Sunday, 19 January 2014

No Dumb Rocks: a little singsong on Routine Pleasures

Midway through Routine Pleasures, this exchange takes place…

[Gorin] The thing that amazed me is that you guys are running schedules for very, very long periods of time. I mean, once Corky has defined the great call board...
[Man] Mm-hmm.
[Gorin continues] it runs for one or two seasons, which is basically...
[Man] Pretty much the -
[Gorin] twelve months, no? I mean -
[Man] Yeah. Yeah. Maybe even longer. But you've got to remember it's - it's evolving all the time, for one thing. It's never quite the same.
And besides, the schedule isn't the whole story. I mean, the schedule says you run 10, 12 trains of an evening... you know, one direction or another at particular times. Well, there's a lot more activity than that... and, uh, that's really the fun of it all.
These trains go through at the same time all the time. You know when they're coming. So the other things that you do, you have to kind of fit it in between. That's part of the fun of it. For example, making switching moves and what not. Those you do differently each time.
[Gorin] So it's - that's what is difference... difference in repetition? I mean -
[Man] Yeah, yeah. The... so to speak, the schedule provides a matrix in which you do the fun part. Does that make sense?
[Gorin Laughs] Yeah. So the trains like, let's say, the Lark or the Delight are the permanent fixtures. They function like what, the landscape?
[Man] Almost, yeah. Call it temporal landscape. These things are going to happen at particular points in time. You know that. You have to work around it.

…and I start thinking this sounds familiar. But what really catches my attention are those two words sticking out from the rest: temporal landscape. My my, I think, the fellow doesn’t only know what drives him but also has the exact words to articulate his impulses. I’m beginning to grow jealous. I love this film, I tell myself, only I can’t place my finger on the why. It’s like that bit where the fellow explains the paint job on a train to Gorin and “at the end of it all, there’s only one thing left to say, "Good-looking train."”

Damn it, model railroad man! Damn it, Manny Farber! If only I could find my equivalent of temporal landscape or sinewy, life-marred exactness (“Manny, who in three words could pin down the way Cagney sliced through the space of a ballroom in Wellman's Other Men's Women…”)...

But maybe I better persist. If I sit down long enough and go through the motions… like writing down 10 sentences trying to say a thing without quite getting it… I might get it. (“For both Manny and the guys there was so much routine at the core of any flight of the imagination.”)

Sorry, I may be getting too ahead of the story. So like a dutiful Old Hollywood junkie, like in one of those movies by Wellman and Hawks that Gorin evokes incessantly, let me start at the beginning.

Farber (extreme left) and Godard: "old buddies" to Gorin
Jean-Pierre Gorin, one-time collaborator of Godard, came to the US in the mid-‘70s at the invitation of Manny Farber (a former film critic whose work from the ‘40s to the ‘60s remains vital and fresh today while Bosley Crowther has become a comic footnote on wikipedia). Farber was building up a visual arts department at the University of California, San Diego at the time. “The reading of his film criticism gave me a very different key to American cinema than the one I used in France, a way to ground it in the culture and its language, to pry it away from its own mythology.” Naturally Gorin was happy to shift base (Dziga Vertov Group had dissolved); excited and anxious in mapping the mythical land with his own images of it weaned through the movies and media. Part of his mission is to find out roots, the specific trills and cadences of a culture and understand identity – how much of an American had he become in the five years he’d spent in the country (“I wasn't French anymore, but I wasn't quite American either.”)? What does an “ex-Marxist” do with characters whose very existence is defined by their fascination with machinery and tools and the railroad – that trope of change from the westerns? These characters are the members of the Pacific Beach & West (PB&W) model railroad club – a group of middle-class homely types who gather every Tuesday on the Del Mar fairgrounds to be masters of, and slaves to, their miniature universe.

Routine Pleasures belongs at a glance to the genre of documentaries that is best exemplified by Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven, or perhaps the Maysles’ Salesman – intimate portraits of the “simple folk” of small-town America that double up as sociological studies – but it combines the surface simplicity of those films with a formal approach that Gorin wears lightheartedly. There’s always the rhythm section of sly humour cutting through – the model landscape shot in extreme close-ups as if it were the real thing, played to a realistic soundtrack of trains and atmospheric minutiae, cutting from a woman sitting on a porch basking in the sun (as in Ed Hopper) to another woman frozen in the middle of a run to catch a departing car, her suitcase swaying back. And then Gorin does ‘long shots’ of the same landscape, from between which the “train people” (Cat People?) pop up Godzilla-like to dust up the tracks and do odd painting jobs.

And later I learned that they'd been hard at it since 1958... the time of De Gaulle's return to power and of my first stumble into politics.
Half the world away the train people had just been given a home on the Del Mar Fairgrounds... on the condition that they would have a show ready for the first fair.
And since then, every Tuesday night they had gathered to run trains... in this hangar on Jimmy Durante Boulevard across from the Bing Crosby Hall.
And it dawned on me that their layout was the only thing that had remained unchanged... in a landscape where corporate headquarters, malls and cities of 40,000-plus were popping up now by the month. If anything, they had a tale of permanence to tell.
Every now and then, the nostalgia bug bites. The men are united in their utter absorption in the world of trains, a shared camaraderie that is silent, bonds borne of working together to the same rhythm. Gorin wants to connect them to the train gangs from the ‘30s American films – maybe Bill Wellman’s Other Men’s Women – but he’s put on guard by Farber who admonishes him against nostalgia even as he is digging into his own childhood memories to paint expansive canvasses. "You are all Remembrance of Things Past. But they aren't your things and this isn't your past."
Movie house in shoe-box America/Remembrance of Things Past.
Gorin persists nonetheless. The club’s general manager’s calling card reads “Corky Thompson, train specialist”: the sort of name which “took me for a loop as if it had jumped out of a Howard Hawks movie... a name like Matthew Garth or Bud Kenley... a name that ties a knot under a personality... and that I saw somehow as the guarantee that I could pull a Howard Hawks of my own.” After all, how could he swim against the whole collective memory-churning of this bunch – guys who shot home movies of trains (in memory, Lumiere!) and remembered the “spot where 4449 was going upgrade with the diesel and dynamic braking…. and was workin' and slippin'”? It has to be a nostalgia film alright. The club had agreed to let Gorin film them if he promised to hand over unused footage so that they could make a film out of it. Money was never discussed. What good was it compared to the glorious sight of a train “pounding up the grade”?

Corky Thompson's home movies

Gradually one sees the fine notes in their activity. Like so much of the best of Old Hollywood, it is both restricted and set free by the rules of the game. You repeat certain lines so that you can take off from there and explore the other things before coming back and hitting base. It’s a decidedly Manny Farber-ish style of doing things – the termite’s way of “gnawing at the borders” without realizing if it’s “chewing on the Sistine Chapel or an old hangar on the Del Mar Fairgrounds”.
Midway through this memory trip, Gorin switches from black-and-white (a conscious homage to the ‘30s films) to his version of Life in Technicolor when shooting the club in action – the cragged, rocky Western landscape through which the trains run bring to mind the spaces from John Ford Westerns and Minnelli’s Some Came Running even as its scale undermines the mythological underpinnings. “Somehow I'd managed to convince myself that they were offering me a small-scale epic. America under budget and in a shoe box.” The guys put Gorin in a toy Citroen – the car he actually owns – and move it around the landscape every Tuesday, leaving him “to dream on the inside”, showing him the sights. In a lovely show of solidarity with the unwavering realism of these guys’ imagination Gorin narrates – “One day I took Farber to the airport. He was carting away to New York a load of paintings for a show. On the way, we got stopped at a crossing and watched an endless freight pass by.” – to this.

Gorin and Farber in the Citroen, waiting.
But once the clocks are out for a break, Gorin reverts back to monochrome. Time shifts gears and all you’ve got left is the past.


But how had Gorin come to be here at all?

One day I was looking over some Barney Googles. It was one of the tracks Farber had sent me to. And it hit me that if there was one trick that I'd learned from him it was an age-old one. When you want to say where you stand in a landscape, you draw an "X." Two lines crossing at a single point.

This other line – the one that may in fact have sent him to the train people – is Farber and his paintings, “Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.” (Oil on board, 1979 / 44.5 in. x 53 in.) and “Have a Chew on Me” (Oil on board, 1982 / 58 in. x 134.5 in.). Canvasses painted flat on a table top, they have the forced perspective of a bird’s eye view with objects incongruously laid out flat or at an angle – especially in Birthplace, a sort of map of Farber’s hometown with its history littered all around in almost inconsequential details.

There were memories
that came back from the familial past...
and took the form
of an oversized fire sale sign...
next to a toy house...
a reminder of the time his mother
had torched their store...
and sold off the damaged goods
to follow his oldest brother...
to his campus life in Berkeley.

There were echoes of headlines...
in a group of lead toy gangsters
in the right-hand corner.
Some shoot-out memory, maybe,
between company toughs and miners...
during the copper wars.
Blowup from 'Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.'

Blowup from 'Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.'

Blowup from 'Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz.'

And so often, just as Gorin is about to round off a painting, something in the margins makes him re-evaluate everything.

With Farber, you were always
in the thick of things.
It was the same thing
that he was saying over and over -
- That it - life - wasn't too big a deal...
and that it shouldn't be painted like one...
that we're all like bit players
in a Preston Sturges movie...
ready to testify in front of a small-town jury...
in terms whose relevance
would escape everyone but ourselves.

I guess – with a final swell of music – that is how this film is to me.