The metro is a network system of linear spaces where masses of people come together, pass through, and part, while in motion through an underground system of escalators, tunnels, platforms and corridors, with the objective of each person getting from a point A and arriving at a point B.
As an underground system, the metro is necessarily a space apart from the happier face of the city in sunlight, being confined beneath it to dark, meandering passages, and comprising a Hades, an underworld, with rats and dirt and clotted grease. The metro, despite its historical novelty, feels ancient. A clinging smell hangs in the air, a mixture of electricity, sweat, sausage, and machine oil. It is a kind of wormhole that sucks up human particles on the surface, and then spits them out elsewhere. Its riders submerge, as if in a submarine, and each stop, each rise to the surface, is a new little world, a planet unto itself, a unique urban context. The metro strings them together like a necklace of pearls on a black thread.
Subjectively, the metro is a particular set of sensations involving rhythm and kinesis, muscular control modulated by visual and auditory stimuli, and individuals moving through its linear spaces behave in the manner of a particle stream. A person moves either with or against the flow, an invisible, but particularly salient force. One feels it rather strongly in the legs and in the torso, a momentum of the physical weight of the body, and its intentionality, dynamically altered in close coordination with all the other passing human particles, each also with their own moment and intent. It is self-arranging, and thus somewhat chaotic, and hence, unpredictable. People rush, generally plowing forward, observing cues that land them in the right spot. Someone might stop short, an outwardly random event, and it is instantly perceived by fellow particles, if they are alert, and they adjust accordingly. But in the main, flow predominates and the sharp edges of all other forces are smoothed away in submission to its bidding.
I was met with a stark example of this flow once in Saigon, where I was confronted with the normally straightforward problem of crossing a major street. A gapless, stopless, torrent of traffic raged, like water in a bursting river, or corpuscles in a bloodstream. Crossing flows of traffic were delicately interleaving at the intersection, rather that stopping and taking turns. How to get across? Anyone reckless enough to venture into this cosmic inevitability would surely be trampled beneath a hundred bicycles, a dozen motorcycles, a car, or a city bus. Sensing my perplexity, an old man came and stood at the edge of the street next to me. With a look that said, “Watch how I do it!” he started across. Encouraged by his intrepid example, I followed. Enlightenment came. I immediately understood that to keep moving at a regular speed was safe, but one must never, ever stop. Stopping in flow introduces a random event; it creates unpredictability and chaos. Just keep moving. The flow is all.
In Kiev, once, the opposite happened. Trying to enter the metro at the train station, I saw a crowd of hundreds of people funneling in through a single open door of the metro station. An entire wall of maybe ten doorways was available, of these, nine were locked tight. Overhearing a conversation, I came to understand the meaning of this conundrum. Overcrowding on the metro platform was so common in Kiev, that it was dangerous to let too many people onto the platform at once, lest someone be accidentally pushed onto the tracks. This was the simple solution, use brute force to reduce the flow so the overcrowded trains could carry riders away at a rate that brought an equilibrium of safety.
When in the flow, little conscious thought is needed to obey it. Instinctively one seeks to hold momentum and personal space, observing signs, pausing only at points where one is in need of finding bearings. We pass like phantoms beneath harsh lights of mercury vapor, and our faces, bled of color, only dimly recognize one another as fellow humans. Tight within our sensate imaginary cocoons, the psychic shells that float through space along with us, we are sometimes, in this place, as alone as we can ever be. Our tribal brethren are reduced to merely the cold stream of their firmer embodiments, a charged plasma alongside which we slide, and usually, ignore. Perhaps we do so too easily.
The short film Metrum was made by Ivan Balaďa in 1967 under the Czechoslovak Army’s film unit. In it, Balaďa’s camera wanders the Moscow metro system, purposely moving against the crowd so we can study the faces and postures of thousands of passing people, finding on them a thousand worries, both quotidian and existential. In counterpoint to the incidental sounds of the metro and shoe heels tapping on hard pavement, we hear choral singing from the Orthodox mass. Conceived by its producers as a propaganda film to extoll the metro, when Balaďa’s piece was finally screened, it was shelved by censors.
An endless rain of passengers descends and ascends the escalators, like the ladder of Jacob, in what, a grotesque parody of the cycles of nature? Because the camera is always in motion, a sea of heads becomes a sea of souls, yearning, striving, struggling souls; here is our parody, the metro is the path of the soul through life. Some figures are silhouetted, dark, secretive; other faces find the light and we can read something of their character. They are anonymous in their numbers, each one is everyone, a symbolic being. Early, the camera finds and briefly follows a pregnant woman the passage; later in the film another woman cradles a sleeping child as she waits for her train, a madonna. A lone passenger scrutinizes a schematic map, trying to find the one true answer. An abrupt cut, and a train roars into the station, shimmering with light and the squeak of brakes, the same kind of wagons that, not so long ago, ran on Prague’s metro lines. People get off and on, and the flow continues.
The final shot leaves little doubt. We emerge from a tunnel, and the overexposed frame blinds us with white light, recalling the stories survivors tell of their near-death experiences.
In the early 60s, Soviet singer-songwriter Bulat Okudjava wrote and performed Song of the Moscow Metro. Its themes, instinctively or on purpose, are strongly echoed in Balaďa’s film.
Мне в моем метро никогда не тесно,|
потому что с детства оно, как песня,
где вместо припева, вместо припева:
- Стойте справа! Проходите слева!
Порядок вечен, порядок свят.
Те, что справа, стоят, стоят.
Но те, что идут, всегда должны
держаться левой стороны.
In my metro, it is never crowded,|
because since childhood, like a song,
sings its choir. The choir sings:
“Stand to the right! Walk on the left!”
The order is eternal, the order is holy,
Those on the right, they stand, they stand.
But to those who are walking, you must
always walk on the left-hand side.
This essay has been published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as post no. 5 for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“
The text has also been published on the blog Poemas del río Wang in English and Hungarian.
The following filecast is was partly recorded in the Kiev metro, and is related in theme:
• 55049 underground, video collage of original and found footage