Two Recent DVD Documentaries Check in With Contemporary Train Hoppers
As latter-day train-riding documentaries go, director Bill Daniel's 2005 Who Is Bozo Texino? did it best. It understood that, both as a subculture and as a visceral experience, train riding best speaks for itself--the secret landscapes of overgrown backyards, litter-matted chain-link fence, untouched plains and mountainsides, funky small towns so far off the highway they may as well be on another planet, the creaks, groans, and shrieks of hundreds of tons of metal all trying to move at once. (A train moving around the right kind of curve sounds like a shrieking falcon perched on your earlobe.) It kept its characters in the periphery and captured the experience wonderfully, dutifully skirting the subcultural exploitation for which the subject begs.
Train on the Brain and Catching Out, two worthy indie releases mining the same territory, diverge around the evenly balanced Texino and plunge, sometimes recklessly, into the bare physical experience of riding trains and the people who make it their life. The divergence could almost feel intentional, like these two movies were meant as companion pieces.
If that were the case, 2000's Train on the Brain is the hasty afterthought to 2003's Catching Out. Basically, British filmmaker Allison Murray gets word from a Canadian acquaintance, Todd, that he's going to do a cross-continent rail trip and she hops a flight to join him. It doesn't look good right off the bat--you get the sense in the opening minutes that Train is going to be about Murray and her adventure lust. It'd be analogous to an amateur mountain climber signing on with a Mount Everest tourist climb and making a flick about her accomplishment.
Murray's ego remains a character in the movie--she has an exhibitionist streak, particularly evident when she turns the camera on herself or has someone else do it. There is good reason to make herself the central character, as the decidedly bougie Murray makes for a fine example of just how much riding freight trains can suck. She's the control group in an experiment to see how tough pro train riders are.
She makes it across the continent twice in a row. The trip is a two-month ordeal, which is something even many seasoned riders would balk at, at least continuously. She has the added risk of being a foreign citizen and opening herself up to deportation. All of that is somewhat balanced by her having, presumably, a credit card or two stashed--she did fly over for the adventure--and somewhere more cozy than a cold rail car to go home to.
Rail riding, though, is tied up in a material-free, moneyless way of life--it's a more purposeful, scenic, and sometimes ideological version of run-of-the-mill homelessness. Murray should be disconnected with the people with whom she shares rides, but she appears to win them over with earnest enthusiasm about the endeavor. Even so, you're going to come the fuck on when she rents a car one state away from her destination.
It's a well-reasoned, understandable change of plans because you've seen what she's dealt with up until then: riding in an empty coal car and, over the course of a day, finding herself and every one of her possessions black with a millimeter layer of black coal scum. Hopping a wrong train in the Midwest and going nearly a quarter of the country out of the way. Getting yanked off a train by the railroad cops in Montana and spending a couple days wedged in between a McDonald's and its trash bin waiting for a safe, reasonably unsurveilled train out (the coal train). Dealing with a presumed pedophile named Travis and his runaway teen prey. Helping a young rider, the endearing Wendy, get to Washington to meet her rail lover.
Because Train is such a whim--two months with a camera on the rails without much context--you never get any follow-up on those people. The meat of the movie is instead expectedly jerky and rather piecemeal handheld shots of riding trains, waiting for trains, and fun footage of the annual hobo convention in Britt, Iowa, with some rumination overdubbed on the side.
Catching Out is the more careful and generally masterful of these two documentaries. The result of at least two years of work, it follows four characters and how they live and change in relation to the riding lifestyle. Switch and Baby Girl are a couple who met on the rails in California. Jessica is a twentysomething raised hippie-style. And Lee is a former eco-activist who lives in a handmade cabin, presumably in the California mountains, and spends however much time he needs to scratch the riding itch out on the trains.
Over Catching Out's hour and 20 minutes, the word "freedom" is spoken enough to supply a GOP rally or two. It's Out's simple hypotheses--the train-riding lifestyle is one of the cleanest breaks you can have with the "money system," the most scenic way to drop off the grid. Switch and Baby Girl, two years or so after we meet them and now with an apartment and child, have the looks of drug addicts in recovery when they talk of their train-hopping days. In the real world they're suddenly poor and have responsibilities, but their scrappy attitude remains. Having lived most of their lives with next to nothing, the stresses of materialism seem like so much gravy to them.
The pair is charming and earnest, but it's Lee who wins out of the four. Honest and easygoing, he dispenses bits of wisdom such as, "[Trains are] American like jazz or having sex in cars." With fondness, he recalls watching cars rolling by and little kids in back seats going wild when they see him. He gets a kick out of everything and isn't afraid to admit that his activism may have been ineffective or that "in my ideal world, freight trains wouldn't exist"--as in, a world without industry and its necessary environmental damage.
Catching Out is lighter on footage of actual train riding, preferring to spend its time with its characters, whether that's in the Mojave Desert, a San Francisco house, a backyard birthday party, or an apartment in Washington state. People are certainly the point, so, if you're looking for some interpretation of the train-riding rush, Train on the Brain might be your first stop. However, these docs are best served as a pair, as train riders are as unique as the train-riding experience itself.
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