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Monday, December 03, 2007

New York City Subway

Edward Hopper, Night on the El Train, etching, 1918
(on display at the Hopper Exhibition, Washington National Gallery of Art)

...once upon a time New York Subway was known as the El Train...

(click here for the Romanian version)

My son came to visit me and puzzled a couple of Washingtonians by asking them about the nearest T station. Later that year I went to my son and it was my turn to puzzle a couple of Bostonians: I asked them about the nearest Metro station.

When it comes to naming the underground transit system any given city in America seems to do it in its own way. In Boston it is T. As the train approaches the last station the conductor announces graciously, thank you for riding the T, then he adds, please, don't forget your personal belongings!

In DC the name is Metro. At the last station we are thanked for choosing the Metro and reminded to take all our belongings. Some people listen to this, some don't. So it goes.

In Philadelphia the name is El. As for Chicago, well, the matter seems to be much more complicated: I've just talked to my friend Larry, who lives there and he explained me that the El runs in Chicago on the Loop. As simple as that.

John Sloan, Six O'Clock Winter, In New York the subway is called just that: Subway, but in the old times it used to be named the El, too, as it was running on elevated trackage in all Manhattan. John Sloan painted the Six O'Clock Winter in 1912: two parallel worlds, each one with its own dynamics - the people down, the El up. I saw this painting some time ago at an exhibition organized at the Phillips Collection. The two universes living in parallel reminded me of the Fallen Angels of Wong Kar-Wai. There is an image there joining two scenes: the room where the main character is alone, the street in the evening, full of life - each of the two scenes is unaware of the other. A great image: it comes from Chris Doyle, one of the greatest cinematographers of all times.

Another painting, created by John Sloan in 1922, The City from Greenwich Village. So, in 1922 the El was still there, coming from Broadway and crossing the 23rd Street and the Fifth Avenue. The Flatiron Building was on its place since 1902.

London was the first city to have an underground transit system, in 1863. It was followed by Budapest, 1894 (I traveled once on that old line of the Hungarian capital). Then came Paris Metro, in 1900.

As for New York there was an attempt to start a pneumatic subway line in 1869 (the Beach Pneumatic Transit, under Broadway, between Warren and Murray Streets).

It didn't surpass the status of a mere curiosity; some apocryphal stories claim that the abandoned line still exists and mysterious events take place every now and then. Actually it remained only in the New York folklore and in some New York restaurants as a mural image:

The real underground system in New York started operation on October 27, 1904, almost 35 years after the opening of the first elevated line (Wikipedia). The underground line was between City Hall and Grand Central Station.

It was Billy Bitzer who made a short movie in 1905, Interior NY Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street, for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company.

(Click here if the video does not appear)

The camera platform was on the front of a train following another train on the same track. Lighting was provided by a specially constructed work car on a parallel track. The ride was from the 14th Street (Union Square) up tot the 42nd Street (Grand Central Station) (I followed here the summary as provided by the Library of Congress, where the original is kept).

The stations look today pretty much the same they looked from the very beginning. Only the Grand Central Station is not the same. In 1905 the station was the one built by Cornelius Vanderbuilt in 1869; the station in use today would be inaugurated in 1913. Anyway, New York stations keep their old style (the same as it is on the old subway line in Budapest). Look for instance at this Art Nouveau 14st Street Eagle:

And the legacy is visible even in the way the lines are referred either by numbers or by letters, as it was from the beginning, when several companies were managing separate subway networks.

Coming back to the movie, it seems a banal documentary. It is much more, actually, besides the obvious technical performance. A movie six minutes long, exactly the time the train takes to run from Union Square to the Grand Central. The movie follows a story from start to conclusion, the story and the movie itself are created step by step in front of us (think at De Brug of Joris Ivens, from 1928, or at his Philips-Radio, from1931; and think at the movies of Vertov).

The train is here the mysterious personage, running from us, trying to escape, disappearing in the darkness, caught again by our sight, disappearing again; there is a silent story, told only by this dialog between darkness and light, evolving to its logical conclusion: the platform on Grand Central, full of greatly dressed passengers. The story is perfectly balanced, one more image would be no more necessary.

The lighting device is not hidden and so we follow in the same time the story of the movie itself: its creation comes in front of our eyes in the dialog between the train from the movie and the platform following with the light on the parallel track. Think again at Chelovek s kino-apparatom of Vertov!

I mentioned earlier the name of Chris Doyle. I think the three greatest cinematographers in movie history could be considered Billy Bitzer (who worked with Griffith), Eduard Tisse (who worked with Eisenstein) and Chris Doyle (who works with Wong Kar-Wai).

(New York, New York)

(Early Movies)

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