The Rear-View Mirror: The Great Train Robbery (1903)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

It’s easy to miss, but Edwin S. Porter’s short movie The Great Train Robbery from 1903 combines some original movie-making features as well as some first-time ideas for a rather young art form that are still in use today. It starts, innocently enough, with a title card, then a first stage set, where a station agent is bound and gagged by two robbers. There is a lot of overacting because there are no other title cards for the rest of the movie, so gestures and movement must express the characters’ inner lives. There isn’t even a cast list.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Takashi Shimura (1905)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

When people think of Akira Kurosawa, many of them will think of samurai fighting first and foremost, and the face that they will think of most likely is that of Toshiro Mifune. It’s no surprise – Mifune was an actor of tremendous charisma, he had a crackling, mercurial quality that makes it difficult for the audience to take their eyes off him.

Mifune and Kurosawa were frequent collaborators, making sixteen films together. Which sounds like a lot – but Mifune wasn’t the actor that Kurosawa worked with most often. That honour goes to Takashi Shimura (1905-1982), who co-starred with Mifune in Seven Samurai. Mifune’s character and acting were more immediately noticeable, but Shimura and his character Kambei were as key to the film’s success.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Rilke’s Panther (1907)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Everyone has a Rilke story, whether they realize it or not. How could it be otherwise that mine starts with that Panther behind bars. I swear, it must be a staple of a lot of movies and series just like the story of the scorpion and the frog, or the Wilhelm scream. Rilke’s Panther a story of entrapment: the panther paces back and forth, back and forth behind bars in its own hospitalistic way, because that is all it knows. It is one of many poems published in Rilke’s New Poems, published in 1907, although that specific poem might have been written as far back as 1902, when Rilke had a look at the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where there was a real black panther in a cage.

Painters in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris
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The Rear-View Mirror: James Stewart (1908)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

When I think of James Stewart, I think of his everyman persona, not too dissimilar to that of, say, Tom Hanks. I think of him as the perennial regular Joe, the guy next door. A decent man. Exasperated, perhaps, but fundamentally good. So it always comes as something of a surprise when I watch one of his films – Vertigo, obviously, but even Frank Capra’s Christmas evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life – and find something more interesting, more complicated.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Clyde Barrow (1909)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Somehow, I’ve forgotten that Clyde Barrow was a real person. Born in 1909 and shot dead in a hail of bullets only 25 years later during the Great Depression, an era that is not short of gun-wielding criminals, he is one of the prototypes of the bad boys I’ve written about some time ago. Together with his partner and lover Bonnie Pointer, he robbed more than a hundred stores, banks and gas stations. Although most of the violence came from Barrow, who shot at police officers as well as innocent bystanders, Parker never wavered in her complicity.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Akira Kurosawa (1910)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Those of you who’ve been following this site for a while will know that when Criterion brought out a complete collection of Ingmar Bergman’s films, I was there pretty much immediately. I got the collection, a gorgeous collector’s item filled with existentialist Swedish goodness, and since then we’ve been watching an instalment in the ongoing Bergman saga on a more or less monthly basis. What better way to start your weekend than by watching a marriage crumble into acrimony and psychological cruelty? Criterion’s since announced another similar set – The Complete Films of Agnès Varda – and chances are I won’t be able to resist… but really, what I’ve been hoping for ever since the Big Box of Bergman is an announcement that Criterion is doing the equivalent for another one of the greats of world cinema. I am, of course, talking about Uwe Boll.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Bernard Herrmann (1911)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

You don’t have to be into movies all that much to have been scared by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). He started composing when still a teenager and also worked as an orchestrator and conductor later on. One of his first notable contributions was for Orson Welles’ original 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Hermann’s music must have had a hand in the fact that so many listeners thought that the Martians were really coming.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1912)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect… ‘What has happened to me?” he thought. It was not a dream.”

When I read Kafka’s classic novella The Metamorphosis (written in 1912, first published in 1915) as a teenager, that first, audacious sentence grabbed me – but it’s the one that comes a little later that punched me in the gut. Kafka’s story about a man who finds himself turned into a beetle should be dreamlike, but the telling is deadpan, if at times a little droll, and it never once allows the reader to go for that easiest of interpretations: it’s a dream, it’s all metaphors, it’s one big symbol. Certainly there is symbolism there, but as we’re reading Kafka’s story, he doesn’t grant us that facile emergency exit of consigning it all to the realm of unreality. Kafka’s prose makes it seem, and feel, all too real.

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The Rear-View Mirror: James Joyce, Dubliners (1914)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Now that most of us have so much time to read – did you pause and think about Bloomsday the other day? That’s June 16, and it’s the day that James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. The whole weighty tome is set on less than 24 hours. Every year, there are people who walk the city of Dublin on that day, novel in hand, and go from one location to the next.

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