CFP : Railway and locomotive, Language in film

Film Journal : Call for papers for a forthcoming issue edited by Taïna Tuhkunen, Université d’Angers

Railway and locomotive, Language in film

Since the Lumière Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (L’Arrivée
d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, 1895), trains – an inspiring symbol of modern times – have been present on the movie screen. Film narrative’s sensitivity to railway motives, tropes and the mere velocity of steam engines is reflected in the specific railway language and rhythm generated, challenging the traditional time-space continuum. Born in the heyday of nineteenth-century train travel, cinematographic train imagery reflects the twentieth century’s disruptions and its unexpected train of events. This is the case, for instance, in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise : A Song of Two Humans (1927) where intersecting trains and tracks foreshadow moral derailment, while mediating between art and technology, as well as between genres such as melodrama and

As Lynne Kirby observes in Parallel Tracks : The Railroad and Silent Cinema (1997), early critics pointed out that the human eye was not made to watch telegraph poles flash by from a moving train without damage to the eyesight. Yet, since Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, filmmakers have ceaselessly exploited train imagery for a variety of purposes. Sound opened up further possibilities for “railway movies”, although, even today, train sequences often remain devoid of words. Whatever the ultimate meanings behind the puffing, panting, rattling, whistling, merrily
chugging or frightfully squealing trains, when transposed on screen, trains are always more than a means of transportation. As illustrated by the etymology of the compound “locomotion” (from locus, “place”, and motio, “motion”), a train with its language of wheels, steam and tracks constitutes a paradoxically static yet, moveable, topos. Carriages, wagons, sleepers, dining and other cars, coaches and cabooses, pulled by “iron horses”, provide both real and symbolic “non-places”, incongruous sites for shocks, plots and encounters that allow travellers of different classes to mix, despite railway and film production companies’ attachment to compartments. Together with railway stations, platforms, bridges, crossings, junctions and tunnels, the train can be said to form a “classed society on the move”. At the same time, despite the thrill of moving, touring, travelling, but also evading and escaping, the journey may turn into a disaster.

Besides the generic settings - railway romances, crime or action movies on the tracks - trains have demonstrated their dramatic potential as perfect locations for mishaps that may befall the passengers after the departure, thus deviating the initial travel plans. Indeed, trains seem to represent a particularly suitable site for crimes and mysteries of various sorts, where anything can happen. This is suggested by Alfred Hitchcock’s train films The Lady Vanishes (1938), Strangers on a Train (1951), North by Northwest (1959), but also by Sherlock Holmes whodunits, such as Terror by Night (Roy William Neill, 1946), or Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974) based on Agatha Christie’s “who-didn’t-do-it” scenario.

Trains play an important thematic or structural role in a vast number of other films, such as : The Kiss in the Tunnel (George Albert Smith, 1899), Romance of the rail (Edison/Porter, 1903), The Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924), The General (Buster Keaton, 1926), Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932), Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972), Runaway Train (Andrey Konchalovskiy, 1985). Of no less interest are the more recent train-journey triptych Tickets (2005) by Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach, Lars von Trier’s Europa (1991), which transforms the train into a historical abstraction, the existential journey of Wes Anderson’s The Darjheeling Limited (2007), or Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret (2011). For the sake of coherence, neither “subway movies” nor documentaries on trains will be considered. We particularly welcome articles dealing with the “joint journey” of the train and its “mechanical double”, the cinema, to demonstrate the extent to which films exploit the train/cinema analogy by creating parallels between railway travel and the virtual voyages proposed by the cinema. While locomotive-geared rhythmicity and imagery may be read as correlates of mental processes, “railway language” also frequently works as a metalanguage for cinematography.

Inquiries and proposals to be sent to and by
15th December, 2013. Deadline for submission 30th April, 2014.