As InRO contributor Brendan Nagle once observed, the image — 24 of them needed per second to produce the illusion of movement and also produce sound — of a charging train has certainly been linked to the birth of cinema with L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1896, but perhaps the legacy the Lumière brothers’ locomotive has become more known for is the historically inaccurate hoopla regarding audience members being absolute dumbasses for thinking they were about to be run over by a train. This myth’s endurance and popularity over the years isn’t surprising, considering the romantic notions such a fable provides: that of spectators being so instinctually moved and astonished by what they were witnessing that they wholesale believed the supposed fiction on screen. More importantly, it speaks to the general power of cinema’s instinctive nature to teach: these viewers had never seen moving images before in their lives, and had to thus become accustomed to how to actually watch them.
It’s from this pedagogical inception point in history that Peter Tscherkassky — surely the finest Austrian avant-garde moving image artist currently working; watch the haunting Outer Space and then try producing another name — has recaptured this feeling of ecstatic discovery with Train Again, albeit with more modern techniques and technological apparatuses. He’s still using celluloid film like the Lumières, but he hasn’t done any filming himself — instead, Tscherkassky exclusively assembles found footage from a variety of media sources and submits it to a meticulous re-exposure process in a darkroom, all before transferring his final project to digital. It’s been six years since his last short, 2015’s The Exquisite Corpus, and the attention to detail displayed in Train Again immediately makes one aware of its prolonged creative gestation period and materialist inclinations — one of many dazzling moments includes a sequence of multiple overlapping film strips that race over one another, swerving left and right on the screen to create a sequenced pattern comprised of kino — while also effectively structuring itself toward its own perpetual internal collision of sorts with a rapid editing style that initially suggests impulsiveness. Tscherkassky’s images here are what we’ve come to expect from him by this point in his over four-decade career as a master chemist of photochemical means: beautiful, aesthetically impressive, transcendental, and where the compact, overwhelming onslaught of montage is always commendable for just how stimulating the end results are. But it’s long-time collaborator Dirk Schaefer’s discordant score that intensifies the experience nearly past its breaking point, best experienced in the final movement which brings everything to a shrieking crash: looping one 10-second scene of flying wheat grain mixed with scraps of metal from Unstoppable (another fine flick about choo-choos) and visually and aurally layering as many versions of said scene on top of one another, the duo achieve harmony through shrill derangement. Even after all of that, things never actually fly off the rails: much like a well-oiled machine wherein the internal mechanics have been made transparent before our very eyes, we return to our starting image in cyclical fashion, not unlike the slow crawl to a final stop on an especially long railroad line.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.