There was a film review of the new Wes Anderson flick The Darjeeling Limited last week in The New Yorker in which the reviewer asks: Can you have a thriving movie culture in a country without enough trains? It's a great question-- for those of us interested in all genres of American art. I, too, have often wondered what happened to this symbol of movement, of industry, of adventure, of direction and misdirection that was once the selection of choice from our culture's stock supply of objects-for-artistic-inspiration. Think of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Think of Billy Wilder's "Some Like it Hot." Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. What would any of these be without trains?
Of course, we still have "trains"... but today's commuter rails don't seem to have the same je ne sais qua. For one thing, people just aren't on them long enough. Not long enough to strike up a conversation and develop a mysterious-cum-complicated relationship. Not long enough to write a work of some length about an existential crisis. Not long enough to pine for a stranger who wears his hat at a jaunty angle or who swishes her skirt in a sassy way. Not long enough to rue the day one was ever born. And commuter rails don't have that old, world-weary, lonesome sound-- the chugging and the hissing and the whistling-- that old passenger trains did. No, we're definitely missing something with the absence of the train.
It's ironic that the passenger train, which at one point in history represented modernity and speed, has become a wholly un-inspiring, even archaic, symbol of slowness and inefficiency. Now, trains are only good for moving around stuff that is in no particular hurry to get where its going. Grain. Steel. Timber. Pallets of crates of boxes of stuff.
I live near a train track and often hear the whistles in the early morning and late evening. I think they seem even sadder now.