THEATRE OF THE MOTOR
Routemaster from the point of view of Paul Virilio's "Dromology"
What do we mean when we talk about the motor? If it is by definition a machine that transforms energy into rotary motion, then its effects are not limited to the movement of objects and people from place to place: motorized technologies are also ‘reality motors’ that control our perception of the world. Vehicles not only move us from place to place, they also set the world in motion before our eyes, bringing it to us in the form of the accelerating motion of appearances. Apart from helping us to move, speed also helps us to see.
The challenge that Routemaster takes up is the following: How to portray the pure speed of an automobile and an audiovisual ‘reality motor’, speed that is essentially unrepresentable? Something on which our modern technology, and also our modern perception of the world, is based. It is not a coincidence that one of the very first films portrayed a train arriving at a station, prompting spectators to rush away from the screen in horror. The automobile acceleration of the train and the audiovisual acceleration of moving images thus created the foundation for movie action scenes.
We have seen the same idea repeated over and over again, from the ride films in amusement parks to chase scenes in American movie spectaculars. But in these the drama has relied on grabbing the spectator’s attention by getting them to identify with the speed of the vehicle. It is a different matter to explore speed as pure acceleration. This could involve conveying an experience similar to the one felt by the first railway passengers of the 19th century, who were unused to speed and saw the scenery starting to move and become distorted and blurred.
Routemaster: speed as acceleration that leads nowhere. Minimalistic, repetitive, prowling music; minimalistic, repetitive, acceleration-based imagery. Starting with an accelerated series of exposures and ending in images burnt by light, the film is about representations of speed, or rather the impossibility of its representation as accelerating motion that can only lead to an accident when it tries to attain the absolute of speed – a sort of extreme stillness achieved in extreme motion.
The vehicle is reduced to speed lines; the representativity of the image is dissolved into light and shadow. The picture area breaks up into a series of images and various types of anamorphosis. Recognizable forms are blurred into speed and reduced to a moving grayness on black-and-white film. In Paul Valéry’s words, “speed destroys colours, only grayness remains”. Finally, as Virilio says, too much speed means too much light, we see nothing…
The disintegrating, destructuring effect of speed not only affects representation, we can also anticipate the car crashing, and the human body being stigmatized by speed – the body that is ecstatically fused with its speed vehicle to the point of an accident. Body and car burn up in the fire of speed, as though reflecting their own inability to compete with current speed technologies. For, the human body along with the auto-mobile vehicle, and even the cinema as an audiovisual vehicle, are already obsolete in this era of teletechnologies running on the speed of light.
Everything burns in the fire of speed: not just the human body, the vehicle and the representation, but also the film and the soundtrack. The speed of light is the light of speed that burns its material foundations – the attempt by the racing car and the film to exceed the limitations of their medium and merge with the absolute of speed.
In contrast to the Lumière brothers and contemporary action movies, Routemaster does not attempt to portray representations of speed, but rather the ‘essence’ of those representations: it is an attempt to portray pure speed as the fundamental nature of automobile racing and of the audiovisual medium. This makes Routemaster a kind of ‘metafilm’, a speed machine whose subject is cinema as a medium of speed. Besides being a film, Routemaster is itself a motor – a study of the motor that identifies with its object as pure acceleration. A motor that approaches the essence of film as a moving image, beyond representation, as a ray of light springing from the projector that unites with the primitive fascination of the campfire’s glow. The theatre of the motor is the theatre of pure speed.
Paul Virilio (born 1932) is a French architect and urbanist whose “dromology”, the science of speed, studies speed in its different manifestations.
Mika Määttänen is his Finnish translator.