Film Comment Reports: Lost Train of Thought
“For Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.” -Oswald Cabal in Things to Come
James Benning’s RR and Craig Baldwin’s Mock up on Mu are two films that seem as completely different as can be. Mu operates at a fever pitch of never ending climaxes, each moment constructed from B-grade genre footage and stylized C-grade newly shot scenes, which are acted out by Baldwin’s buddies. The fractured narrative (constantly on the verge of hyperventilation due to its attempts to cram a maximum amount of information, references and excitement into each second) tells the story of a maniacal L. Ron Hubbard and his dreams of putting advertising on the moon.
RR consists of 43 shots of trains transporting materials, products and people across the landscape of America, from Palm Springs, California to Bear Mountain, New York. The consistency of the formula and the muted action of the film allows it a level of drama impossible in Mu, making any deviation from the norm (the appearances of a work truck instead of a train, a human being on foot, added audio) become riveting in a way that all of Baldwin’s Morlocks, sex magic, psy-fi cowboys and the rest cannot be.
After watching the two films I found myself struck by what I saw as a shared theme in the two films, despite their differences. I would not be alone in identifying our times as a paradigm change and each of these films deal with the concept of progress as it weathers this change. For an indication of previous liberal/progressive ideals of progress one should view Things to Come, (with a screen play written by H.G. Wells) a film that is highly sampled by Baldwin. Things to Come’s protagonist (several different characters all played by Raymond Massey) extols the virtues of industrial progress to bring a western sense of justice and peace throughout the world (and the universe). When the film was made this stance was a commendable position against the paranoid warmongering fears of films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But, as time has marched onward and issues such as nation building in Iraq, global warming, the WTO and multinational corporations came into the global psyche concepts of human progress are now more complicated.
Baldwin effectively uses a strategy of détournement with the clips from Things to Come, repositioning Raymond Massey’s previously heroic figure into the role of a maniacal super villain who seeks scientific progress in the name of advertising, enterprise and colonialism. What was once a film that very seriously prophesized human’s only hope for survival has now become “a speculative farce on the militarization of space, mind-control, subterranean intrigue, and the corporate take-over of spiritual fulfillment and leisure-time aerospace speculation” to quote Baldwin’s own description.
This connection between the progressive, utopian dreams of the past and the rightwing, globalization policies of the present are drawn in broad strokes by Baldwin but suggested gently by Benning as well. Where as Mu rethinks the cinematic persona that represented these dreams, RR aims its sights at the most iconic image of the industrial revolution, cinematic or otherwise: the train. Huffing and puffing along, the train is the perfect metaphor for human’s perseverance in the name progress (think The Little Engine That Could). The frankness of Benning’s camera accentuates the inflated absurdity of the call to arms in The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Revelations of the King James Bible when applied to the image of this laborious machine while at the same time sharpening the critique in This Land is your Land and Fuck the Police. The slow moving, smoke-belching train feels more and more redundant as it cuts through small towns, plods by snowy fields, rocky hillsides and barren deserts, and plows on over bridges and under tunnels, with no end in sight. When our hero finally comes to a vociferous stop in Palm Springs, under the watchful eyes of many silent wind turbines, the need for a changing of the guard becomes all to obvious.