion of the train mirrors Jean
Baudrillard’s description of driving as “a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything
to be obliterated.” But if everything
is so quickly forgotten there’s no way to contextualise experience, to put things in
perspective. Train travel, and film for that matter, combines
this transience with a greater sense of helplessness. You start at the beginning, you finish at
the end, and you don’t have much control over what happens in between. Much of our train-based language speaks to
this association – railroaded, tunnel vision, steaming ahead – and I think it’s equally
relevant that chaos is often visualised as a ‘runaway train’. But, as poet Ivor Cutler explains in ‘Get
off the Road’: “To see a road, to sense a road, it has to be empty. Get off the road, climb on to the verge, and
then look back. And you will see the road lying, pressed along
the ground, with no beginning nor end. Like a conjunction. Like ‘and’, only longer. Don’t walk on it. For god’s sake, don’t walk on it! And don’t travel on it. And don’t cross it – unless you’re a chicken.” Cutler’s poem urges us to take time to reflect. To ‘get off the road’ is to pause, to consider
our direction and perhaps, instead, choose a track less travelled. And yet, in another trick of contradiction,
the train can become this space of reflection. Just as Cutler defined the road as a conjunction
– like ‘and’ only longer – the train exists ‘in-between’, connecting a point of origin
with a destination, as if in limbo. In NBC’s The Good Place, the train acts as the literal connection between the realms of the afterlife. And the train takes on a similar role in the
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, traveling further into the spirit world. But it’s the execution of this scene that
defines the space. No dialogue, no action, nothing to advance
to plot. Just three minutes of silence and stillness. In an interview with Roger Ebert, when questioned
on these moments of ‘gratuitous motion’, Miyazaki replied: “We have a word for that in Japanese. It’s called ma. Emptiness. It’s there intentionally.” The train in Spirited Away is a place of contemplation, a liminal space in between
departure and arrival. Rather than invoking the rapid acceleration
that mirrors the spectacular amnesia of modern life, it’s a relief from it. Not just for the characters, but for the audience. Returning to that fundamental paradox of train
travel, simultaneous motion and stillness. 150 years after Dickens’ writing, trains persist,
not only as a symbol of speed and progress, but our unease with it. Its constant motion mirroring a more personal
kind of displacement, and it’s force a constant reminder of that which we have little power
to change. But despite the apparent certainty of this
momentum, the train is equally a subject of mystery and ambiguity – the familiar world
of signs and signals that were once easy to interpret giving way to an unpredictable future. Really the only constant here is contradiction. The parallel tracks of horror and adventure,
connection and separation, speed and stillness. The train has always been a symbol of how
quickly things can change. And these repeated warnings to get off the
road, ‘for god’s sake, clear the way’, are a call to be mindful of where we might be
headed, or what might be headed towards us. Hey everyone, thanks for watching – this
is probably one of the broadest topics I’ve ever covered and I didn’t even touch on
Westerns – but I hope you enjoyed my very selective look at trains and I’ll try to lay off the zombies next year… but I make no promises.

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