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Cinematic Vision


You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life–in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what is coming. But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience—it is much better than the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                     – Leo Tolstoy

The film historian Tom Gunning has noted that "camera movement began as a display of the camera's ability to mobilize and explore space" ("Unseen Energy" 362), usually when film equipment was mounted on moving trolleys, trams, and most frequently, trains, thus ushering in a collusion of railroad and film technology still in evidence today. Similarly, Lynne Kirby has argued that the railroad can be understood as "an important protocinematic phenomenon"; she suggests various couplings between train and film: "the cinema finds an apt metaphor in the train, in its framed, moving image, its construction of a journey as an optical experience, the radical juxtaposition of different places. . . . As a machine of vision and an instrument for conquering space and time, the train is a mechanical double for the cinema and for the transport of the spectator into fiction, fantasy, and dreams" (2). Other historians of cinema and culture would, of course, point to the automobile and to aircraft technology as an important quasi-cinematic experience, most prominently, perhaps, Paul Virilio in his "logistics of perception." For Virilio, "Cinema Isn't I See, It's I Fly" (War and Cinema 11). The point is that various technologies of transport entered into a productive synergy with the camera to mobilize (recorded) vision.

Thus what follows is a short, random, and eclectic collection of passages illustrating such mobilized vision without distinguishing between trains, trams, trucks, and cars. The list could be extended infinitely and purposefully avoids widely known (and frequently reproduced) passages linking speed and perception.

  • Wolfgang Schivelbusch has noted that the visual imagery of telegraph poles "became a major emblem of railway travel: the outer world beyond the compartment window was mediated to the traveler by the telegraph poles and wires which flashed by - no longer did he see only the landscape through which he journeyed, but also, continuously, the poles and wires that belong to the railroad as intimately as the the rails themselves do. The landscape appeared behind the telegraph poles and wires; it was seen through them (31). Analogously, in Frank Norris's A Man's Woman, "while the train carried her swiftly back to the City, Lloyd [Searight {!}]. . . sat quietly in her place, watching the landscape rushing past her and cut into regular divisions by the telegraph poles like the whirling pictures of a kinetoscope."
                                                                                                                                                                – Frank Norris, A Man's Woman, 1900
  • The pace grows faster and faster, the delirious wheels cry aloud in their gladness. And at first the road comes moving towards me, like a bride waving palms, rhythmically keeping time to some joyous melody. But soon it grows frantic, spring forward, and throws itself madly upon me, rushing under the car like a furious torrent, whose foam lashes my face . . . . The trees that for so many slow-moving years have serenely dwelt on its borders, shrink back in dread of disaster. They seem to be hastening one to the other, to approach their green heads, and in startled groups to debate how to bar the way of the strange apparition. But as this rushes onward, they take panic, and scatter and fly, each one quickly seeking its own habitual space; and as I pass they bend tumultuously forward, and their myriad leaves, quick to the mad joy of the force that is chanting its hymn, murmur in my ears the voluble psalm of Space, acclaiming and greeting the enemy that hitherto has always been conquered but now at last triumph: Speed.
                                                                                                                                                  – Maurice Maeterlinck, "In an Automobile," 1904
  • His brain is a racetrack around which jumbled thoughts and sensations roar past at 60 miles an hour, always at full throttle. Speed governs his life: he drives like the wind, thinks like the wind, makes love like the wind, lives a whirlwind existence. Life comes hurtling at him and buffeting him from every direction, as in a mad cavalry charge, only to melt flickering away like a film or like the trees, hedges and walls that line the road. Everything around him, and inside him, dances, leaps, and gallops, in inverse proportion to his own movement; not always a pleasant sensation, but powerful, delirious and intoxicating, like vertigo or fever.
                                                                                                                                                                – Octave Mirbeau, La 628-E 8, 1907
  • When one crosses a landscape by automobile or express train, it becomes fragmented; it loses in descriptive value but gains in synthetic value. . . . [The] view through the door of the railroad car or the automobile windshield, in combination with the speed, has altered the habitual look of things.
                                                                                                                        – Fernand Léger, "Contemporary Achievements in Painting," 1914

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Michael Wutz, Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor
Editor, Weber - The Contemporary West
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