Train in vain: The Darjeeling Limited's drama is often rail-based. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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Track record: why trains weave their way through the history of great cinema

Films set on trains are some of the best.

Trains and cinemas have much in common. As Tom Sutcliffe wrote in his book Watching, we experience anxiety when we miss the start of a film for we fear that “pleasure will leave without us”. As Anthony Lane observed in his review of Wes Anderson’s partly train-bound movie The Darjeeling Limited, a similarity exists between the state of the train passenger and that of the cinemagoer, both of whom “are required to sit with their fellow-men, and to start their journey at a particular time, not of their own choosing. Both are left alone, yet their privacy—tinged with dreaminess—is of a very public kind.”

Of course, disembarking a train is a bit trickier than walking out on a movie. Should your journey be unsatisfactory, flinging yourself from the carriage between stations would be a rather extreme version of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Doug Aitken’s film Station to Station, which kicks off a month-long event at the Barbican next week, comprises 62 one-minute shorts, each directed by a different artist, and all connected in some way by the subject of train travel. There is music (Beck, Ariel Pink, Cat Power, Thurston Moore), conversation, performance, landscape; each segment is linked by Aitken’s 24-day train journey from New York to San Francisco. The trailer gives some idea of the breadth of styles and the nature of spectacle involved.

Partly the train works so well in cinema because it combines the sort of spatial restrictions in which drama can flourish with an air of constant forward momentum: in other words, two contradictory elements. The characters are simultaneously still and in motion, stuck in their designated seats (or on the roof, or in the dining car) while also going places.

The ragtag oddballs in Preston Sturges’s glorious 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story don’t even seem to realise they are confined to a train: the millionaire reprobates of the Ale and Quail Hunting Club go about their delirious way squashed into the carriage, and the film frame, threatening to spill off the screen and into the cinema at any moment.

On the other hand, a train is the ideal place for intimacy – it’s where the lovers-to-be meet in Before Sunrise, while the station itself is the launchpad for love in Brief Encounter.

A nasty little scheme is hatched in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, though it’s telling that the actual climax of the movie takes place on a carousel – the antithesis of the train, and anathema to any screenwriter, since all it does is go round and aimlessly round.

Throw Momma from a Train, a semi-remake of Hitchcock’s film, actually moves the attempted murder to the train itself. Shades of another train-set mystery by Hitchcock – The Lady Vanishes – were also given a dotty spin in Silver Streak, a Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comic thriller that has a pleasingly Hitchcockian first half before going all-out for laughs. Mind the gap between the two parts of that movie.

Murder on the Orient Express gives Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) a captive audience, for obvious reasons.

The genre of the disaster movie has spread to the rails, notably in the plague-on-a-train thriller The Cassandra Crossing, starring Richard Harris. Runaway Train throws in a prison break into the bargain; the film’s tone as it nears its inevitable end is one of stark existentialist despair.

For imaginative lunacy on multiple wheels, there is no more audacious example than Snowpiercer, in which the entire population of a frozen planet is crammed onto one seemingly neverending train. The normal social hierarchies prevail, at least until revolution is fomented.

Like the most enriching train journeys, the pleasure is in the travelling, not the arriving – just so long as you’re not stuck with the cadaverous motion-capture staff and passengers of The Polar Express. They’re enough to make you yank the emergency cord.

Station to Station is released on 26 June.

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.

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder