You’ve Done a Man’s Work
— My father and I attended an opening night screening of Blade Runner in June 1982, at which a few scattered attendees left the theater disappointed that Harrison Ford’s new film was no Star Wars. Of course, Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is now rightfully regarded as one of the great achievements of the popular cinema. Here’s to hoping that Snowpiercer, Korean horror filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s new film has a shorter path to being recognized for what it is, as visionary and important a film as its science-fiction predecessors, from Metropolis to 2001 to Brazil. Entertainment Weekly magazine is hyping the popular appeal of the film, and they are correct, so there is some indication that the 2013 Korean film will play to some acclaim in the United States. But since it is so far only available in my local domain, Carbondale, on Video on Demand, I worry that at least Blade Runner had a thousand plus theaters in which to try, and fail, to succeed.
If you haven’t heard of Snowpiercer, the sleeper film of the otherwise commercially disastrous Hollywood summer of 2014, it concerns a train that has been running for decades after an attempt to reverse global warming goes terribly wrong, resulting in the freezing of the planet. The only survivors of this global apocalypse are those who boarded the Snowpiercer, built by Wilford, a train enthusiast and visionary who had the foresight to construct a massive circuit so that his Noah’s Ark on tracks could circumnavigate the global once per year.
Based very loosely on a 1982 French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer at first strikes one as completely preposterous. However, the plot absurdity is quickly overcome by the clear theoretical connection between the history of cinema and that of train travel. It would take a graduate course to fully explore the symbiotic relationship between train and cinema, but here are the highlights. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch explores in his masterwork of cultural studies, The Railway Journey, the rise to dominance of train travel across the 19th century transformed human civilization, from the development of suburban department stores to the horizontal expansion of the aspect ratio of landscape paintings.
Arriving at the end of the 19th century, the cinema was visually obsessed with trains. At the 1895 premiere of the Lumieres’ cinematographe in a Paris café, the 55-second film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, purportedly frightened spectators, worried that the train would come through the screen to run them over. Sigmund Freud built much of his psychoanalytic theory of neurosis via interviews with survivors of train crashes, the first non-military disasters that mangled human bodies within the visual purview of civilization. The Freudian cinema of the 20th century took up this track, seeing the linear natures of cinema and trains as fellow travelers. In 1938, French filmmaker Jean Renoir adapted Emile Zola’s La Bete humaine, a late 19th century novel about disastrous train travel by mounting his camera on the front of a speeding train, seeing the ties whisk underneath the image, thus allegorizing the rapid flow of frames out of which the cinema is built.
This cinematic presentation of the “tracks of desire,” the sense that the linearity of human fate is best captured by a one-way flow of moving images, is that which Snowpiercer so deftly defies. The film involves a proletarian revolution, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and Gilliam (John Hurt) which proceeds to open the locks between each train car, marching ever forward in the train, which has since its initial launch been stratified by social class, with the rich living in the front near the engine, and the poor stuffed in squalor into the tail, as if on the way to Auschwitz.
However, the central metaphor of Snowpiercer is not the linear deployment of film images, but their destruction. And this is not the only decimation of the 19th century: notwithstanding the environmental devastation of industrial history, the narrative structure cheekily assaults a truism from Leo Tolstoy, that master of telling us how bad trains are (witness Anna Karenina’s ignominious demise). Tolstoy’s theory of narrative is that there are only two stories, one about a stranger coming to town, and the other about a hero’s journey away from that town. Snowpiercer melts Tolstoy: hero Curtis is on a class warfare journey toward the front of the train, but the “town” itself is also moving, and in a circle. The train makes a continuous circuit around the globe, but the ultimate concern of the audience is not that which lies in the next car in front. In Hitchcock’s terms, the linear movement forward is the MacGuffin, that which the characters foolishly obsess over. Instead, the important question is, What lies laterally outside of the train? Does the world truly remain a barren tundra wasteland? The only way to find out is to stop moving forward. The only character in the film who thinks to do so is, not coincidentally, Korean.
Snowpiercer’s visual execution of this narrative transformation from line to circle is exquisite to behold. Curtis’ quest to perpetually enter the next forward train car allows the film to shift visual look and generic reference every ten minutes or so. Thus, the film begins in the back with the oppressed proletariat, shot in blue-bathed light expressing the abject squalor of those forced to eat slimy black bars of protein-rich bug parts. For a good deal of the opening, it strikes one as a Brazil rip-off, obsessed with the failure of industrial age machinery, making people’s lives miserable, not happy.
However, as the rebellion proceeds forward, and its members rise through the class system, director Bong Joon-ho modulates the film’s style. Windows allow snow-blind amounts of light to suddenly pour into the train, illuminating the opulence in which the aristocracy lives. This section invokes the films of Stanley Kubrick, in which brightly lit metallic bathrooms belie the filthy bestial humans who splatter bodily fluids across them. Indeed, the steam room car scene in Snowpiercer directly references the end of Kubrick’s The Shining, as the bathers listen to the Ray Noble orchestra’s recording of “Midnight, the Stars and You,” from 1934, the song that is playing as we come to realize that Jack Torrance is trapped in the hotel’s past.
By the time we get to the front of the train, and Curtis meets Wilford, a whole set of disparate films have been traversed. Tilda Swinton as the ice queen Mason brings her art house gravitas to the proceedings as a vicious enforcer of the class structure, stealing the children of the poor for the uses of the rich; in other words, Metropolis redux. Mason’s henchman, Franco cannot seemingly be killed, as if a cyborg from The Terminator. More arms are severed than in the entire Star Wars franchise.
However, the film’s crowning intertextual achievement is to Blade Runner. When Curtis finally fights his way into the engine room to confront Wilford (Ed Harris), the eccentric genius comments, “You’ve done a man’s work,” echoing Edward James Olmos’ exquisite line from Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. Deckard has single-handedly stopped the replicant revolution, so that he can escape with Rachel, with Gaff’s blessing, into the film’s only bright sequence (not coincidentally, outtakes from the second unit of The Shining). Snowpiercer ends differently, but what remains is that Bong Joon-ho has demonstrated that he too has “done a man’s work,” that is, demonstrate that great cinema is alive and well, even amidst the barren tundra that is otherwise the cinematic summer of 2014.
– Walter Metz