Light Train


Interior New York Subway (1905)

There's a beautiful version of this on the first collection of Treasures From American Film Archives; I just showed it to my Cinema 101 class, and every time I see it projected on a screen, I'm carried into a state of cinephiliac bliss. So much of early cinema was about capturing moments of urban modernity, slicing images out of time, but this feels almost futuristic. Look at the way the light flickers on the subway door, the manner in which it bounces off the tunnel walls and frames the train like something out of 2001. Look at how it pauses in musical fashion as the train comes to a halt, and then starts again, like movements in a classical piece. Shot by the great Billy Bitzer, who would go on to work with D.W. Griffith on Birth Of A Nation, we can see here the transformation of documentary into something other: magical, contemplative, transformative. Framed by people entering and exiting the train, the subway ride becomes a brief reverie amidst a bustling modernity, a four-minute pause that bends the light, and remakes the space.

Comments

dave said…
I absolutely love this film--I remember seeing it when the box set came out (the Treasures disc you mention). I've been reading Paolo Cherchi Usai's text _The Death of Cinema_ and, while I knew it before coming across this text, I think it's made it even more apparent how our idea of this period in filmmaking is always necessarily incomplete--how many films there are out there we can't see, because they haven't been converted to a format we can use or they're just plain gone. But then, isn't that the cinephile's dream, too--that the ultimate film is the one you _can't_ see (as so many have argued)?

Wonderful film--thanks for posting!
Brian Doan said…
Dave,
Isn't it a gorgeous film? It never fails to excite me, and it seems to predict so many images from cinema's future. That Usai book sounds great -- I will have to pick it up! I think the link between scarcity and desire is absolutely true. Chris Keathley talks about this in his book, too-- how the shape of cinephilia changes when it moves from the arthouse (you must see it this week or miss it) to the VHS/DVD format (you can buy or rent it whenever you want). I know there are a bunch of Renoir films I'd love to see, if they'd only release them on DVD.

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