Friday, September 20, 2013

The Great Train Robbery - Past and Present

Dearest Sam,

            I have just seen the most extraordinary thing! You will not believe the wonderful creation that Mr. Porter has agreed to share with the world. I do hope you are given the chance to see it someday, Sam. You will be left speechless. I know I was.
            I’m sure that you’ve heard about Mr. Edison’s work with moving pictures. Everyone has. Mr. Edison and those two men in France… Lumiere Brothers? Well, they’ve been trying to create what they call “film” for awhile now and I was given the chance to see one of Mr. Porter’s! It was called The Great Train Robbery and I must tell you, Sam, I was frightened! These outlaws come into the train station and tie up the stationmaster at gunpoint! I have to tell you, I have never seen a gun before aside from in pictures. Father won't keep one, says they're dangerous. I have certainly never seen anyone use one, threaten someone with one before. It gave me terrible nightmares. I feared these men would come and tie me up next. Do know that it is unlikely that I will be traveling by train any time soon. It is silly, perhaps, but you shall still have to come visit me instead.
            One hears about train robberies and shootouts and holdups and such things. I’ve even read about them in the paper. But there’s nothing that comes close to seeing it in real life, right there in front of me. I tell you, my imagination could not begin to understand the amount of fear one feels whilst actually seeing such a thing take place. I thought that if I met an outlaw, I would be brave. I would tell him he couldn't have my things, that he should go back wherever he came from and then you would chase them off. But after seeing the scared people come off of that train and the man wave around his weapon, I do not think I could be so bold. Likely, though I am ashamed to say so, I would be too scared to speak and they'd rob me blind before I was given a chance to get my mind straight. I felt that way a bit after watching the film. I felt like one of the people on that train.
            I've been thinking, Sam, and this likely the closest we shall ever come to seeing another person’s reality. Isn’t it a wonder? That we can see everything that another can see? And then another will be able to see it years and years and years from now?
            I hope to be able to talk about such things with you in person someday. But again, I fear you will have to come to me.
            The man at the piano played such lovely music to go along with it as well. It proceeded quickly, like a horse galloping away and every time you think you will be able to reach it, off it sprints again. It fit brilliantly with the images and was quite reminiscent in that sense of one of those stage plays or vaudeville acts. There was something about the music and the way it matched though. There was something dark and frightening about it, like the need to escape was running through my veins, just like the galloping horse, just like the people caught on the train.
            Dear, Sam, I do wish I had the words to truly relay what this did to me. I fear though, that my words are not doing it close to justice. I fear that in this case, my years of schooling have failed me.
            Oh! The man fired at us! I forgot to tell you that, the most frightening part of all! At the end, the outlaw turns around and fires his pistol straight towards us! I feared I might faint from the scare. My heart beat so fast it seemed determined to explode right from my chest in which case, I would find myself unable to compose a letter such as this.
            It was madly exciting. I've never had someone shoot at me before!
            I am sure that compared to your life now, my passion for it is all but a silly thing. My father seems to think it to be an entertaining enough invention for the present, but thinks that we shall become bored of such nonsense. He thinks it to be another fad, one of those novelties that people obsess over for awhile and then forget. He figures that fifty years from now, no one will know that moving pictures existed. He thinks that fifty years from now, people will be more concerned with what he calls the “important things” such new ways to cultivate our crops and faster modes of travel. He says that in fifty years, entertainment will no longer need to exist because our need for such things will have been bred from us.
            I disagree with him. I think that moving pictures are a novelty that will be around for a long time. For what reason would they fade away? For more work? Less joy? No, I think that forever, we shall all need something so enjoyable to revel in, to escape from the humdrum of the day. And I think that seeing another life and knowing that others will see it the same is magnificent. All those stories we were told, all those we read as children, this is simply the next step, don’t you think? Those images in our heads finally being recorded in such a way that the whole world can see? Not moving pictures: moving storybooks.
            I hope you will tell me what you think of such things for my mind likes to turn them over before I go to sleep. I think an opinion un-shadowed by rebellious bias shall do me good.
            Do visit soon, Sam. I shall take you to the cinema to see this spectacle for yourself, then I may add some context to my words.
            Until the next.

            Yours truly,

            To look at a film from the perspective of someone in the early twentieth, late nineteenth century, we must imagine first what the world was like as a whole. During this time, technology was just beginning to develop. Today’s globalized society would never have been imagined by those living during this time. The telephone and radio had just started to come about during the nineteenth century. The automobile was in its early stages of development, not widely accessible to the general population until the early twentieth century. From this, it was very difficult to communicate with other people, particularly those far away. The knowledge many people possessed was narrowed to only their immediate area and that they saw in pictures. Few had ever left their hometowns. Few had any connection to people in other countries. From this, the world though beginning to widen, was still largely isolated.
            As a result of that, many people had never seen anything like what they saw during these early experiments with film. The Great Train Robbery, released sometime around 1903, was for some people, their first live look at a world different from their own. They had never been out west. They had never met a cowboy or been involved in a hold-up. This film would have given life to the stories heard by people all over the world. From that, it is not too far of a stretch to think that for many people, it would be surprising or exciting or possibly confusing to see things they had before, only imagined or seen in still images.
            It is for this reason that the letter I wrote takes on a rather astounded tone. The girl in question has been sheltered much of her life. She hasn’t left New York and has only heard about such things, has only seen pictures. Because of this, she finds herself excited by all the new things she is seeing, all the things that before, she never would have had the chance to see.
            In addition, this would have been one of the first times the people had ever seen an image move. It would have been bewitching, almost magical to see a three-dimensional world brought to life on a two-dimensional surface such as through a projection. It would have been a foreign concept, something people could not even begin to conjure in their imagination. From that, the audience would have been not only amazed with the content of the film but also with the concept of film itself.
            Film is a much truer, more immediate medium of storytelling than novels or newspapers. There is something much more real about seeing something happen than just hearing about it or reading about it, allowing ones imagination to form its own images. Events begin to take on a sense of, "That could really happen. It's already happening in front of me. That could happen to me." Because of this, as it is the girl in the letter's first time seeing such a thing, she would quite possibly have been frightened by it, just as we often are by watching horror movies. Though she may know that what is on the screen at that moment isn't real, the possibility that it could become real will stay with her, possibly give her nightmares of train robberies and outlaws.
            Because of all of this, the letter that I wrote focused on both the novelty aspects of the film and on the emotional repercussions of these. A person who has never seen something like a train robbery before, probably has never seen an outlaw aside from in still pictures, would be excited by the prospect of new information. It would be like a new reality, a new world had been opened up. At the same time, this new reality would be foreign, unfamiliar, dangerous. There would be an element of fear to go along with the excitement, therefore leading the audience member to focus on both aspects of the experience, the new and the response to the new.

            The reason I chose to write about The Great Train Robbery lies in the reality of the picture. Firstly, it is a full story with characters and events that happen in a sequence. It is more than just a brief experiment with moving images, which is the truth about many of the early films. It had a beginning, middle, and end that all played out on screen using the established characters and understood dynamics regarding good and evil.
In addition, the west was something that a great many Americans were fascinated by during this time. The rough, tough, pistol wielding cowboys were the subjects of many radio programs and novels and news stories. From that, a person going to a film would be amazed to see those stories played out before them. What before they only had their imagination to supply, they would be given a true visual, an image to latch onto.
In that, there is a reality to this film that would have resonated with audiences during the time. Again, people often heard stories of the west’s train-robbing outlaws. They would have known going into the movie that it was somewhat based on truth, that what they see could possibly be happening elsewhere. This film showed every scene needed to properly relay the narration, few holes that would have broken up the audience’s understanding. With that, the people watching it would have had access to all parts of a complete story in which there is a conflict and there is a resolution. The result would have been a highly gratifying cinematic experience.

This film, of the many that we have watched, was one of the most exciting, one that hinted most strongly at the future of the film industry. Fast-paced for the time, there seemed to be more of an emphasis on story than on the image itself when compared to other films made during this time. From this, as the film is one of the most telling narratively and would have been one of the most exciting pieces for the audience – particularly a new audience – to watch, I chose to write about this film.

1 comment:

  1. Impressive work, Elena. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into getting into this girls' perspective, that you thought about what else would be a part of her life in relation to watching this film. Definitely the Western became an integral genre to America - and one that was developed in America as opposed to something like the horror genre which has its roots in gothic literature. I also love about your post how you went so far as to create a full character and give us information about her life and her time period. I can imagine that the argument about whether or not films were just novelties was a very real conversation happening around the nation, much as newer technologies and programs continue to be in a discussion in our daily lives (for example - The Facebook, right?). I also think you've really hit on something with the idea of how movies are somehow more "real" than other art forms. This is such an interesting notion, and one that lately I've been really thinking about. It seems interesting to me that things are somehow more acceptable to be a part of a book or play, where it's left up to the imagination, and somehow become more "menacing" in a film because of that perceived reality. Lots of really great thoughts and ideas explored in this post!