TRAINS BEING TRAINS - Morgan Meis
Image: From Human Desire (1954) - directed by Fritz Lang
When one gazes upon the world in love, even (or perhaps especially) when this happens through the impassive eye of the camera, everything is permeated with a surfeit of tenderness and care; a caring that cannot be attached to any nameable source.
The motion of a train is of the hurtling sort, giant machines belching smoke and fumes flying through the countryside with speed and violence, yet contained along tracks. A train cannot go anywhere but down those parallel lines of metal that beckon from the horizon. Sitting in a train compartment, the scenery glides by, smooth, silent until that moment when the full force of the motion hits you, walking between train cars, the scream of the wind, the screech of the wheels, metal on metal as the machine strains against itself just holding to the track at high speed along the parabola of a wide curve.
Consider the opening shots of the movie Human Desire, directed by Fritz Lang and released by Columbia Pictures in 1954. We see a man on a train. He’s the engineer. He sits at the front of the train, driving it along the tracks. His demeanor is one of comfort and ease. Then we move to another shot. The camera has been positioned at the side of the train looking forward. Another train comes into view moving toward us, on the opposite track. It seems, for a moment, that there is not enough space for the two trains to pass one another safely. A collision is imminent. But then, with a whoosh, the trains pass one another without incident. We’ve all experienced this fear as two trains pass at high speeds. The margin of error is so small. The violence of the rush of air smacking both trains is startling.
The first few minutes of Human Desire are a study in the joys and contradictions of train travel, back and forth, back and forth between the scary almost overwhelming power of this form of locomotion, and the quiet contemplation that is the unexpected byproduct of a train’s motion along its fixed track. Finally, the train pulls into a station. It is difficult to describe the sense of comfort and completion in this final terminus. And then the giant hanger looms into view, ushering the train into a place of rest.
These opening scenes of Human Desire are a direct tribute to another film. That’s La Bête humaine by Jean Renoir (1938). Fritz Lang’s film is essentially a remake of Renoir’s, with the plot transposed into an American context, set in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. The plot of both movies revolves around three characters, two men and a woman, drawn together by a homicide on a train.
The actual story of Human Desire is pretty dull. Sure, there is murder and intrigue and betrayal. But the human drama, in this film, simply does not stand up to the drama of the trains. La Bête humaine does somewhat better in this regard than Human Desire. The character of Jacques Lantier, the engineer, is unforgettably portrayed by Jean Gabin. This role made him a working class hero in France, or so the story goes. The film contains a now-famous scene where Lantier and Séverine (Simone Simon) make love for the first time, and the camera cuts to the bucket of overflowing water.
And there are a few excellent scenes between the train engineer (Glenn Ford) and the femme fatale (Gloria Grahame) in Human Desire too, though, overall, one never quite believes that these two characters are passionately drawn to one another. Indeed, for any sense of actual passion I’d say it is Ellen (Kathleen Case), a young girl with a crush on the train engineer, who steals the show in Human Desire, with her outwardly chaste approach that just barely suppresses a pathetic desperation and downright horniness that percolates on the screen for a minute or two. But these scenes don’t last long, and then we are back to Glenn Ford moping around for endless stretches of time. You drift off again. Until the train comes back.
The trains are the real stars in both movies. I want to see the tracks and the rush and the roar of those monsters, and then the smooth moments too. I like the shots of the muffled interiors, and I like the shots when people are walking around the train yards. It is inherently interesting to watch people walking down or across train tracks. The scenes in the train yards, in both movies, are fraught with an indistinct tension. That’s because you never know just where the trains are. You never know if someone will step out onto the track and get whacked by a passing locomotive. For that reason, Human Desire and La Bête humaine are both wonderful, because we get tons of shots of trains being trains, inside and out, of people being around trains, inside and out, and of trains and people interacting. I could imagine a re-edited version of the two movies where all the other stuff is taken out, and we just get the scenes of trains and the scenes near trains, all of them spliced into one another in an essentially plotless (but I would wager fundamentally thrilling film) I’d be happy to watch again and again.
Funnily enough, both Human Desire and La Bête humaine get their plot from a novel by Emile Zola. I say this is funny because Zola’s novel is itself, like the two movies, a not-very-interesting novel in terms of its plot. More than that, the novel is loaded with all manner of clunky symbolism. For Zola, the story of animal passions and trains was supposed to represent something important about the primal instincts of human beings, and the way such instincts are just barely tamed by civilization. Big ideas. There are tons of books and scholarly studies, too, on Zola’s political ideology and how the train in La Bête humaine represents industrial civilization, and maybe also mechanized war and the collapse of the Second French Empire during the Franco-Prussian War. All of the scholarly studies are surely correct in one way or another. But they don’t make the novel good. The fact that Lantier has some sort of alcoholic blood in his veins, a curse passed down through the generations, which is an idea that Renoir picked up from Zola and used as the epigraph for his film, is not particularly interesting either.
What is interesting and beautiful about La Bête humaine the novel, are the scenes where he describes trains. Those are the scenes where the clunky overdetermined symbolism of the plot backs up a step or two, and Zola’s writerly skill gets a chance to jump to the foreground. Suddenly, Zola is wrapped up in describing the mood and feel of the train and the atmosphere around trains. He gets lost in his own prose and there is nothing better than prose that can, at least for brief periods, get lost in itself. Here’s an example:
Trains moved about unceasingly in the deepening shadows, amidst the inextricable tangle of rails, between the rows of stationary carriages parked in their sidings. One left for Argenteuil, and one for Saint Germaine; another arrived from Cherbourg, a very long one. There was signal after signal, whistles blew, hooters sounded; from all directions, one by one, there appeared red lights, and green, and yellow, and white; it was all a jumble at that murky twilight hour, when it seemed as though everything should collide, and yet everything passed, and slid by, and emerged, all at the same gentle crawl, vaguely, in the depths of the dusk. (trans. Roger Pearson)
I want to transition here into a short discussion of the great French film critic André Bazin. Of course, having a ‘short’ discussion about André Bazin is completely impossible, especially since I want to talk about Bazin’s theory that film has a special relationship with ‘reality’, whatever that is. And that’s the problem, of course. What reality is. What is reality? I’m not going to answer that question in a short essay that is mostly about how I like watching trains in movies. Let’s also just face the music: There has been great sport in film theory over the last fifty years in laughing at André Bazin and making fun of his naive realism. Of course, this ‘sport’ has been going on in the ‘field’ of film theory, so it usually isn’t very much fun at all, and the ‘laughter’ is in scare quotes. Nevertheless, this ‘laughter’ has been going on for decades and Bazin, so the mockery goes, has been exposed as having the hopelessly gullible view that film captures unmediated reality by the very nature of its photochemical process. Like photography, film just grabs a chunk of reality and then shows it to us on the screen. And film is just a little bit more remarkable than photography because film adds motion to the mix. With film, we get an objective look at what reality is like in real time. That’s what Bazin is supposed to have said, and that view of realism has been mocked for being stupid. Don’t be such a sucker, the theorists have said to Bazin (since Bazin died in 1958, the conversation has been tremendously one-sided), don’t believe the hype when it comes to photography and film. These media are, so the critics of Bazin say, not so innocent. They do not give us some unmediated view of reality as such. Photography and film, by contrast, are precisely the culprits by which we construct reality. And by the way, all reality is constructed, mediated. Don’t be so silly, Bazin. There is no objective stance by which we could see reality as it is in itself. Film, contrary to your simplistic view, is the very model of reality as a complex simulacrum through which we project a ‘reality’ that has been thoroughly manipulated and manufactured.
Of course, the critics are not wrong. Bazin did have some clunky ideas about reality, and about the way that film gives us unmediated access to that reality. He was, at times, every bit the naive realist that he’s been accused of being. But there is an aspect of his work, I think, that cannot be dismissed so easily. Whatever our metaphysical views about the true nature of reality, we can all agree that the world is resistant to us. Reality, even if it is ‘fully constructed’ and never confronted ‘as such’, is still constructed in such a way that we confront it as largely indifferent to our individual wills. I may be living in a simulacrum, but for me, the simulacrum is determining. It is bigger than I, and it has more power. It shapes me far more than I shape it. I am still but a twig floating along on the river of ‘the real’ regardless of the metaphysical status of ‘the real’. This puts me in the existential position, as it were, where I am always tantalized by the possibility of glimpsing the world from a standpoint that transcends my own particular perspective.
The real importance of the ‘realism’ of film, which so fascinated and intrigued André Bazin, comes from this very possibility, the possibility that film can upend perspective. In a normal scene in any normal film, we see life from the perspective of a subject looking out at reality, a standpoint from which we ourselves confront the world day after day. But films can also, if only for brief moments, swing that perspective completely in the other direction. Suddenly, it is as if we are looking at the world and looking at ourselves from the standpoint of all the stuff out there, the complex network of objects and flora and fauna and air and earth and sky and whatever else. We suddenly inhabit the standpoint of the world looking back at us, or just looking wherever it may look. When Jean Renoir, and then Fritz Lang, affixed a movie camera to the side of a train and let the film roll along with it, some essential element of human control is finally released. Something magical happens. There are moments like this in many films. I’m thinking right now of a scene in Cleo from 5 to 7 where Varda lets the film roll on Cleo as she is walking down a nondescript street in Paris. It’s a throwaway scene, at first glance. But the scene has so much power to it. It’s like the camera has been wrested from Varda’s authorial control and given to the street itself, like the street is showing us how things look. That scene takes your breath away. To call this ‘realism’ in the strong sense misses the point. The scene is completely mediated in every way. It is part of a very conscious project in which Varda is painting a picture of a specific kind of woman, and the specific way that woman walks and talks and inhabits the world. But it was Varda's genius, her art, to allow this scene also to slip out of her control, letting the camera look with its own eye, letting the world look back at us on its own terms.
Bazin was not shy in connecting this sudden lack of control, this magical effect that happens when film suddenly shows us the world looking at itself, with religious mysticism. Bazin’s classic essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” contains plenty of dubious ideas, precisely the sorts of naive realist ideas that get him in trouble, and a fair amount of material that makes little sense at all. It is a mixed bag of an essay in every way. But it also contains the following three sentences:
It is not for me to separate off, in the complex fabric of the objective world, here a reflexion on a damp sidewalk, there the gesture of a child. Only the impassive lens, stripping its object of all those ways of seeing it, those piled-up preconceptions, that spiritual dust and grime with which my eyes have covered it, are able to present it in all its virginal purity to my attention and consequently to my love. By the power of photography, the natural image of a world that we neither know nor can know, nature at last does more than imitate art: she imitates the artist.
By saying that the “impassive lens” strips the object down to its “virginal purity” (an unfortunate metaphor) Bazin is once again in the territory of a potentially untenable realism. But I don’t think that’s what he is really getting at in this passage. Because the point here is not objectivity as such. The point, you may have noticed, is love. And that’s not what your typical metaphysical realist is after.
The lens of the camera, as Bazin sees it, does not give us some kind of proto-scientific and objective look at reality the way it really is. Rather, it gives us a glimpse at the world, at all of Creation as deeply in love with itself and constantly percolating in that mytho-poetic state of generative and ecstatic love. Most of the time, Bazin suggests, we are completely blind to this fact. Thus the power of the lens. The lens does not share our blindness, having never been trained in blindness. So, sometimes﹣and often more or less by accident﹣the lens gets a chance to be the portal, the guide into the way of love, showing us the world as an infinite mystery of surprising, uncategorizable love. By ‘love’ I mean a state in which there is no way fully to disentangle subject and object. When one gazes upon the world in love, even (or perhaps especially) when this happens through the impassive eye of the camera, everything is permeated with a surfeit of tenderness and care; a caring that cannot be attached to any nameable source.
The truth of film, what it can really show us, as Bazin saw it, is thus always going to be a truth difficult to describe. In the end, this truth can only be gestured at poetically, which is why the best passages in Bazin’s writing have a poetic quality that falters as soon as one attempts to translate these insights into an argument or a position.
Perhaps the person who came closest to making the argument that Bazin wanted to make is William Blake. Here are a few lines from the text of Blake’s early illuminated manuscript There is No Natural Religion:
Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception. He perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover. ...
The desire of Man being Infinite the possession is Infinite & himself Infinite. ...
Conclusion. If it were not for the Poetic and Prophetic character. The Philosophic and Experimental would soon be the ratio of all things & stand still
The filmmaker becomes this Poetic/Prophetic character when they find ways to shake the “spiritual dust and grime,” as Bazin put it, from our perceptual apparati, allowing us to see life as if for the first time. Both Renoir and Lang had the intuition that our seeing transforms when a camera is mounted in various places on a train, put into a long focus, and then simply allowed to capture the footage that emerges. An entire film shot this way would, of course, begin to wear at the eye and mind. But for brief moments, the effect is startling and intense. The snapping in and out of the different levels of the gaze feels like revelation. We see the train from the engineer’s perspective, then from the perspective of the director who is establishing the characters in the film, and then, wonderfully, from what seems to be the gaze of the train itself. The gaze is restless and jumpy. And the effect is visceral. Watching the trains, your whole body electrifies in those moments, those brief moments when the gaze jumps out of all control and we are looking at the world looking at itself. We cannot help, then, but care about the world with every molecule of our being, we cannot help but be, for that tantalizingly compressed handful of seconds, completely and totally smitten, head-over-heels in love with everything that is. And then, inevitably, the dust and grime returns. The tired, cynical eye returns. The world snaps back into our control and goes gray. But not completely. Not ever completely. Never completely once we have seen the glimpse of the great boiling billowing beauty through the gaze of the infinite eye. Or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it:
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.