The Trolley: Genius Invention Gets Love from IMAX Treatment

By Liam Lacey

Rating: A

Thought experiment:  You are trying to review an IMAX film, The Trolley — a poetic celebration of the history and future of the electric street car — by IMAX veteran Stephen Low, but you are watching it on a computer link.

Though the film surveys 39 cities in 16 countries, it is unapologetically and justifiably Toronto-centric. Muddy York may lack in winning sports teams and beautiful public spaces, but the city has proved obstinately loyalty to its streetcars. Toronto is only city in North America that operates a streetcar network that has been essentially unchanged in layout and operation over the last century, with 11 routes, 83 kilometres, and 685 stops.

Go... streetcar!

Go... streetcar!

Unfortunately, since you don’t possess an IMAX screen or projector in your apartment, how do you communicate the IMAX experience? 1. Make yourself very small. You filthy worm! Lay flat on the carpet and stare up at your modest-sized television, where you have used your AppleTV to project the image. Result: Ineffective and needlessly degrading. 2. Watch the film on your iPhone while riding the TTC streetcars on St. Clair West.  The movement of the car along the street, and the different motion of camera movement on your phone as you lurch back and forth while holding the over-head strap, creates a sensation dissimilar to the IMAX experience. Result:  Result: Very immersive but compromised by car-sickness. 3. Watch the film sitting comfortably on your sofa and make mental adjustments according to your familiarity with other IMAX screenings you have seen.  That scene where the streetcar goes whooshing through Milan? Nice. Now imagine that six stories high. Nicer!

I opt for number three.  Let’s start at the beginning.  There’s something historically Canadian about The Trolley, a film that explores a particular technological development and its social effects. Marshall McLuhan, following the model of historian Harold Innes, assigned students to consider one piece of technology, say a glass lens or the stirrup, and trace its effect on civilization. Low’s film takes a similar approach to the streetcar, noting its essential elements — the steel wheels on a track, the electric motor powered from above, shared transportation — and tracing its democratic impact (“Everyone could go everywhere together”) and the challenges to the brilliant technology over the past 150 years.

The metal wheels on a metal track are the first important element. Before engines, there were track systems, starting in the 1820s, allowing a horse to draw a car full of people through the city streets. The downside was that the horses pooped a lot, which made this the opposite of a clean transportation system. The shift came in the 1880s with the use of Frank Sprague’s widely imitated system in Richmond, Virginia, which employed a “trolley pole” (a poll with a grooved wheel on the end that “trolls” the power line above it). 

“The power is drawn from above,” says narrator Maurice Dean Wint, “and perhaps the inspiration as well.”

The meaning is clear. God is on the side of streetcars, the cleanest and most efficient achievement in transportation in history.  And who’s the Devil? That would be the automobile, an inefficient, anti-social and grossly polluting system of transportation that introduced “a new philosophy of self-absoption” to our culture. Also, the movie tells us, the auto manufacturers were streetcar murderers. In the late 1940s, when streetcars were about to assume their rightful place as the urban democratic transpiration system of choice, companies like General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil conspired to buy up streetcar companies to destroy them. The story, while true, doesn’t explain the sheer extent of the decline in streetcar usage during the rise of the highway and suburban book of the 1950s. Inner cities declined: Drive-in movies, motels, and car vacations boomed. Streetcars seemed destined to end up in the streetcar cemetery (we see one of those in the film.)

Low’s film includes lots of beautiful archival footage, which make the trolley look like the Zelig of transportation systems, popping up in photos everywhere from Brooklyn (the Brooklyn Dodgers were originally the “trolley dodgers”), Dresden and Hiroshima. Streetcars are also considered, lovingly, as objects of design: The boxy Peter Witt design from the nearly 1900s look like gazebos on wheels, and are still in use in Milan, Italy. The gorgeous art deco-influenced tubular PCC (Presidents’ Conference Committee) cars, known as the Red Rockets in Toronto, with their cream-and-burgundy bowling shirt two-tone shells.

The film’s narrative arc, which sometimes teeters on the hokey, traces a line from disaster and redemption: The awful automobile, and the apocalyptic effects of air pollution, stand as the “last act of civilization.” Then comes the new dawn, a worldwide revival of the “trolley” in its new incarnation, the light-rapid transit system.  Around the world, countries are beginning to rediscover the genius of the 19th century technology:  Cars on steel wheels, full of people, drawing power from above, and helping to save the planet.

The Trolley. Written and directed by Stephen Low. Narrated by Maurice Dean Wint.  Screening free May 5, 3 pm at Toronto’s Ontario Place Cinesphere.