Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: "The Great Train Robbery"

Still from "The Great Train Robbery", 1903. (public domain)

9. "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) Watch
The Western was an early member in the vast fraternity of film genres, and "The Great Train Robbery" was its introduction. This 12 minute film, directed by former Edison cameraman Edwin S. Porter, famously pioneered many elementary conventions of the cinematic language, such as intercutting between scenes and camera movement. 
Each scene is a stage, a box, for the action to flow through. Movement in the static frame is ever present. Things change; the shot is changed by time. From the initial action, movement announces itself as an integral element of the film. A lone clerk has his back to us, at work in a telegraph office. A window sits in the upper righthand corner of the frame, but is empty. Immediately a group of bandits rush in through a door at the left of the scene, startling the clerk into a panic and setting the screen aflame with crackling action. Concurrently, a train can be seen passing by outside through the window, moving from right to left, in the opposite direction that the bandits entered the scene, creating a directional discord that adds to the visual cacophony. The clerk is shot and bound by the criminals, who vanish out of the door as quickly as they appeared, followed by the train which finishes its path across the window. 
The visual tryptic of fore-, mid-, and background is used effectively. Take the scene at the end when the bandits, seemingly free of the authorities, stop in the woods to assess their take from the train. The robbers stand in the foreground, their horses sit idly in the mid-ground, and the background, seen through the trees, is quickly filled with law men. A smokey gun fight commences, the horses jump and scatter in alarm, and the stoic camera captures the whole ordeal with a clinical eye. Time, the camera's partner in crime, mercilessly erodes the bandits good fortune. 
"The Great Train Robbery" is actually a pretty compelling short film. The bandits' motivation for their violent crime is never explained; they are simply a malevolent force of nature which blazes across the landscape, leaving a bloody trail of dead, wounded, and traumatized citizens in its wake. The clerk and the train passenger who is shot down after an escape attempt are victims of slipping into the wrong place at the wrong point in time, which is perhaps what each one of us is at some moments. It's likely that the filmmakers never intended for their audience to ponder such esoteric notions, but these notions are pondered nonetheless.

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