It would not be an exaggeration to say that if one needed to identify a single dramatic film that would stand as both harbinger and emblem of cinematic modernity, it would be Abel Gance's La Roue—written in 1919, finished in 1921, and released in 1923.1 Clearly, this was the opinion of Jean Cocteau, who said, "There is the cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso."2 Jean Mitry agreed, calling La Roue a "springboard for the avant-garde [film] movement."3 I make a similar claim for reasons that distinguish La Roue from other candidates for iconic status. First are its hyper-epic dimensions (running for nearly nine hours and shown over three days in its Paris premier)4—a fact that (like the earlier works of D.W. Griffith) announced the cinema as a major art: one not only for light entertainment, but for prolonged contemplation. Second, like such later works as Ballet Mécanique (1924), The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), A Nous la Liberté (1931), and Modern Times (1936), La Roue centrally explores the machine and its relation to human life—here, the locomotive. Third, it tackles, early on, yet another concern of modernity—the human mind, especially its unconscious elements. Finally, it accomplishes all this in a style that is relentlessly modern-ist—not always the case in filmic works that invoke modern subjects. All of these issues are at play in a statement by Gance in 1929 that describes the difference between painting and the movies:
Compare a painting of a train rushing through the night and the passage on the screen of the same train, with its thousands of images giving views of the outside, the engine, the vertiginous motion of the wheels, the carriages, and of the inside, the [End Page 189] compartments, the faces of travelers . . . the dreams of those who are sleeping and the thoughts of those who are awake, all that in rapid succession, juxtaposed, intercut, an incessant flood of images . . . and tell me what contains the maximum of reality and life.5
Clearly, here, Gance makes a rhetorical move that is typical of theorists in the first decades of film culture—to compare cinema favorably with more legitimate arts. Most likely he was thinking of the work of Impressionist Claude Monet, who had executed a series of works depicting trains (for instance "Train in Snow"  and "Lazare Station" ).
Gance is announcing that the style he envisions for cinema is an experimental one, involving montage, or (as he notes) shots in "rapid succession, juxtaposed, intercut" in "an incessant flow of images." But the most fascinating aspect of the statement is Gance's interest in both the exterior and interior of modern life—the look of the train as well as the dreams and thoughts of its passengers. His use of the term "vertiginous" for its wheels brings these two aspects together: the external machine and its effect on the human mind. Hence, despite the fact that some critics have related the film's title The Wheel to the dynamics of fate, we can also understand it as referencing both the cogs of machinery (including those of camera and projector), and the "wheels of consciousness."6 For evidence that the latter comparison was often made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we might look to Percy Byssshe Shelley's notion of the "self-impelling steam-wheels of the mind," or to the lines of a poem by Gance's assistant, Blaise Cendrars, that some believe inspired Gance:7
The wheelLifeThe machineThe human soul 8
Following Cendrars's lead, we will first consider the machine and then the human mind—though, in truth, La Roue will present them as entirely interconnected.
It goes without saying that the train was a symbol of modernity in the 19th century. As William Everdell has written, "We call 'modern' everything that happened to any . . . culture after it had built its first railroad."9 In the early years of the technology's existence, it was often the subject of as much fear as awe...