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In Rail, Geoffrey Jones elaborates the style, abstraction and excitement of his earlier Snow (1963) with an astonishing tonal palette. The film glides effortlessly from hushed reverence to giddy exuberance to elegiac restraint as it evokes the vitality of steam travel and its imminent passing. Though the film evolved from an earlier commissioned project on British Rail design, the famous blue mid-1960s rolling stock is represented only in a three-minute coda - a sort of tagged-on ending on behalf of the new in which the speeding electric trains go by as barely registerable blurs. "I think perhaps I was a little nostalgic for the railways as they were," admitted Jones, "and not all that keen on diesel and electric traction."
As if to underline Jones's reverence, the film opens as if in a church. Multiple shots of Victorian-styled railway station interiors mark out a hallowed space, inducing real awe. As always in a Geoffrey Jones film, rhythm and movement are everything. Like his acknowledged influences Len Lye and Norman McLaren, Jones edits to the musical score, but more interesting is the way in which the movement of his images seems to be organically determined by what they depict. Appropriately enough, Jones' camera slowly makes its way out of the station to stately, expectant brass by means of a tracking shot, a technique cinema stole from the railroad. Moving right to left, the camera picks up the path of an outgoing train and appears to borrow its energy to exit the station. Jones maintains this fluidity outside as things steadily build. The music shifts to a waltz at one brief point and Jones shows a close-up of the revolutions of the wheels.
Then, in a flurry of editing and percussive xylophone, the steam locomotive is at full throttle. The engine car bucks deliriously back and forth, threatening to eject us from the nearest window. The fireman heaves coal like a man possessed and we barrel on into the new day. It is a joyous, matchless scene of discovery.
Equally persuasive is the restraint and subtlety shown in implying steam's last days. It was just three years later that the last mainline steam service left its line. In Rail, an engine twinkles across a majestic bridge in the distance, and disappears.
*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Geoffrey Jones: The Rhythm of Film'.
"Geoffrey Jones : The Rhythm Of Film" - Produced by the BFI, the collection includes a mixture of British Transport Films, industrial shorts and personal works. Features: Snow, Rail, Locomotion, Trinidad and Tobago, Shell Spirit, This Is Shell, Seasons Project, Chair-a-Plane Kwela and Chair-a-Plane Flamenco.
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