Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Moving Pictures

There was a period in the early to mid-1960s when almost every French or Italian director contributed to an anthology film. There was a theme, a sarcastic or snappy tone and an awkward title. Filmmakers mixed unassumingly: young turks and old hacks, the brilliant and the uninspired. So you would have Godard and De Broca sharing a movie. One of the weakest of those movies features one of the strongest segments: Rene Clair's "Marriage," in 1960's Love and the Frenchwoman, one of the film's two interesting episodes, the other being Michel Boisrond's attempt at being the French Bergman, "Virginity."

Boisrond's an interesting character in his own right, but what's interesting, for our purposes, is Clair's episode--or, rather, its setting. A little cross section of young marriage: a newlywed couple bickers on the short train ride from their wedding "back home" to their new apartment "in the city." The wedding itself isn't important enough for a motion picture camera: it's shown as a series of still photos, from the car arriving at city hall to the church to their exit down its steps to the reception with the dancing relatives. Suddenly, the pictures are in the hands of a photographer in his darkroom, one of Clair's little men, and the film begins to move as he rushes to deliver them in time, handing them to the bride through the window of a moving train.

There's a reason to why Alexander Medvedkin and his comrades built a movie studio into a train car, and why cameras are placed on tracks for dolly shots. Trains are moving dramas. There's a sort of script--the route--with a clear beginning and a definite end. A group of people are put together into a space that isn't terribly different from a theater: a long front hall like a stage, with windowed compartments and sliding doors. They cross from one side to the other but rarely leave. Sometimes they go off stage, closing doors or locking themselves in the bathroom, and sometimes minor characters--conductors, etc.--will enter from one side and leave out the other. The noise of a train, especially outside of your compartment, means you have to talk loudly, and clearly. And when the train stops, the passengers become like a traveling theatre troupe, strange actors spilling out of the doors to entertain the locals for fifteen minutes.

Train travel, like any genre, is simultaneously schematic and unpredictable. In a Western, you know there'll be a gun fight, but you don't know when; on a train, you know there'll be a delay, but you're never sure when it'll happen, or if you'll even notice it. The passengers usually don't know each other, and though they know where they're going, they keep looking out the windows at the passing scenery, surprised by the journey itself. And every passenger must consciously make the decision to either engage or ignore every other passenger.

It's interesting that American films have never had much of a knack for train travel; it took until Wes Anderson and The Darjeeling Limited for the drama of the sleeping compartment to be fully explored. No, American cinema loves cars, and the forced intimacy and shared sense of purpose they create between those in them. Two people on a train are passengers; two people in a car are a relationship. Train travelers, equally powerless, are therefore equal as characters; between the driver of a car and his or her passenger(s), there's always some sort of dynamic. Someone has to have power over someone else: the driver is making the passenger go somewhere, the driver and the passenger try to decide where to drive, the passenger has a gun to the driver's head, etc., etc.

There's another important thing about trains, one that distinguishes them from cars. The car moves when it's driven; the movement of a car is always a conscious action. But even when people on a train are standing still, or sleeping, they continue to move. The train is inevitable. It travels to its destination regardless of whether the people on it want to go there or not. The train ride is the tragedy or the comedy or the romance that sucks people in, turning them into its characters, hurtling them towards an abrupt conclusion: the arrival. And there are few things as terminal and irreversible as a train's arrival at its destination. Train passengers don't have the luxury of hesitating.

And in Clair's episode, the arrival marks the terminal end of the argument: unloading their luggage, they leave behind the things they were bickering about--he his cigarettes, she her garish hat. The fight, like a train ride, is completely self-contained. Watched by a surprised conductor, the couple walks into a different, unfilmed story hand-in-hand.

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