Godard's trains

In “Une histoire seule,” the second segment of Jean-Luc Godard’s lesson(s) in film history, Godard draws us back repeatedly to cinema’s origins as a technology of the nineteenth-century.  Cinema and photography, he tells us, emerged at the fin de siècle as technologies for preserving modern memory.  Is it accidental that the train—the emblem of modernity, of its speed, its mechanical power, its violence—has been one of the great subjects of the cinema?  The Lumiere Brothers’ train arrives at the station, bearing cinema’s history.  Film’s love affair with trains is the story of one modern technology gazing with fascination at another.  From the Lumieres we proceed to the churning, chugging wheels of Abel Gance’s La Roue; to von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, Hawks’ Twentieth Century; to Hitchcock’s strangers meeting on trains, ladies vanishing on them, wrongly accused men hiding in them, and, in Shadow of a Doubt, murderers being pushed out in front of them; and perhaps finally to the trains heading straight down the line to the Nazi death camps—modernity’s graveyards—in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.  The camera, itself a machine that moves along tracks, follows its movements with unflinching eye, a fellow traveler, bearing witness to the thrilling and terrible histories made in its wake.  


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