“…Public streets blur into private forecourts. Seductive passages become corporate cul-de-sacs of soaring glass, steel and stone…These are offices built to look great in photographs…But in the end a city is not its buildings, it is its people and there is something salutary in the way Londoners fail to live up, or down, to the cosmetic gloss of their surroundings…To a newcomer the City looks impenetrable, like an oiled machine with a hidden logic. City folk might seem coolly efficient but it’s an illusion. Look again and many of them seem out of their element, as if caught between one air-conditioned sanctuary and the next. These are not employees ‘on message’. There is doubt and indecision in their gestures. Others are not dressed for the office at all but residents from the housing estates. Something of the essence of the City is visible here: the telling gap between official power and lived experience…”

Reading this mission statement from photographer Polly Braden, about her recent project London Square Mile, brought me back to Spike Jonze’s Her. I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what my problem is with what, on the surface at least, is an impeccably made, thought-provoking sci-fi love story for our times. And it’s this: it’s too seductive, too in love with its own ‘cosmetic gloss‘.

Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have created a gorgeous near-future world of city lights and modernist apartments, coordinated fashion and hi-tech immersion around the lonely life of mild-mannered writer Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a man mourning the end of his marriage and looking for consolation wherever he can find it. This turns out to be in the form of Samantha, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, a ‘consciousness‘ that mimics human interaction, learning and evolving at a frightening pace. Theodore soon finds himself drawn into a seductive relationship with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that grows into love and even sex.

So far, so interesting. After all, at the rate technological progress is annexing our lives it’s only a matter of time before it provides for sexual desire and emotional needs. It almost feels inevitable really, even now, twenty-first century manifest destiny. Her sets this moment in an unspecified future but it can’t be more than twenty or thirty years from now. Which makes the portrayal of the world around Theodore all the more pointed. This isn’t a distant sci-fi future we can dismiss as fantasy. This is, potentially, our world, in our life time.

Yet it feels like a particularly ravishing car advert in thrall to the lovely modernist shimmer of over-privileged ennui. Where are the poor for instance? There’s a scene where Theodore looks out over a public beach, people walking by on the boardwalk like the perfectly-spaced cars in old World’s Fair models of future traffic, pointillist figurines from a Seurat painting. In this future world there is no ‘doubt and indecision‘ in people’s gestures, no disorder, no outbreak of human vitality. It feels like a film made by people who are so immured in their world of privilege, social media and hi-tech toys they simply don’t see the poor any more, or they’ve airbrushed them out of the future so as not to spoil the pristine elegance of the shot.

I mean we’re supposed to worry about this man’s withdrawal from the real world but the real world around him is so sterile he might as well exist in a virtual cocoon of immersive video games and Samantha’s empathic voice. Why not? You could argue this is deliberate, that this background is mood music for Theodore’s state of mind, or a subtle dystopian warning of our future, but I don’t think so. The film is super proud of how beautiful it is, how tragically romantic it is, how clever and questioning it is about the future we’re heading for, yet it seems in love with that future.

When you take away the seductive cinematography, the Arcade Fire soundtrack, the fine, touch-sensitive performance of Joaquin Phoenix, what are you left with? ‘The past,’ Samantha tells Theodore, ‘is just a story we tell ourselves‘. So, of course, is the future. The story Her is telling us is not Romeo & Juliet for the twitter generation but this: technology will save us from the messiness of human interaction. It’s easy to mock a film that attempts to explore such things, of course, but it’s just as easy to fall under its state-of-the-art spell.

Ultimately, it does for computers what Spielberg did for aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It surrenders to emotional despair, to the mystical implications, the higher consciousness that will save us, teach us how to truly love. The fear is gone. Once we worried about HAL in 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), or the rapacious Proteus IV in Demon Seed (1977), Skynet in The Terminator (1984), or the prophetic rabbit-hole of The Matrix (1999). Now we’re a generation in full fatal embrace of computers, just waiting for them to love us back.

Mystic River

l'atalante 1

Jean Vigo was the first poet of modern cinema, its doomed genius and abiding spirit, an anarchist dreamer dead at twenty-nine with just one full-length film to his name. But what a film, a poetic realist masterpiece that still resonates today. Whereas even the great directors of the silent era had an emotional range not much above dime-store romances and morality plays, Vigo brought a modern indifference to absolutes and types, a dreamer’s knowledge of inner states, a realist’s understanding for complexity and a romantic’s eye for industrial landscapes and country girls.

And he did all this with just one film, L’Atalante, a film that prioritises mood over plot, refusing to pander to the kind of romantic narrative perfected that same year in Hollywood by Frank Capra. In his It Happened One Night a pretty heiress on the run meets a tough-guy reporter and they bicker all the way to a happy ending. In fairness, it’s a great film, but it ends where real life takes over, before the question can be asked. How could they live together after the adventure of their ‘meet cute’ has ended?

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The Phantom Ride

The Phantom Ride: Early Cinema and The Train

by Brian Phelan

Before there was cinema, there was the train. It might seem fanciful but I’d like to make the claim that train travel not only prepared people for the idea of cinema but may even have been a catalyst for its eventual creation. Invention is such a mystery, after all, something in the air of the times, a whisper of influences waiting to coalesce. Surely the idea that still images could move was born in the mind of someone sitting by a train window watching the world go by, or millions of people sitting by thousands of train windows watching endless fields and suburbs go by. It was in the air. Cinema the idea was already an invention of the imagination long before science and technology caught up. This was the era of camera obscura towers, magic lantern shows and experiments in capturing the secrets of motion by men like Eadweard Muybridge and Jules Maray. Cinema was the culmination of all these processes, all these primitive yearning mechanisms for capturing life.

The wonder of early cinema wasn’t in stories or acting or montage; it was just this: the mystery of suspended time, of captured motion. Just like train travel. Who, after all, hasn’t been lulled into a time-forgetting dream-state by the clickity-clack rhythms of a train, the rolling cinema of carriage windows? The analogy was there from the start. They were kindred spirits, both symbols of progress, both promising journeys to other places, both foreshortening distance and time in ways society had never imagined before.

And so, naturally, it was to the train that the earliest filmmakers were drawn again and again, in homage and unconscious recognition. Between those famous train-centred milestones of early cinema, the Lumiere Bros’ panic-inducing L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (1896) and Edwin S. Porter’s narrative breakthrough The Great Train Robbery (1903) lies a generally less well-known period of sensation, novelty and gradual evolution, when techniques were discovered that are still with us today. And one of the most popular and profound of these was the phantom ride, an evolutionary step forward for the fledgling medium, one in which it stopped simply recording motion and instead
became motion itself.

In the typically cavalier fashion of the times the effect was achieved by tying a cameraman to the buffer of a moving train and having him crank away as it sped along the track. The means may have been primitive, not to mention dangerous, but the result was a sensation, a ghostly ride through the air, as if the viewer were floating above the track, a disembodied dream eye travelling into the darkness of tunnels and towards the light on the other side.

Audiences couldn’t get enough of these virtual thrill rides which were often, appropriately enough, shown at travelling fairgrounds as part of a programme of similarly short actualities, comedies and trick-films. The earliest known example, Biograph’s The Haverstraw Tunnel (1897), was an instant hit, spawning dozens of imitators including Railway Trip Over The Tay Bridge (1897), View From An Engine Front – Ilfracombe (1898) and View From an Engine Front – Train Leaving Tunnel (1899). The latter was used by one of the most innovative filmmakers of the time, G.A. Smith, to create his influential A Kiss In The Tunnel (1899). It consists of only three shots: train enters tunnel, man kisses woman in the dark compartment, train exits tunnel. It might not sound like much now but this was a major advance in editing and continuity, leading the medium towards more sophisticated story-telling.

Although single-shot phantom rides continued after this, well into the new century, taking in ever more exotic and far-flung places from the front of ships and trams as well as subway trains, it was soon just another technique in an ever-expanding arsenal of possibilities. The success of The Great Train Robbery had marked the end of simple awe and curiosity and the start of cinema as a serious art form with all the potential range of novels and theatre.

But there was to be one final hurrah for the pure phantom ride form, one which brought the relationship between trains and films to its logical conclusion. In 1905 a Kansas City Fire Chief named George C. Hale created a nickelodeon amusement called Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World. This ‘illusion ride’ consisted of mock train carriages showing ten-minute films of scenes from around the world. But they weren’t just novelty cinemas. While the passengers watched these phantom ride films, projected onto the end of the carriage to create the illusion of actually travelling through these scenes, like they were looking through a window, the carriage would simulate the motion of a real train, rocking and swaying from side to side while steam and train whistle sound effects played and painted scenery rolled past the windows.

The Hale’s Tour had finally made real what had always been implied; that being in a train and watching a film were essentially the same thing, that illusion and travel worked on the imagination in much the same way, creating intermediary zones away from the real world where people could dream and forget. Not surprisingly, they proved insanely popular. By 1907 there were five hundred all over the United States, and many more around the world in places like Paris, Hong Kong and London, which had no less than four, with others in Manchester, Blackpool, Leeds and Bristol.

Despite this success, the truth was the phantom ride had effectively been shunted onto a siding of cinema history, merely a passing fad, a necessary but primitive first step in the maturity of a great new art form. And watching the surviving examples today it’s easy to dismiss these grainy, ponderously slow artefacts, to wonder how they could ever have had such an electrifying effect on audiences. But speed is relative and what would have given a Victorian a nosebleed barely feels like moving now. In 1962 a British Transport documentary called Let’s Go To Birmingham revived the form to record the journey from London’s Paddington Station to Birmingham’s Snow Hill but with one crucial difference, they speeded it up so the entire journey takes only five minutes. It’s still a blast and is probably a modern viewer’s best chance at understanding what it was like to see the first phantom rides.

Today the phantom ride has become a standard cinematic device for putting audiences into the heart of the action, little different at times to its thrill ride origins (note its use in the current 3D craze, like the rollercoaster scene in Despicable Me for example). But it’s also been used for the opening title sequences of films like Get Carter (1971), The Warriors (1979) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996), not just as a way to create an immediate sense of momentum and excitement but also to put us in the right frame of mind for the film to come, to lure us into the disembodied dream-state of film itself. One phantom ride, you could say, preparing us for another.