“Why doesn’t this feel more unusual?”
Clive Holden poses this question midway through his film, in the segment ‘18,000 Dead in Gordon Head’. The question is asked in response to witnessing the murder of a young girl, and his indifference that follows. He goes on to explain that by that time he had seen that crime 18,000 times in the media already, and seeing it in person was no different to seeing it one more time on television. He was disturbed more by his lack of a reaction than by the crime itself. The world thrives on violence and there have been those who have tried to explore it and its effect on society; there have been many more who have capitalized on the seemingly insatiable and infinite desire for violence; there have been those who have done both simultaneously. But there has never, to my knowledge, someone who has so eloquently, accurately and sensitively explored the effect on this violence on the human psyche as Holden does in his film. By laying down in the same spot where the dead girl lay, Holden literally puts himself into the place of the victim. By exploring violence without showing any he forces his viewer to feel what he, the spectator, feels. By transcending the confines of the film medium into poetry, Holden eliminates the visceral charge that the viewer gets while watching the films of Sam Peckinpah or Oliver Stone, just to name two directors who have purported to explore, while instead exploiting, the societal fascination with, and apparent dependence on violence.
While the segment ‘18,000 Dead in Gordon Head’ is only one of fourteen segments of Holden’s film, and is the most explicit exploration of violence and its effects, it is not the only one. The segment ‘The Jew and the Irishman’, in which Holden recounts a joke he once heard, “Did you hear the one about the Jew and the Irishman?” By skipping the joke itself and going straight to the punchline that Jews are greedy and not to be trusted, and the Irish are drunk, stupid and violent, Holden removes any potential humor and forces the viewer to come to grips with the absurdity of telling such jokes. That racism and cultural intolerance are not funny; that by telling such jokes people are spreading these misconceptions and making it harder for invisible boundaries to be crossed; that even if these crimes were committed unintentionally it makes no difference: the damage has been done.
‘Hitler! (revisited)’, the segment detailing Holden’s brother Niall’s struggle with mental illness, shines a light on the world’s eagerness to shut the mentally unstable away and not deal with them. He discusses his own feelings of guilt and the ultimate irony that, after suffering a stroke and being put into a mental hospital that, even there, Niall did not fit in. Holden says, of visiting his brother, “going there was scary, but it was worth it.” This statement can be also applied to what follows. The tragedy of Niall’s situation gives way to a discussion, Niall’s in fact, and his first one in some time, about Adolf Hitler. Holden states that, decades after Hitler’s crimes and death, we are only now beginning to ask: “How was Hitler?” and, more importantly, “Why was Hitler?” The answer is not an easy one, and perhaps the world will never know the answer, but Holden bravely makes an assertion that most people would likely either shy away from or reject, that Hitler represents what we fear most in ourselves. Hitler was a man who slaughtered millions of people on ethnic grounds, but the fact cannot be avoided: he was a man. If one human being was capable of this, why is it hard to assume that every human being is capable of this? The terrifying fact of the matter is that it is not hard to assume that, once the thought occurs.
After the thirteenth segment Holden has explored societal, racial, institutional and individual violence and has said all he wishes to say using words, thereafter choosing to let images speak for him. We first see trains, then the machinery inside trains, then trains again, and we hear nothing but train sounds and accompanying music for the last twenty minutes of the film. Why, during the segment that the film takes its name from, is there no dialogue? Do trains and their machinery speak for themselves? Does the viewer already know what the director is saying when he shows a train and what makes it work?
The train is power, the ability to escape and the former symbol of progressive technology. Though trains have little use for most people any more they are still present and will likely be around for a long time to come. Holden, like most people in the world today, wishes to escape the violence that defines and drives society, but he knows it is impossible. Like the train – pretty or ugly, modern or archaic, useful or destructive – violence is here to stay.