Mar 24, 2010
Watch this film immediately if you are partial to any of the following: elevated trains, jazz, vintage views of New York City, sunrises, or sunsets. It ranks up there as one of the most sublime train films ever made, and the combination of the Duke Ellington’s soundtrack, upside-down-all-around angles, and lightning fast cuts make this commuter train feel more like a ride on the Coney Island Cyclone!
The train featured is none other than the Third Avenue El, which suspended Manhattan service in 1955, two years after this film was made. Pennebaker writes, “I wanted to make a film about this filthy, noisy train and itâ€™s packed-in passengers that would look beautiful, like the New York City paintings of John Sloan.” The Ashcan artist Sloan was also fascinated by the El, and his impressionistic paintings capture the lively ambiance — if not the movement — of the train. His painting Pigeons in particular could almost be an outtake from the film.
But I wonder if Pennebaker was also inspired by the short film Third Avenue El, which was also made in the 1950’s and contains many avant-garde views of the city along with a diverse (and often funny) portrait of the passengers that took the train on a daily basis.
New York City’s elevated trains have made their mark on popular culture, often as a menacing symbol of an overcrowded urban landscape. But on the eve of its destruction, Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express proved that the new vantage points afforded by the towering El could also be glorious.
More on Ashcan artist John Sloan: “The fun of being a New York painter… is that landmarks are torn down so rapidly that your canvases become historical records almost before the paint on them is dry.â€
More on the New York City El in photography and film, from the ICP blog Fans in a Flashbulb