Dir. Stephen Low
Programme: Special Events & Big Ideas Series
Canadian documentarian Stephen Low is one of those old school IMAX filmmakers, gifted with using the massive canvas of the large-format frame to both engage and enthral often young audiences. His Titanica was a formative film. I’ve still got it on Laserdisc, a preposterous compromise compared to seeing the 15perf 70mm presentation screened in the early ‘90s, but still a fine look at that famous bit of transportation failure.
With The Trolley, Low sets his sights on another 45 minute edu-taining doc, one best suited to school trips. He’s fashioned a love letter to the streetcar, which Low implies is the apotheosis of public transport, and the key to not only the character of the cities in which they run but the very future of clean, efficient public transport.
Through archive footage and some contemporary rides along both antique and new models, we’re treated to a theme park journey through time on the urban light rail systems that once dominated city streets. The trolley in the early 20th century was a plebeian, quotidian system of movement that eschewed smoke and scat and brought the everyman and everywoman to their respective destinations.
This is a highly romanticised vision for the wheeled chariot of the people, with a slightly portentous narration giving a solemnity to some of the more straightforward imagery. The film inadvertently echoes the opening of Lars Von Trier’s equally transportation fetishizing Zentropa, although, in fairness, The Trolley doesn’t dance with Nazi imagery like that other film.
As a pedagogical work, we do learn a few things, particularly about the evolution of the world’s urban transportation systems, but that’s only a minor piece in what otherwise is a full-on love letter to these devices. The celebration takes odd turns–a cutting dig at the mole-like brethren of the trolley, the underground subway, seems particularly unnecessary. Plus, for pure accuracy, it would have been nice to have a few shots of the Queen Street line with some beached red rocket flashing its four way blinkers, stopping both car and streetcar traffic, while locked into its tracks, unable to think outside its singular path. Carnival breakdowns make the evening news, while the common occurrence of one of these vehicles blocking the way for all, warrants nary a blip. Nor, of course, was mention made of when the streetcar makes the news for being the site of turmoil, be it the drunken, vomitous behaviour of club goers through to a mentally ill individual gunned down by local police, embroiling the city in a years long debate about use of force.
Still, while this is no film for journalistic rigour, it does manage to make something of the trolley’s humble commute, turning it into a more heightened, near mythic way of transportation. Projected on the massive screen, the undercarriage suspension or even the whirling washing treatments are made to feel wondrous. We glide along the rails with a sense of glee, the smooth ride providing a built-in Steadicam like experience. At its best, The Trolley makes one appreciate the simple things that we take for granted; at its worst, it’s an affable demi-hour of time spent enjoying some pretty pictures on a very big screen.
The cynical may not completely go along with the ride it takes us on, but as both spectacle and celebration, The Trolley gets the job done, serving both as a work of advocacy and as a way for schoolchildren and adults alike to rethink how the movement of people shapes, in fundamental ways, the cities we call home.
The Trolley screens:
-Sat, May 5 at 3:00 PM at Cinesphere
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.