Transport of delight: Porters on a railway platform in Liverpool, 1890s. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Making tracks: the parallels between cinema and train travel

All was harmony, until Jon mentioned the legend of how people in the audience in 1896 had ducked when the train suddenly appeared on-screen.

World at One
BBC Radio 4

When did a paying audience first watch a film in Britain? To the Regent Street Polytechnic and a short report for World at One (weekdays, 1pm) from its long-shuttered, vaulted hall, undergoing renovations in advance of a spring 2015 reopening. Here, in 1896, Auguste and Louis Lumière screened a selection of their short films to an audience of just 54 men, women and children.

The correspondent Jon Manel interviewed film conservationist David Cleveland as he fed a spool of film into a cinematograph machine and cranked the handle to project the Lumières’ 50-second film that shows a steam train pulling into a station.

“We are about to re-create a little bit of history,” said Jon. “David – ACTION!” The noise of dogged mechanical rattling. “You are turning a handle,” breathed Jon, like someone reporting live from the scene of a delicate crime. “I am turning a handle,” confirmed David, seriously. All was harmony, until Jon mentioned the legend of how people in the audience in 1896 had ducked when the train suddenly appeared on-screen.

“Do you really think they did?” scoffed David. “I mean, it’s a nice story but . . .”

“Oh, don’t spoil a good story, David!” begged Jon.

Whether that part of the story is true or not, is it not perfect that the first film ever shown in the UK was of a train? In many ways, train travel (and later driving) is even more intrinsic to cinema than romance. That kind of movement is cinema. You sit down in a space separated from the world and you observe it for a while, watching things change through the rectangular screen of the windows. Trains, cars and cinema are about a strange acceleration of time. Just as a movie jumps alluringly from day to night, such vehicles are there to take you faster than you know you really ought to be going.

Even emerging from a cinema evokes how it feels at the end of a long, lonely train or car journey: the checking of a watch, the coming-to as if from a dream of motion and space, legs stiff, brain still blurred and smudged. Within just 40 years, those 54 paying audience members on Regent Street had mushroomed to more than 1.5 billion a year in cinemas across the UK. Our minds had officially been blown. Those 50 seconds changed us as a species for ever.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump