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.

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.


Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.


May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.


Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.


Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

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