Saturday, January 21, 2012

"You know how to sucker a guy in, don't you?"

The above still represents one of the more thrilling scenes I've witnessed in a long time. It's taken from ROUTINE PLEASURES, one of three components that make up Criterion/Eclipse's new Jean-Pierre Gorin set.
In it, the two fellas pictured take a brief moment to rhapsodize about a hot new LP entitled "A Decade of Steam, Volume Two." The LP is a collection of field recordings of trains in varied environments.

"It’s got the Challenger on there," says the man on the left. "Chassis 614, I believe it is. A couple of other, lesser engines."

"I’ve got a terrific one on the 614, going out of Cumberland, MD up the seventeen mile grade," retorts the man on the right. "They mounted the recorder right on the back of the tender. You sit there for about 45 minutes listening to it pound up the grade. It just really rocks the room."

Their speech is tempered with a reverent awe. Clearly, the recordings represent a numinous experience for both of them. Gorin follows the brief, passionate exchange with the obvious move -- playing one of the album cuts -- “A barking dog is silenced as a rushing merchandise freight speeds north through Vesuvius, Virginia with goods for New York and New England” -- over a black screen. The soundscape is overpowering and it's easy to see, for a moment, why the men are so enthralled.
The two men are model train enthusiasts who ply their obsessive hobby at the Pacific Beach & Western Railroad, a labyrinthine HO-scale project occupying a huge building on the Del Mar Fair Grounds in San Diego. Their excitement over the mundane is infectious.

Gorin uses the train club folks to delve into what he calls "the conservative imagination," the creative impulse as manifested by men who might otherwise be dismissed as too "left-brained." per the Eclipse liner notes by Kent Jones, Gorin apparently wanted to understand the more fanciful proclivities of the people who voted for Reagan. That said, the film is refreshingly apolitical, though it doesn't ignore Gorin's own Marxist/Trotskyite background. Gorin has nothing but affection for these guys and never condescends, a truly difficult feat considering these guys are the stock in trade of films like Christopher Guest's mockumentaries -- quirky Americans with ultra-specified obsessions.

There's a childlike glee underneath the stoic, monotone interactions the men have as they fiddle with their synecdoche.

Gorin's loose, autobiographical approach to documentary resembles like an intersection of Ross McElwee, a less self-serious Werner Herzog, and early Errol Morris. He connects the dots between his own fascination with America, the train club, and his relationship with polymathic film critic Manny Farber. In Farber's paintings, Gorin sees an unkempt, visceral version of the train club's creations.

Farber's pictures are basically a bouillabaisse of  America -- railroad tracks swirl together with cowboys, Indians, Hollywood starlets, astronauts, apple pie, etc. Gorin uses them as a Rosetta Stone to interpret his own relationships with the film's subjects. The result is fascinating and a lot of fun. This material could have been over-ponderous and cynical, but Gorin is never heavy-handed. The three films in the set reveal Gorin to be a confident filmmaker, enamored with his subject matter but still grounded in the pursuit of truth.

Another great scene in ROUTINE PLEASURES involves the club's leader, Corky Thompson, sharing home movies he's taken throughout the years of various trains.

(Eat your heart out, James Benning.)

The men are rapt. Their pleasure -- routine though it may be -- is palpable.

(Eh. I could've grabbed a better frame. But you get the idea.)

"Could I ever have such a hold on an audience?" Gorin asks. ROUTINE PLEASURES is a testament to the affirmative.

I'll have more to say about the set in a review for GreenCine. It's another revelation courtesy of the Eclipse line and highly recommended.

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