Toccata for Toy Trains

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

This has got to be the Eames’ masterpiece. It’s so jaw-dropping that it feels almost like the masterpiece of the whole medium, at least insofar as the medium lovingly photographs things that exist within and move through a physical space. The introduction is clear, as are its concepts about toys and play and craftsmanship. After the introduction all the curatorial and cinematic stops get pulled. There’s a story here, and a pace that builds to quite a crescendo at the same time that it remains ultimately, classically calm. Trains in a station, in a city. People approaching, to sell or to travel or to recreate. They’re off, severally, and in several directions. After exploring and enjoying and all manner of movement, they all come back. How wonderfully simple, and sufficient. How surprisingly, amazingly abundant!

It is interesting how “Toccata” hearkens back to the city symphonies of the 1920s. It extends the magisterial opening of Walter Ruttman’s Berlin… (as well as Jean Renoir’s La Béte Humaine) to the entire length of an entire film. But of course it’s not quite like those early city symphonies. Those films are going to work, as it were, or to an array of sociological settings, or a chain of dire conflicts. This film is just going out to play. As such it would seem to be removed from practicality, even reality. It is, at least until you start making connections. And it’s what you sense and see behind the nice little story that so impresses.

The assembly of objects—they’re all toys, of course—here is beyond amazing, or describing. The scale and variety too; the Eames have amassed a whole world here. It’s like visiting the Victoria and Albert (in Bethnal Green, East London) or Edinburgh museums of childhood. Like, but better, because in this case everything is taken out from behind the glass. Actually, that would be something of an understatement. Toccata for Toy Trains takes the modeled play of the Eames’ earlier Parade (1952, q.v.) and multiplies it almost incalculably. These most beautifully fashioned toys are operated and articulated in the most wonderful, creative ways imaginable. Should I say it again? Talk about scaffolding!  (Cf. Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development, 1934/’78.) This is play of practically godlike proportions.

That observation applies as much to the capture as to the things captured. To this film, in other words. In addition to its recreational virtuosity Toccata for Toy Trains is an anthology of photographic possibility. The sense of planes, of depth, of integral space is utterly (Orson) Wellesian. But the actual depth of field is so incredibly narrow, and active. Now who do we cite? Von Sternberg? That’s it, I guess, but this is so much healthier! Focus, field, composition, movement. The photography is dizzyingly multiple, and yet no problem for any little kid to follow. For all of the multiplicity—this goes back to that story, and to the techniques the Eames use to tell it—everything is always clear.

There are a few racially/attitudinally unfortunate toys here, but in the end the fundamental impression is absolutely ecumenical, even Utopian. Incompatibilities of material or period or style are simply swept away. Physical proximity, consistency of method, and depths of affection eliminate dire difference. Could adults, in the real world, do similarly? Could kids exposed to the likes of this and other inclusive films do even better?

One could continue enumerating the cool things that the toys and the filmmakers do (how on earth did they manage those linked micro-tracking shots?), but you’d eventually have to explicate the whole movie. Man! The challenge, or maybe the shortcoming of this piece, is that our concentration/dedication isn’t quite up to the Eames’s. It’s a pretty rich meal, and who can take it all in properly? I guess that would make Tops (1969) the Eames’s ultimate masterpiece. But why quibble? Toccata … is still as about as good as you can get.