December 10, 1903 [The Great Train Robbery]

When I watch a moving picture, I expect continuity—that is, the (more or less) unmitigated display of what is happening, while it happens, in actual time. So if someone walks across a field and into a house, the camera shows us exactly that. This is reassuring, albeit a bit dull, verging on the "foolish consistency" that can not only plague but encourage a little mind. More than reassuring, though: expository, if I may use a dry word, an exposure of action reproduced in silent exactitude.

But how we yearn for action!—as M. Méliès has thoroughly (all right, furiously) noticed; and, like everything in this new century, the moving picture seems to be moving downhill, at a more and more hectic pace, the already-blurry images elusive with speed.

And while I have never been a devotee of the Wild West genre in story or song, I feel the undercurrent pull of its plain talk and direct lines of action. The frontier, as Turner* so adamantly observes, encourages democracy. "But," to quote him directly, "the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits." His concern here is with the resulting "spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit," with attendant ills such as "lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wild-cat banking." These are public concerns, and well worth considering. But Turner also notes the personal influence of the frontier, as one "wave" follows another, from pioneer to settler to the "men of capital," as he quotes from Peck's New Guide to the West of 1837—and even more troubling to him, to the lawless wild men who live beyond the settlers' civilizing influence.

This is where The Great Train Robbery begins: with capital and "individual liberty beyond its proper bounds"—and not as a theoretical-historical analysis but a slam-bang tumble, full of gun smoke and arched eyebrows, mustaches jutting like wings, square-dancers kicking up heels and deputized in the mad race against the galloping gang of badmen. And Edwin S. Porter puts it together in a startling manner, as the camera jumps from one scene to another, both occurring simultaneously, asking us to juggle with our eyes. Suddenly the French magician's Moon madness seems perhaps even more stunning, if only because something similar is happening here on Terra firma—and in the dream-logic of simultaneity, my eye feeding me the scenes more quickly than any stage could manage. Words on a page can describe such leaps, but to see it makes me reel.
We're even closer now to a cinema limited only by the weight of the camera and the temperament of those who operate it. And while the world on screen may continue to move blithely by, a new sleight-of-hand emerges to show us everything at once, action without surcease. Turner frets we have run out of frontier, but I believe we've found a new one, as always forged and stolen and improvised by desperadoes and speculators, both breaking and being broken by the land, cheating and dying and staring us down, their six-guns turned at us, knowing we're watching—but we do not duck.

*Editor's Note: The CV refers here to Frederick Jackson Turner's enormously influential "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which he first delivered to a gathering of historians in 1893 at Chicago, then the site of the World's Columbian Exposition.


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