A cynic might say it was a sign of the apocalypse: 400,000 Australians tuning into SBS to watch The Ghan, a three hour ‘slow TV’ show depicting a long train journey, followed a week later by a 17 hour cut of the same thing (airing this Sunday). But that would not be in the spirit of things, the spirit being long and pensive slabs of oxygen-filled nothingness – with a shitload of trees.
If one were fishing for evidence of the end of times, a better place to look than the couches of the people watching would be the desks of those attempting to write meaningful pieces arguing for or against it. That is like studying the proxemic patterns of a patch of mud at the bottom of a sun-dried lake; The Ghan is what it is.
A review describing the Norwegian-inspired program as ‘boring’ or ‘like watching paint dry’ could’ve been written by my Google Home Assistant, who for the record, is knowledgeable about The Ghan, and happily answered my follow-up question after our chat about it – which naturally inquired about the meaning of life (“Somewhere between 41 and 43, she/it returned, referencing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Did Google’s algorithms ascertain that I am a Douglas Adams fan? Is this creepy or a coincidence? Also, can you guess what I got for Christmas?).
A ‘think piece’ championing The Ghan as some sort of ambrosial nectar of the gods – The Show We Need Right Now, Because Damn Life Is Fast In The Era Of The Smartphone – would be equally redundant. The program’s appeal is obvious to anybody for whom the idea of a lovely day involves sitting on a train, staring out the window at vast expanses of pleasant desolation, far from the tyranny of rush hour commuters, or any place dickish enough to play that godawful, ear-perforating song I Feel Glorious.
It’s nice to be inside on a slow moving train without Denzel Washington running on top of one, Gene Hackman chasing one, or Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in drag drinking inside one.
I am one of them. So it’s no surprise The Ghan accompanied me through my morning yesterday, while I went about my business – which may or may not have involved drilling my new assistant. Despite the buzz suggesting the show is au naturale and vérité, it has far too many contrivances (i.e. multiple camera angles, transitions to black and white, facts displayed via text on the screen) to fit a Warholian or Kaufmanian or Jaques-esque ethos: that performance is life itself, and vice versa.
I interpreted the program as moving wallpaper. Jerry Seinfeld once said of golf, “it’s just nice to be outside in a well-landscaped area”. A similar sentiment applies to watching The Ghan: it’s just nice to be inside, next to the window, on a slow moving train, with nary a ticket inspector or drunk bogan in sight, pushing aside recollections of such vehicles being used in more dynamic ways – i.e. Denzel Washington running on top of one, Gene Hackman chasing one, or Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in drag drinking inside one.
That is not to say, however, that the cultural precedents leading us to this point, of gazing at a train moving slowly across a landscape, are not rich, exquisite, and connected to the bedrock of the modern moving image. Trains capture two things synonymous with the heart and soul of film and television: the spirit of invention and the state of movement.
In this sense perhaps it is not surprising that one of the earliest, pioneering works of the medium was 1896’s L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, the famous Lumière brothers film depicting a train arriving at a station. Another milestone was reached less than a decade later, in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, widely acknowledged as the first narrative film.
It inspired the legendary Australian director Charles Tait, who three years later premiered 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world’s first feature film, containing a now lost scene involving a train, or at the least train tracks. Two decades on, one of the early masterpieces of the medium arrived in writer/director/star Buster Keaton’s 1926 Civil War-set chase film The General, containing long travelling shots of the slapstick genius in, on and around a locomotive.
I am not suggesting the makers of The Ghan (including director and executive producer Adam Kay) were directly referencing these works, especially given we know the show could have been set on the Spirit of Tasmania (sequel alert!) or a boat up the Daintree River. But precedents are important, and hat-tipping is only the most conspicuous acknowledgement of them. Other than equipment necessary for film and television production (cameras, microphones etc.), the train is the most significant machine in its evolution. Filmmakers continue to photograph it, and audiences continue to relish it.
In 2016, the influential virtual reality filmmaker Chris Milk showed a train on a different kind of track: the water. In what was at the time the largest collective VR viewing in history, Milk screened a VR film – deliberately referencing, in no small measure, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat – in which a locomotive defied the laws of physics and headed across a lake towards a new generation of besotted, gasping audiences.
In a sense, The Ghan is already behind the times. A virtual reality film could put us on board the train without removing us from the couch. Or, for those already on board, augmented reality apps/eyewear could have those text-based factoids appear before their eyes. But perhaps that is jumping the gun. Or maybe it is something to think about the next time you’re on (or watching) a slow moving train, clambering across a landscape looking out onto vast stretches of sweet nothing.
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