Look Both WaysSarah Watts’ film Look Both Ways was, at the time of its release in 2005, heralded as a sign of recovery for Australian cinema after several traumatic years of critical gloom and box-office flops. Critic Rob Lowing wrote in the Sun-Herald: “Look Both Ways is a great reminder that there is nothing wrong with the Australian film industry that a good movie can’t fix.” (1) Meanwhile, Paul Byrnes enthused, in The Sydney Morning Herald (20 August 2005): “[Look Both Ways] made seeing an Australian film pleasurable again, and it’s a while since I could say that.”

The curative discourse we can detect associated with the film, in relation to the local industry, is apt, I would argue, given the articulation within Look Both Ways of a widespread contemporary preoccupation in Western culture with traumatic memory. I propose here a reading of Look Both Ways as both a symptom and, at times, an ironic critique of the burgeoning fascination with trauma, which has been evident in both popular and academic discourses.

I will begin by addressing trauma’s historic connections with the development of the railways as an embodiment of the shocking impact of modernity. This leads into a discussion of the railways accidents in Look Both Ways and the way their traumatic impact moves within a matrix of mediated images, and into broader questions of the representation of trauma as they resonate within Sarah Watts’ film.

The ubiquity of trauma

The concept of trauma, over the past 25 years, has increasingly become an object of study, debate and, as I said above, fascination, not to mention litigation and medication. Much of the impetus for this in mainstream psychiatry has been driven from the United States, originally stemming from the struggles for recognition of the psychological suffering of Vietnam war veterans and, then in the 1980s, gathering added momentum with revelations of the widespread experience of incest and child abuse. Today in the US, umbrella organizations such as The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress provide professional assistance “for survivors of traumatic events” (2). The AAETS hosts an online Discussion Forum, where a random sample of the headings of recent postings indicate the encyclopædic sweep of conditions self-identified as traumatic, as well as the pressing desire of many to communicate their suffering, to find a cure by talking even if it is not exactly Freud’s ‘talking cure’:

Hurricane Katrina … Adult survivor of sexual abuse … Attacked at work … I found my son’s body after he drowned … Abortion … rape … bulimia … My dad is having a lot of problems relating to Vietnam and such … Incest … miscarriage … abusive marriage … car accident … Looking for someone who understands … Does it ever end? … frustrations of living with PTSD. (3)

PTSD is the acronym for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition summarized by Cathy Caruth as “an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often uncontrolled, repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena”. (4) PTSD came into official existence, as a concept so named, only as recently as 1980, when it was first defined as a distinct psychiatric disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd Edition. However, similar psychic disturbances have been observed across the span of the previous century, known at various times under other names including shell-shock, war neurosis, traumatic neurosis and, even, in its earliest manifestations in the modern era, ‘railway spine’. (5)

Trauma on the tracks

In the mid-19th century, the railway accident was, indeed, the first site wherein the concept of psychic trauma was elaborated. It is difficult for us to imagine now the shocking impact the development of the railway had at the time on the contemporary landscape and consciousness. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch notes, in the 1830s and ’40s, it was felt that railroad travel had brought about the “annihilation of space and time” (6), as effective distances between previously remote regions were drastically shortened. Schivelbusch quotes Heinrich Heine, writing in 1843:

What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things, in our notions! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone. […] I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. (7)

The development of the railways was the catalyst for the regularization of time – previously each town and city ran on its own local time, with London time, for instance, four minutes ahead of the time in Reading 60km away. (8) However, the exigencies of standardized railway timetables meant that, for the first time, it was necessary for a commonly agreed time to apply at each town connected by the railway lines.

The railways also dramatically affected the landscape, because unlike existing roads servicing foot and horse-drawn traffic, which for the most part wound around and over the natural contours of the land, they sliced their way through it like a knife, drawing upon engineering technologies of cuttings, embankments and tunnels to facilitate the greatest possible directness and regularity in their path.

Schivelbusch suggests that, as the railway became an accepted and normalised part of life in Western Europe by the 1850s, nevertheless its uncanny and shocking strangeness was only buried beneath the surface of consciousness as an “ever-present subliminal fear” (9), which could at any time be reawakened by the spectre of a train crash.

Several characteristics of the railway accident made it loom especially large in the minds of the Victorian public. First, as distinct from other far commoner disasters such as shipwrecks and colliery accidents, railway accidents were visible and, as it were, indiscriminately democratic in nature:

railway accidents happened in the landscape of towns, villages, streets, fields and farms in which everybody lived, and affected people from all classes of society, doing conventional everyday things – travelling to work, visiting the market, going on holiday. (10)

Second, the railway accident was peculiarly arbitrary “in the origins and effects of its violence” (11). A potentially fatal crash could happen at any time, with absolutely no warning, caused by a miniscule error in human judgement on the part of driver or signalman, or the slightest manifestation of material fatigue – for example, a snapped axle.

These characteristics of the railway accident helped define it as a paradigmatic site of the anxieties engendered by modernity, because, as Harrington writes:

It denied its victims any chance of controlling their own fate; it crystallised in a single traumatic event the helplessness of human beings in the hands of the technologies which they had created, but seemed unable to control. (12)

This identification of the subject of modernity as a helpless victim in the face of shocking, uncontrollable and, indeed, unknowable – in the sense of being impossible to assimilate to previous experience – external events, resonates strongly within our own contemporary culture and the fascination with discourses of victimhood.

Look Both Ways

As railway accidents became more common, and public anxieties grew, governments legislated to make the railway companies liable for injuries caused, and this in turn led to a flood of compensation cases in the courts. It was in this context that medical studies of the effects of railway accidents began, as medical specialists were called to examine and adjudicate upon the nature of the symptoms suffered by victims of railway accidents. To begin with, surgeons such as John Erichsen, in his pioneering book published in 1866, On Railway and Other Injuries of the Nervous System, focused on physiological causes, namely “Jars, Shakes, Shocks or Concussions of the Spinal Cord” (13), for nervous injuries suffered in the condition then called “Railway Spine”. However, numerous cases showed that accident victims who had not suffered any physiological injury at the time of the accident frequently some time later experienced what were in effect diseases of memory, with diverse symptoms including anxiety states, recurring nightmares, headaches and forgetfulness. (14)

Charles Dickens was one such victim in 1865, walking away unharmed when a train plunged off a bridge in Kent, and at the time being well enough to be, as Jill Matus describes it, “ministering to the many who lay injured and dying” (15), only to later develop, after days and weeks, what we would now recognize as traumatic symptoms. These included losing his voice for a fortnight, “suffering repeatedly from what he called ‘the shake’” (16) and persistent panic attacks.

Thus it is that, by 1920, Freud is writing in Beyond The Pleasure Principle that, as “has long been known and described”, traumatic neurosis occurs after wars, “railway disasters and other accidents involving a risk to life” (17).

Trains, frames, thrills and spills

The cinema has, since its earliest days, maintained a deep and multifaceted inter-relationship with the railways. Indeed, Lynne Kirby draws together the work of Schivelbusch and Jonathan Crary to argue that the new paradigm of “panoramic perception” made possible by train travel, in which objects in the passing landscape lose their uniqueness, their “aura” as Walter Benjamin would have it, and are instead experienced as visual phenomena moving across a frame: the train window; that this new vision founded upon mobility becomes one of the key reference points for the experience of the cinema-spectator. (18)

The thrill of speed and the associated anxiety attached to the “terror of collision” (19) in the railway journey likewise prepared audiences for the pleasurable shocks of cinematic spectacle displayed by what Gunning calls “the force of the cinematic apparatus” (20). Train crashes themselves were a big deal in silent cinema, a very popular genre, and, throughout the era, a number of highly dangerous and expensive train crashes were staged as the centrepiece and chief attraction of productions such as Vitagraph’s 1913 movie, The Wreck (Ralph Ince and W. J. Lincoln). (21) Thousands would pay to watch these staged smash-ups live, and tens of thousands more afterwards at the cinema.

Look Both Ways

Look Both Ways

It is not difficult to see how Look Both Ways may begin to be placed within this three-way nexus of trauma, the railways and cinema. Look Both Ways is structured around a pair of railway accidents – one involving a goods train hitting and killing a man on the tracks, the other a much larger scale disaster involving a passenger-train crash, with many people trapped in the rubble, killed or missing. The first accident is the local tragedy that functions as the nexus connecting the major characters in the narrative; indeed, it is the original moment of the narrative. The two central romantic protagonists meet at the site of the accident: Meryl (Justine Clarke) is the only witness to the event, apart from the train-driver himself, and Nick (William McInnes) is a photojournalist covering the story for the local newspaper, who makes a living out of capturing images of trauma.

The second accident is the Arnow Hill disaster, an event experienced only indirectly within the narrative of the film, via the news media, primarily television but also newspapers. News reports of this story broadcast into the homes of all the characters unfold as echoes of the foregrounded accident, encouraging audience and characters alike to situate the local event within a broader cultural landscape fixated upon representations of trauma. Even peripheral characters such as Nick’s mother and the train-driver’s wife, who are at a remove from the goods-train accident, are linked together in their common witnessing of the media event emanating from Arnow Hill, which flows in the background of their lives and consciousnesses. Historian Roger Cooter describes how, during the late 19th century, while the tracks of the railway were spreading ever-wider, there was a “transformation of the regard of accidents as more or less private (individualized) happenings to more or less public ones, affecting or concerning the whole of society” (22). Look Both Ways presents a world in which such accidents are now prominent within a saturated public and private media landscape.

The film uses further strategies to articulate political and ethical issues around the representation of trauma. Just as the Arnow Hill disaster is packaged as a nightly item of entertainment feeding upon and reinforcing public anxieties and voyeuristic fantasies, the goods-train death is from the beginning enmeshed in a web of mediated messages. We do not see the accident itself but only hear about it afterwards in the narrated testimony of Meryl to the police at the scene, and read its shocking impact in the slumped figure of the train driver (Andreas Sobik) sitting on a post. This latter gesture is immediately ‘snapped’ – captured – by the photographer Nick with his digital camera, and reappears later downloaded to his laptop, where he rejects it, amongst a swag of other photos taken at the scene, as insufficiently dramatic – an insufficient expression of trauma – in comparison to a particular image of the victim’s partner, Julia (Daniella Farinacci). This in turn is a frozen image of a scene that, once again, we the audience ‘missed’ seeing (because we were not shown) at the moment it occurred: we surmise it is the moment, encapsulated in a raw gesture of shock and pain, when she first registers the death of her husband.

With a click of the mouse from the battle-hardened photojournalist who knows what his business consists of – that is what we might call the trafficking of trauma – the image is emailed to his editor, who, realizing its iconic power, places it on the front cover of the next day’s edition. The printing presses swing into action and a highly personal moment of grief becomes a mass-produced, distributed and consumed image calibrated to sell newspapers. As with the Arnow Hill massacre, Julia’s photograph flows between and amongst the various characters and scenes of the film through the ubiquity of the mass media, and becomes another glue binding them together as common consumers of it as media event.

The narrative contrasts ironically the effect of this image in repeating the trauma for those directly involved – the partner Julia, the train driver, the witness Meryl, each of whom come across it by accident, unprepared for its shocking return – with the way other minor characters removed from the original event can only see the photograph as a media spectacle: the front cover spread – e.g., commenting on Julia’s hair, discussing whether she looks pretty, arguing about whether the image is twee. (23) We are being asked to consider what the dissociating effects are of a culture increasingly saturated, as is Nick’s laptop, with images of trauma: the image of Julia’s grief joins that of a stream of earthquake, terrorist, war, famine and tsunami victims. We see articulated what E. Ann Kaplan, in analysing her own viewer response to the visually mediated “vicarious trauma” of viewing images of the 2003 Iraq War, has described as “‘empty’ empathy” – the “empathy elicited by images of suffering provided without any context or background knowledge” (24). Nick ironically encapsulates the emotionally numbing effects of “‘empty’ empathy” when he sums up the life of the photojournalist as “Poverty, war, natural disasters than back to the minibar”.

Meryl, too, is enmeshed in the economy of trauma. A painter, she makes a living by producing watercolour images of seascapes for mass reproduction on sympathy cards designed to comfort the bereaved. As Nick remarks to her: “It’s great to paint things that make people feel better.” But there is an explicit irony in the fact that Meryl also paints deeply disturbing images of menacing sharks, cowering and drowning figures – images the viewer is invited to recognize as representing her abiding fears and fantasies, since they are still versions of the animated sequences she is figured repeatedly as imagining.

Fantasy and Flashbacks

As Susannah Radstone outlines, contemporary mainstream ‘trauma theory’ is premised on the effects upon the psyche of “unassimilable external events” (25). But there are two possible, conflicting interpretations of the action of trauma: on the one hand is the linear model favoured by mainstream psychiatry, in which the “unassimilable external event” causes the traumatic symptoms, of which the subject is an “innocent” victim. These symptoms commonly include literal and veridical flashbacks returning to plague the survivor like hyper-realist horror film re-runs. This model has been mobilized to contribute to a popular culture of victimhood (26); a simplistic monochrome view of the world split between evil perpetrators (who need to be put under surveillance, tagged, jailed, medicated, executed) and innocent victims (who need to band together in gated communities). On the other hand is a psychoanalytically-inflected model built upon re-readings of Freud, which stresses the role fantasy plays within a non-linear temporality of trauma, in which “the catalytic event in the present triggers an earlier occurrence which becomes traumatic only by virtue of its retrospectively endowed meaning” (27). For the second model, “what is at stake in the formation of traumatic memory is the relation between the triggering second events and ‘the phantasies they activate’” (28). This view acknowledges a dynamic interplay between the action of external events and the workings of the internal world of the psyche, a crucial interrelationship, in other words, between memory and fantasy.

For the psychoanalytically inclined, the first trauma model, emphasising only trauma’s external causation, is itself built upon and fostering certain culturally specific fantasies nurtured by various self-help books and New Age psycho-therapies: fantasies of the “achievability of a self at total peace with itself” (29).

Look Both Ways

In Look Both Ways, we find fantasy deeply implicated in the response to trauma. For both central characters, Meryl and Nick, the goods-train accident to which she is witness and he a vicarious or second-degree witness (witness to its traumatic effects upon others at the scene), follows on the heels of recent personal traumas. Meryl has just returned from her father’s funeral – her father having died suddenly, incomprehensibly and without warning – dropping dead mid-sentence. Nick has that very same morning been told by his doctor that he has testicular and lung cancer; prognosis to be advised. As the film opens, even before the goods-train accident occurs, but with news of the Arnow Hill disaster filtering via television and overheard conversations into Meryl’s consciousness, she is already experiencing the fantasies of abrupt and shocking death and disaster I mentioned earlier, that will soon become a familiar motif. These brief sequences – a tunnel collapsing on a train, a car smashing into a woman; later, a shark’s massive jaws crunching a woman’s matchstick vertabrae – are, as we have seen, represented through hand-drawn and -painted animations. Her traumatic fantasies are mediated by the artform she employs professionally and as personal expression. (30) In one of several mirroring devices employed in the film, Nick, too, suffers what might be considered the “uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations”, and these in turn reflect the mediated form “native” to his profession as a digital photojournalist, being visualised as rapid montages of photographic stills, augmented at times by digital animations sourced from internet browsing.

More conventional traumatic flashbacks do feature in the film, albeit arguably as one of its weaker elements. A lone cup on the kitchen table triggers Nick to ‘flashback’ to the scene of his father, over a cup of tea, informing him of his own cancer diagnosis. This sequence is the first of a series in which Nick is prompted by the shock of his diagnosis to revisit memories of his father’s illness and death. But even here the film’s director adds a visual texture to the flow of these images by the use of jump-cuts, which gesture towards the disjunctive, partial nature of memory, and mitigate against the scenes being read as an unmediated literal, veridical repetition of the traumatic event.

Beyond Language

Is it possible to represent trauma at all, without diluting or indeed betraying the singular and horrific depth of the experience? This question has been widely explored, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, which Hayden White has described as the “paradigmatic” (31) 20th century mass trauma. Giorgio Agamben suggests the true witnesses of the horror of the Holocaust were the Muselmanner, the vast army of walking corpses no longer considered human by either the camp guards or the other inmates, who very rarely survived, and were unable to narrate the story of their catastrophe. (32) In this light, one can see how a film such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) comes to be criticized for too neatly and romantically packaging in narrative form the ‘unspeakable’ horror of the Holocaust, in other words, “for its debt to entertainment, melodrama, spectacle, stereotype and the Hollywoodian happy ending” (33).

As we have seen above, Look Both Ways employs a matrix of elisions, mediations and fantasies by which the various traumatic events both work upon the characters and are worked over by them. Elsewhere, the film engages with the question of the relation between language and trauma through the mirrored pair of the train driver and Julia, the dead man’s partner. These are the two figures at the epicentre, as it were, of the shock, and each of them is figured in the film as literally beyond language – neither speaks until the climactic scene in the pouring rain when the train driver comes to offer his apology to Julia. They both bear the memory of what has happened in silence and, in contrast to Nick and Meryl, we are given no privileged access to what is going on in their minds. Their way of ‘working through’ the trauma is not through language but through finding visual representations; visual gestures to convey their grief. Julia picks up her dead husband’s tools and fashions a rude wooden cross to place as a memorial at the site of his death. The train driver, who does not even have a name within the narrative, is coaxed from a catatonic depression by his son, and inscribes one of Meryl’s sympathy cards, which is what he offers Julia in the rain. This latter gesture is itself suffused, in a move characteristic of the film, not only with pathos but with irony, since we already know that Meryl finds the generic messages on the cards somewhat trite.

Trauma cinema

Janet Walker has defined ‘trauma cinema’ as comprising films in a variety of genres and national cinemas dealing with world-shattering events in a non-realist style that figures the traumatic past as meaningful, fragmentary, virtually unspeakable and striated with fantasy constructions” (34). While Look Both Ways is fundamentally a conventional realist text in the classical Hollywood narrative tradition, nevertheless, as shown above, it is interwoven with motifs of the fragmentary, the unspeakable, of fantasy. These, arguably its most interesting and distinctive elements, demonstrate an engagement, gently balancing the playful, the empathetic and the ironic, with the concerns of trauma cinema. The interest in psychic trauma, as a symptom of modernity ever since the iron tentacles of the railway first spread across the Western landscape and consciousness, continues to develop, via our screens.

This article has been peer-reviewed.


  1. Look Both Ways official website, footprint Films-Dendy Films 2005, cited 3 November 2005. Available from http://www.lookbothways.com.au/main.html.
  2. American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, The Traumatic Stress Discussion Forum website, cited 3 November 2005, accessed at http://www.aaets.org/cgi/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=forum;f=15.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: trauma, narrative, and history (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).
  5. As Ruth Leys notes: “the history of trauma itself is marked by an alternation between episodes of forgetting and remembering”, as the “lessons” of conflicts such as World War I were only belatedly re-integrated into psychiatric practise. Ruth Leys, Trauma: a genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).
  6. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, new edition, 1986), p. 33.
  7. Ibid, p. 37.
  8. Ibid, p. 43.
  9. Ibid, p. 130.
  10. Ralph Harrington, The Railway Accident: trains, trauma and technological crisis in nineteenth century Britain (1999). Available from www.york.ac.uk/inst/irs/irshome/papers/rlyacc.htm, cited 18 November 2005.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Schivelbusch, p. 141.
  14. Ibid, p. 140.
  15. Jill Matus, “Trauma, Memory and Railway Disaster: The Dickensian Connection” (Victorian Studies 43 (3), 2001), p. 413.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Sigmund Freud and James Strachey, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, revised edition, International psycho-analytical library; no. 4 (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), p. 281.
  18. Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: the railroad and silent cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 42-8.
  19. Ibid, p. 58.
  20. Cited in Kirby, p. 62.
  21. John Huntley, Railways in the Cinema (Shepperton: Allan, 1969), pp. 23-4.
  22. Cooter is quoted in Harrington, pp. 1-2.
  23. One of Anna’s friends remarks, as they idly discuss the newspaper cover image: “I just love the photos of the dead and missing; they’re always so unflattering.”
  24. E. Ann Kaplan, Trauma Culture: the politics of terror and loss in media and literature (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005), p. 93.
  25. Susannah Radstone, “Screening Trauma: Forrest Gump, Film and Memory”, in S. Radstone (Ed.), Memory and Methodology (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2000), p. 88, emphasis mine.
  26. For an expanded critique of ‘victim culture’ in relation to trauma theory, refer to Radstone, pp. 90-1.
  27. Juliet Mitchell, “Trauma, Recognition, and the Place of Language” (Diacritics 29 (4), 1998), p. 121.
  28. Radstone, p. 89. Radstone is here drawing upon Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-analysis (New York, Norton, 1974).
  29. Radstone, p. 90.
  30. These animations have been widely commented upon as one of the most distinctive and original features of the film, drawing upon Watts’ previous work as a creator of short animations.
  31. Hayden White, “The Modernist Event”, in V. Sobchack (Ed.), The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 20.
  32. See Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: the witness and the archive (New York: Zone Books, 1999).
  33. Janet Walker, “The Traumatic Paradox: Autobiographical Documentary and the Psychology of Memory”, in K. Hodgkin, and Susannah Radstone (Eds), Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 129.
  34. Ibid, p. 109.