Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Train: American Art's Lost Muse

There was a film review of the new Wes Anderson flick The Darjeeling Limited last week in The New Yorker in which the reviewer asks: Can you have a thriving movie culture in a country without enough trains? It's a great question-- for those of us interested in all genres of American art. I, too, have often wondered what happened to this symbol of movement, of industry, of adventure, of direction and misdirection that was once the selection of choice from our culture's stock supply of objects-for-artistic-inspiration. Think of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Think of Billy Wilder's "Some Like it Hot." Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. What would any of these be without trains?

Of course, we still have "trains"... but today's commuter rails don't seem to have the same je ne sais qua. For one thing, people just aren't on them long enough. Not long enough to strike up a conversation and develop a mysterious-cum-complicated relationship. Not long enough to write a work of some length about an existential crisis. Not long enough to pine for a stranger who wears his hat at a jaunty angle or who swishes her skirt in a sassy way. Not long enough to rue the day one was ever born. And commuter rails don't have that old, world-weary, lonesome sound-- the chugging and the hissing and the whistling-- that old passenger trains did. No, we're definitely missing something with the absence of the train.

It's ironic that the passenger train, which at one point in history represented modernity and speed, has become a wholly un-inspiring, even archaic, symbol of slowness and inefficiency. Now, trains are only good for moving around stuff that is in no particular hurry to get where its going. Grain. Steel. Timber. Pallets of crates of boxes of stuff.

I live near a train track and often hear the whistles in the early morning and late evening. I think they seem even sadder now.

4 comments:

Daniel said...

Growing up in Elkhart, there was an unspoken but frequently enacted rule - any lateness was readily excused by "I got caught by a train."

"On a direct route to Chicago from Boston, New York and Washington. D.C., Elkhart is well served by major highways, and railroads. The Robert Young Yards of Conrail in Elkhart are the world's second largest freight classification yards."

Chet said...

you know who is great on train songs: richie havens. that guy is on loan from amtrak, i think.

of course, the train is an unmistakeable phallus. i suppose this is presumed within your account of the "inspiration" provided by train culture.

can one fail to think of a phallus after that hilarious scene in "north by northwest" where cary grant and eva marie saint are about to make whoopy, as it would have called in those days, and then the shots jumps to an exterior, as the train enters into a tunnel?

other great train movies: "the miami beach story" (1942) with claudette colbert and joel mccrea. at one point, on the voyage south (board train) she befriends a party of bourgeoisie hunters, who get so tanked that they start shooting at skeet out the window. a black porter appears accidentally, and then runs, imagining some other enterprise underway. fucking funny.

"midnight run" with charles grodin and robert deniro. talk about an odd couple. "runaway train" (1985) with jon voight, eric roberts, etc.

having had enough experience riding trains, i still think they suck. and i don't miss 'em. rip.

Daniel said...

Thread Hijack!: I was just reminded about this book, now translated as "How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read" (Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus) - something of a handbook on how to "professor."

A review: http://nymag.com/arts/books/reviews/39578/

Nazareth said...

The displacement of trains as a widespread form of travel by car and plane seems to be correlated with changes in forms of consciousness and literary narrative -- from the linear, sequential and occasionally aleatoric (think Proust's narrator's reveries on the train to see Albertine in _Remembrance of Things Past_) to simultaneity, or stark, if not contradictory juxtapositions (in such films as Babel, Amores Perros, 21 Grams, etc.).

The word "lost" connotes nostaliga, which I'll concede shapes my aesthetic preferences -- my tastes are more modern than postmodern. But I do like the best representations of our current frenetic forms of consciousness. Film, photography and digital media seem, at their best, to capture beautifully the spirit of their own muses of contemporary travel -- the car, the plane, the spaceship.