Sunday, March 13, 2011

`The Intensity of American Life'

This short film possesses the fascination of family scrapbooks, old Sears, Roebuck catalogs and Ulysses. The fascination is such that when I first watched it, I suspected fraud, a postmodern goof. It seems too beautiful and sad to be true. In the spring of 1906, a filmmaker mounted a camera on the front of a trolley in San Francisco and recorded life swarming along Market Street. Today, cameras move and editors shuffle frames. In this century-old film, it’s the world that moves and the camera that remains constant, if not stationary.

That the film was made days before the earthquake is less interesting than seeing our ancestors (many, presumably, soon to be dead) move about – drive, lumber, stroll, scamper, promenade, cavort – in a recognizably modern manner. Two years earlier, their Irish cousin, Leopold Bloom, a freelance advertising canvasser, moved like them around Dublin:

“Before Nelson's pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston Park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower, Harold's Cross.”

More than twenty years earlier, Henry James in Portrait of a Lady was associating trolleys with a distinctly American bustle:

“Henrietta Stackpole was struck with the fact that ancient Rome had been paved a good deal like New York, and even found an analogy between the deep chariot-ruts traceable in the antique street and the overjangled [doesn’t that look like a Joyce coinage?] iron grooves which express the intensity of American life.”

Closer to home in every sense, James returned to the United States after a twenty-year absence in 1904-05. In the second chapter of The American Scene, “New York Revisited,” he writes of his birthplace, so disturbingly transformed:

“Your condition was not reduced to the endless vista of a clogged tube, of a thoroughfare occupied as to the narrow central ridge with trolley-cars stuffed to suffocation, and as to the mere margin, on either side, with snow-banks resulting from the cleared rails and offering themselves as a field for all remaining action.”

Can we expect a man born in 1843 to share our fondness and fascination for trolleys (he loved driving with Edith Wharton) and the pace of the world they occupied? In his poem about James’ return to America, Donald Justice refers to the novelist’s sense of “a sort of freshness being lost,” a sense we know well.

[Go here for a 60 Minutes episode about the film.]


Anonymous said...

i would like to get hold of a 1920-ish camera and try filming using only the craft available then. It would be interesting to explore one's ignorance of technique and modernity; the imagination would have to leap into the fore, to adapt and make do and transform.

Helen Pinkerton said...

I had just read the following in James' The Bostonians when I read your column today. Verena Tarrant is riding a streetcar from Cambridge to Boston:

"It hardly seemed direct to poor Verena, perhaps, who, in the crowded street-car which deposited her finally at Miss Chancellor's door, had to stand up all the way, half suspended by a leathern strap from the glazed roof of the stifling vehicle, like some blooming cluster dangling in a hothouse. She was used, however, to these perpendicular journeys, and though, as we have seen, she was not inclined to accept without question the social arrangements of her time, it never would have occurred to her to criticise the railways of her native land."