Phantom Rides in the Gymnasium

 

January is such a ball-ache. I put on half a stone over Christmas. That’s on top of the three stone I’ve already acquired since I gave up smoking. This January was the moment to try and tackle that with three self-imposed rules: 1) no booze, 2) no refined sugar, 3) no restaurants. My fourth rule for weight loss is something I’ve done in a half-hearted way for years, but which this January demands that I take more seriously – running, either outside or in the gym. I’m not really averse to running, and I’m happy to do it outside when the weather’s ok, but I’m not one of those hardcore types who does it in the morning, in the rain, or in the icy weather of midwinter. So this month I’ve been running in the gym. A lot.

As anyone who’s ever tried it knows, being in the gym is as much a matter of mental discipline as physical exercise. I mean, not just the mental discipline needed to get you there in the first place, but also the mental discipline involved in being in that environment without feeling totally crushed and demoralized. My gym is in the centre of Covent Garden, and used to be mainly frequented by chorus boys from the West End shows and ballet dancers from the Royal Opera House, all in the peak of physical condition. More recently it seems to have been taken over by rather serious bodybuilders who sit around in the sauna talking about how reading Jordan Peterson enabled them to stop feeling guilty about being ‘elite athletes’. Either way, it takes a certain act of will to walk into the changing room and get naked without feeling intimidated by the sheer physical presence of the bodies around you. Such feelings are irrational of course – as soon as I take off my trousers and reveal my Mr Blobby boxer shorts I take myself out of any game of comparisons. But the feelings remain, and mental discipline is needed to keep one’s head held high. Generally I like to think of all the pleasure I’ve had out of the many pies and pints that got me into this state. And who doesn’t run to an ipod soundtrack of defiant popular songs declaring that you are what you are and you don’t give a toss what anyone else thinks? ‘This Is Me’, ‘Let it Go’, ‘Defying Gravity’ – all the greatest hits from the pantomime season are invaluable when you’re struggling to breathe and the guy next to you who has been sprinting for the past half hour hasn’t even broken a sweat yet.

But running on a treadmill is also boring – something that requires a different kind of mental discipline to overcome. The knack here is to try and forget that you’re running on a machine in a central London gym in the depths of winter, facing a wall with a clock counting down the seconds more slowly than you could have thought possible, but rather to imagine that you are in some glorious location – flying over the sunlit uplands of a beautiful mountain landscape, or deep in an unspoilt forest, or racing along a warm golden beach while the sunlight plays on the surf. How overjoyed was I, then, to discover this January that the treadmill has precisely this facility in the form of its ‘Virtual Active’ programme. I mean – I knew such things existed from watching Sandra Bullock films (although she prefers the bicycle version), but I’d never actually tried it out.

Basically programmes like ‘Virtual Active’ are a sort of ‘phantom ride’ in your gym. Just as early film-makers sought to heighten the illusion of movement and three-dimensional space offered by the new technology of cinema by mounting their cameras onto the front of trains and trams travelling through distant and exotic terrains, so the makers of these programmes use steadycam systems strapped to themselves to give a ‘point of view’ shot as they ‘run’ around beautiful or famous locations. Now – just like the early film viewer – I find that time and space are collapsed by the wonders of moving image technology. From the ‘comfort’ of my treadmill I can call up these films, and ‘virtually’ run along the beaches of Terra Del Fuago, or among the tourists strolling through the streets of Venice, or over the foothills of the Alps. And just as for those early viewers, my sense of my physicality in the world is altered by the visions before me – not only in the broad sense of feeling as though I might be somewhere else, but also in the more detailed sense of having to subtly re-learn my engagement with the moving image in the face of the discrepancies between the experience I’m trying to fantasise and the reality of my physical experience. Much to my surprise, I have realised that it takes mental discipline to make this illusion work satisfactorily.

Perhaps the most famous anecdote of early cinema is precisely predicated on the idea that moving images necessitated a new understanding of the relationship between the spectator and the physical world around them. It is of course the story of audiences who flinched, or panicked at the cinematic vision of a train rushing towards them in films such as Edison’s The Black Diamond Express (1896)  or Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895). The story quickly entered the popular imagination, used as a way of distancing more ‘sophisticated’ viewers from the apparent naivety of others. Depending on who was telling the story the naïve viewers were ‘othered’ in a variety of ways, Rebecca Harrison notes the way that newspaper reports of the period used this anecdote to delineate their middle class readers from the supposedly more naïve working class audiences for early films.[1] Robert Paul’s The Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901) imagines the naïve spectator specifically as a rural subject as opposed to presumably more sophisticated urban viewers, while in The Magic Box (John Boulting, 1951) it is the historical audience as a whole that is imagined to be naïve – the important distance being between early audiences of the 1890s and contemporary audiences of the 1950s.

I’d like to think that I’m as sophisticated at least as the audiences of the 1950s, but the treadmill phantom ride has taught me that the relationship between my physical body and the screen I’m gazing at is more immediate – more instinctive – than I previously assumed. Several of the ‘runs’ take place in mountainous areas – the Swiss Alps for instance, or the Rockies in British Columbia. The tracks they go over are to put it bluntly, more suited to hiking than to running. Large stones make up the trail-path – the kinds of stones that if you landed on them badly during a run, would reward you with a broken ankle. On other trails the relationship to the ground seems even more precarious – one of the Alps routes is along a path cut into a stone cliff-face which drops steeply down to a mountain lake below. I mean, it’s spectacular scenery, but the path is barely wide enough to run along and at points the rock face bulges out alarmingly so you’d have to duck out over the precipice to get past if this were real life. The first couple of times I encountered these features, they made me surprisingly anxious. No – I didn’t flinch to avoid the bulging rock face, or look down to make sure my feet weren’t landing on big ol’ boulders. I knew that I was running on a steadily moving rubber belt in an indoor gym nowhere near any cliff-face falling into a mountain lake. But I still felt… unnerved. Similarly an urban route through the centre of Wellington, New Zealand shows the camera hovering infuriatingly over the curb line apparently unable to decide if we’re running on the pavement or in the road. It dodges between the street furniture and the curb, and pays no attention at junctions to the possibility of oncoming traffic. When the illusion of being in another space entirely is the focus of your whole mental and physical being – the only thing that is stopping you from collapsing in exhaustion – these discrepancies are surprisingly distracting. I’ve had to develop an alternative mental illusion to overcome them, so now I imagine to myself not that I’m running on the surfaces I see before me, but that I’m floating slightly above them.

That sense of floating or flying is of course precisely the sensation often associated both with train travel in its early days, and with the phantom ride which used the train or tram literally to replicate the effect on film. Christian Hayes quotes Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s account of early rail travel as a sort of permanent suspension between the sensation of flying and the fear of destruction suggested by the train smash – a tension I recognise on the treadmill between the lovely floating feeling of running without running (the belt does half the work, you’re actually stationary despite the physical and visual illusion of moving through space), and the constant anxiety that you might trip or pause and be catapulted backwards by the belt, into the weights machines behind you.[2] Other discrepancies in the treadmill image also emphasise this tension. The ‘speed’ of the run in the film is constant – it doesn’t match the speed at which the treadmill is set – and indeed often it’s quite hard to discern if the image is even vaguely approximating the pace one is running. At other times it’s quite easy – in the run around Sydney Harbour one can enjoy the bizarre sensation of jogging slowly but still inexorably overtaking a man who appears to be cycling quite energetically…

Billy Bitzer strapped to the front of a train filming a 'phantom ride'
Billy Bitzer strapped to the front of a train to film a ‘phantom ride’

Unlike the earlier films of trains arriving at stations, of course, the ‘phantom’ of the phantom ride refers to the fact that this illusion of movement is one with no indication of what is the propellant. Typically in a phantom ride filmed with the camera mounted in front of the train or tram, you don’t see the engine (here’s an 1898 example filmed at Barnstaple). You look forward instead at the landscape as it is magically eaten up by your progress. Hayes quotes Frank Gray’s comment that this effect ‘enables the viewer to become disconnected from the presence of a real train’, creating ‘the illusion of a mysterious, dream-like agency that was carrying the viewer through space and time’. Here there does seem to be a discrepancy between my treadmill experience and the experience of early film spectators. After the twenty minute mark of my run, the herculean effort I’m putting into the continuing running motion of my legs is no frigging ‘dream like agency’ to me. The struggle to breath, and the inclination to throw up are all too real. The point of the treadmill apparatus is that it will help me to maintain the self-delusion that there is a causal connection between my physical efforts and the continuous forward motion I see in the image before me – giving me an incentive to continue.

halestours
Hale’s Tours

For many early viewers of the phantom rides of course, the disassociation with the train suggested by its absence from the image was compensated for in the exhibition experience itself. While the films were often shown to audiences in conventional settings, they were also experienced in the much more specialist viewing environment of the Hale’s Tour. These tours were introduced by George C. Hale at the St Louis Exposition in 1904, and within a few years there were over five hundred similar exhibitions throughout America, and across Europe and elsewhere, including at least four in London, two of which were on Oxford Street.[3] Philippe Gauthier has collected several contemporary descriptions of these attractions, which make clear their intention of uniting the illusion offered by the moving image with physical sensations perpetrated on the bodies of the spectators. The venue was mocked up like a railway station, with punters paying their ticket, going to a platform and entering a train carriage. Inside the carriage resembled a real railway carriage, except that the end wall – which every seat faced – was a screen onto which the phantom ride was projected. Electric fans were fitted to the outside of the carriage so that breezes playing through the windows gave the illusion of movement, and ‘the make believe train car rocked on its base, letting viewers think they were riding the rails. This little rocking motion was accompanied by the noise of a train in motion’[4] According to another account, ‘one could readily believe we were on a tramcar; [with] the rumbling of the wheels, the clanging of the bell to clear the traffic, the motion of the vehicle when rounding corners…’ A third observer noted that there was even ‘a notable tendency on the part of those seated down in front to arise and shout warnings to countless pedestrians who were apparently about to be run down’.[5]

Again, these accounts speak to me of my treadmill experiences. That machine is designed to increase the illusion that there is a connection between my physicality and the image before me, just as a Hale’s Tour carriage was. When the terrain in the image represents a steep climb, the machine is programmed to alter the incline of the treadmill to match the illusion. And while the account of passengers on Hale’s Tours calling out to images on the screen to ‘get out of the way’ seems quite fanciful, I must confess that the running routes through Venice and Sydney on my treadmill are my least favourite, precisely because of my frustration at the crowds milling around and the tendency of the camera to simply run straight towards an approaching pedestrian only to slip past them in what feels like an unseemly proximity. In the route through the Botanical Gardens in Wellington, there is a moment on an ornamental bridge where an elderly man actually reaches out and pulls his wife towards him out of the way of ‘my’ approach.

I want to close with a couple of observations – first about the aesthetics of the Gymnasium phantom rides and secondly about their ability to collapse not just space, but also time – just as their predecessors did. I think phantom rides are undeniably beautiful. This particular forward movement through space means that every part of the frame is in motion, often creating a spectacular three dimensional effect. It works particularly well in woodland or similar terrain where there are multiple objects in multiple planes before the camera, each shifting according to its own co-ordinates. Often it’s the simple pleasure of observing these effects that keeps me going on the treadmill. The routes through the woodlands are the ones that give me the most pleasure, or those moments when a similar effect is unexpectedly created – a flock of sheep scattering as you approach on the lower slopes of the Matterhorn, or a flock of seagulls flying up around you in some other part of the Alps. It’s no surprise that such effects were popular too with early film-makers. Think of Edison’s early kinetoscope film Feeding the Doves (1896), Mitchell and Kenyon’s Tram Ride into Halifax (1902) or the luminous Hepworth film of Burnham Beeches (1908) – not technically a phantom ride, but a one of a series of ‘stereo scenics’ that Hepworth made specifically to exploit the magical spatial effects of this kind of movement.

I’ve mentioned the ways in which both early films and the treadmill are able to transport viewers across the world to different locations – to place them immersively into a different environment. But of course as well as collapsing space, these films also collapse time. The point seems obvious when looking at the earlier films – Mitchell and Kenyon’s tram rides through northern towns for instance (many of them collected here by the BFI), allow you to witness a street culture entirely different from that of today. The streets seem busy without being crowded – people walk in the road in a way that indicates a different relationship to the vehicles that they might encounter there – horses and traps, bicycles and trams but only a few cars – the road remains part of the pedestrian’s realm in Rochdale Tram Ride (1905), although perhaps not for much longer. Even the camera positioned on the tram seems to have a closer relationship to the street than one could imagine a camera mounted on a bus might have today – the scale is smaller (were trams smaller than busses?). You can see the tram driver coming in the opposite direction smiling, and the schoolboys who run excitedly in front of the tram, knowing that they will form part of the film, seem to have no fear of slipping in the piles of horseshit visible in the road and being run over. Children sit on the curb, and tradesmen simply stand in the street outside their businesses watching the world go by. They all react to the camera of course, and some of the incidents are undoubtedly staged – the man apparently teaching his friend to ride a bicycle is surely too fortuitous to be accidental. This is aside from the obvious differences in dress, and street furniture – the woman in clogs and shawl running across the road and the crowd gathered around the steam traction engine. I know of no other film which so firmly transports one back in time than Rochdale Tram Ride. My grandmother, who grew up in neighbouring Oldham used to say that her earliest memory was the taste of the paintwork on the railing at the front of the tram – just at her mouth height as she stood next to the driver, watching his every action in preparation for her great ambition – to become a tram driver herself. Watching this film I feel utterly immersed in her world.

In years to come will the treadmill films have the same power to transcend time? They already have it. The complete dominance of the streetscape by cars in the run through downtown Los Angeles, the fact that some of the tourists in the routes around Venice and the Italian lakes are using their phones – but not that many – dates these films to perhaps around seven or eight years ago (the latest uploads on the company’s ‘news’ website are from 2015, and my gym’s films are definitely older than that!). I’ve mentioned figures reacting to the camera – the man pulling his wife out of the way for instance. In the California beach one fit dude walking with his girlfriend makes a ‘most muscular’ pose at the camera as it passes – the kind of move that would make me squirm in real life – and even on the treadmill makes me think ‘what a dick!’ but also something which places the film very firmly within the street life of our own age. (What was his intention? To make fun of me the runner, or to give me friendly encouragement?) and again, that’s before the more obvious observations about clothing and who is visible and not visible that will date the film more noticeably as time goes on (at the end of the Sydney harbour route a topless man runs past – something that you will definitely not find in the Edwardian films). I’m already running in a landscape from five or six years ago. And yes, it takes an effort of mental will to do it. And no, I haven’t lost any weight despite my rigorous time-travelling regime. And yes, I’ll be going back on the booze when we hit my birthday on February 23rd.

 

[1] Rebecca Harrison, From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (London: IB Tauris, 2017), Ch. 1.

[2] Christian Hayes (2009) ‘Phantom carriages: Reconstructing Hale’s Tours and the virtual travel experience’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 7:2, p. 193.

[3] Chris O’ Rouke, ‘London’s Silent Cinemas: Hale’s Tours’ [blog] at http://www.londonssilentcinemas.com/westendexhibts/hales-tours/

[4] Cine-Journal (27 June 1914), p. 24 – quoted in Phillipe Gauthier (2001), ‘The movie theatre as an institutional space and framework of signification: Hale’s Tours and film historiography’ in Film History, Vol 21, p. 327.

[5] Both quoted by Gauthier (2001) from Stroller, “Picture Shows as I See Them” in Kinematograph Weekly 1st October 1908, p. 481 and E.C. Thomas, “Vancouver, B.C. Started with ‘Hale’s Tours’”Moving Picture World 15th July 1915, p. 373.

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