…In a good old toy, there is apt to be nothing self-conscious about the use of materials: what is wood is wood, what is tin is tin, what is cast is beautifully cast. It is possible that somewhere in all this is a clue to what sets the creative climate of any time, including our own. – from the spoken prologue to Toccata for Toy Trains, by Charles & Ray Eames
Charles & Ray Eames’s 1957 short film Toccata for Toy Trains uses stop-motion and real-time animation techniques to set into motion the antique toys that are its subject. Set to Elmer Bernstein’s eponymous music for wind, percussion, and piano octet, Toccata recreates — through a glorious, kaleidoscopic collage of movement, color, and light — the Golden Age of the railroad, as it might have appeared to the eyes of our great-great-grandparents as children. Toccata deliberately sets its horizon line low for this purpose, and nearly everything is seen from below; trains loom up before us; stations and railroad yards tower above and spread beyond us; adult passengers absorbed in their personal business jostle us and push us aside.
Why is this film so charming? Part of the answer, perhaps, lies in how it brings us back to an age when technology was held in common and not owned by any one person, when it was not so familiar a part of life, and thus represented the adventure of exceeding our limits. The railroad, with its promise of speedy travel beyond the compass of a day’s walking, redoubled this sense of adventure: a journey, which originally meant a day’s worth of travel, had become a true voyage.
A steam-locomotive-powered trip on New York City’s Ninth Avenue Elevated Railroad from South Ferry into Harlem was faster than travel by any other mode hitherto, but it was still slow by our standards. There would have been frequent pauses while locomotives took on fuel and water, or were uncoupled from the trains, shunted off, and replaced. The journals and brakes of all cars would have had to be inspected and maintained periodically. All such labors lay uncovered to the general gaze. The traveler might arrive at a destination faster than ever before, but would know the effort involved.
(Copyright © 2011 by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.)