Daniel Crooks: Phantom Ride Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, until May 29.
Cinema seems to have a special affinity with trains, perhaps arising partly from the synergy of two modern technologies, and partly from the fact train travel involves the compression of space and the relentless but also finite unfolding of time that lend themselves to cinematic narrative. One thinks at once of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) or Strangers on a Train (1951), but there are countless other examples. A Wikipedia page has a list of films set on trains, with more than 100 entries.
Less well known is the fact cinema almost began with the train, for some of the earliest films produced in the late 19th century and early 20th were short clips made with cameras strapped to the front of railway engines. The whole film consisted thus of a single tracking shot as the train moved forward, the lines in front of us leading off to the horizon or allowing us to anticipate a turn to the left or right.
One good example that can be seen in a wellpreserved print on YouTube is View From an Engine Front, Barnstaple (1898), just over two minutes in length. One of the most famous ones, which also can be watched on YouTube, is the Lumiere brothers’ Leaving Jerusalem by Train (1896), about 45 seconds in length and shot, in this case, from the back of the train as it pulls out of the station, farewelled by a cosmopolitan mixture of Europeans, Arabs, Jews and Turks on the platform.
This kind of film, which preceded narrative cinema, came to be known as the phantom ride genre, and Daniel Crooks has adopted the format and the evocative title for the work he has produced as recipient of the second Ian Potter Moving Image Commission. The Potter commission is a biennial year-long fellowship, including generous funding for technical research and production. Its inaugural winner was Angelica Mesiti, whose memorable work The Calling was reviewed in these pages two years ago, and the second commission has been equally successful.
Crooks is one of the best artists working with new media and technology because the devices he uses in the digital manipulation of video ima- Phantom Ride gery are never gratuitous. Among his earlier work was a study of an old Chinese gentleman doing tai chi in a park in Shanghai, and other works with trains and monorails that used a complex system of digital slicing to produce the illusion of time moving forwards and backwards at the same time.
More recently, Crooks has experimented with a different device, a long tracking shot — or what looks like a long tracking shot — advancing through the back lanes of Melbourne. The new device here was the digital stitching of separate tracking shots one into the other so that as you advanced down one lane, a kind of portal opened before you, leading into the next. It was like looking down an enfilade of rooms, except the artificial portal was designed to fit perfectly into the perspectival convergence of the space you were in, so that each space passed seamlessly into another one.
Part of the funding for the present commission has been applied to improving the technology by which spaces can be telescoped into each other in this way, since the mysterious distortion of time is enhanced when transitions are smooth and motion is steady. Part of the money also will have been spent on filming on long stretches of disused or obsolete rural rail lines, which are the ostensible subject of the work and the direct connection with the genre of the phantom ride.
The work is projected on both sides of a screen suspended in the middle of the space; as the artist observes, “I’ve presented it as a twosided video, the forward-facing journey on one side and the rear-looking journey on the reverse. The screen becomes a meniscus of the present, separating the past and the future.”
Among other things, the work could be con-