Mark Lamster | Essays

A Special Kind of Pleasure: Toccata for Toy Trains

This afternoon I took my daughter to a program of Eames films at the neighborhood movie house. First out of the gate was Toccata for Toy Trains (1959), in which the Eameses take a great many beautiful old railroad toys and choreograph them to an Elmer Bernstein score. It's lovely, but at better than fifteen minutes somewhat overlong for today's kids, and the pedantic opening probably doesn't help. Charles Eames begins with a voice-over differentiating between scale models and toys (over the head of every child in the audience) and continues with an eloquent lamentation on the modern toy:

In the more recent years we seem to have lost the knack of making real toys. Most old ones have a direct and unembarrassed manner that give us a special kind of pleasure, a pleasure different from the admiration we may feel for the perfect little copy of the real thing. In a good old toy there's apt to be nothing self-conscious about the use of materials. What is wood is wood. What is tin is tin. What is cast is beautifully cast. It is possible that somewhere in all this is a clue to what sets a creative climate of any time, including our own.

We try to avoid crappy plastic toy junk in our house, though I did find this line from Tina Fey's recent New Yorker piece amusing:

...my local toy store that sells the kind of beautiful wooden educational toys that kids love (if there are absolutely no other toys around and they have never seen television)

I would say that the key take-away from the film isn't about toys themselves — whether they be cast iron or molded plastic — but in the imaginative way the Eames bring inanimate objects to life. (That creative vision, I think, is what makes Powers of Ten such a masterpiece.) I walked out of the theater inspired not to buy old toys, but to try something inventive with what we already have. Better yet: the kid wanted to put on a puppet show. Who needs Nanny McPhee?

Comments [2]

Love the Eames, I too have been recently inspired by model trains.

The inspiration lead me to weave together a cinematic story based on the relation between the toys we play with as children and the objects we collect as adults.

Please enjoy, here is a link to the movie http://bit.ly/h15R7p
Scott Meadows

I think more children should start to build scale models and be a bit more creative instead of computers and consoles thinking for them.

Jobs | May 19