If you've ever thought about ditching the daily grind, and hopping the next outbound freight train, Alison Murray's documentary Train on the Brain (2000) is for you. Murray, an expat Canadian living in London, returns to spend five weeks submersing herself in the North American train hopping culture of young punks and free spirits.
Murray fashions herself as an active participant not mere passive observer, so a bit of background about her is in order. At age 15, Murray left Canada on her own for Europe. She's consistently demonstrated a keen eye for, and deep interest in, fringe lifestyles throughout her professional work. Following a string of critically well-regarded shorts, her first feature film, Mouth to Mouth (2004), staring Ellen Page (Juno), concerns European street punk culture in the 1980's, while her 2007 feature-length documentary Carney delves into the culture of itinerate carnival workers. And, though Murray begins her journey as a novice to freight hopping, the young, attractive, tattooed, dirty blond exhibits an easy familiarity with the grime and scrapes of living rough.
Murray catches out from Vancouver, British Columbia in July 1999 with two male traveling companions: Derek, whose on-screen appearance is as fleeting as that of Sasquatch in the Petterson-Gimlin film, and Todd Lewendon, a hollow-eyed hobo who serves as Murray's guide to train tramping during the film's first half. Despite run-ins with the police and with railroad detectives (bulls), dirty coal cars and uncomfortable boxcars, long waits and slow rides, and mistakenly catching trains headed in the wrong direction, Murray retains a degree of seasoned adventurism that keeps the film warmly engaging, but unromanticized. Murray's frequently shifting band of traveling companions include free spirits and punks of all stripes, a teenage runaway, and a creepy bullshit artist.
Murray covers 9000 miles in five weeks. She makes it as far south as Tennessee before turning back to get to the small town of Britt, Iowa (pop. 2052) in time for the National Hobo Convention, an annual celebration of hobos and tramps organized, ironically, by the local chamber of commerce. From there she heads generally north and west back toward Vancouver and her return flight home.
Though Murray is clearly streetwise and able to fit in well with her traveling companions, her relative privilege is always palpable. She has the confidence of a woman that has a credit card tucked away somewhere, who knows help is always a phone call away, and who knows she has somewhere to go home to at the end of the journey. Nonetheless, she never appears to deflect awareness by the viewer of the divide between her traveling companions and herself. For example, when it seems increasingly unlikely that she'll be able to finish accompanying her travel companion Wendy Schale to Washington State by freight train with enough time to make it to Vancouver for her return flight to London, Murray matter-of-factly documents the decision to complete the journey with Schale by rental car, obviously not an option available to the ordinary young train hopper.
Train on the Brain is beautifully shot by Murray. Mixing grainy Super 8 and standard DV, Murray achieves consistently satisfying, and often sublime images.
Contrary to all expectation for a low-budget, personal project like this which revels in illicit conduct, Train on the Brain was co-funded by British and Canadian public broadcasters. The clearest demonstration of this funding at work is the outstanding soundtrack by Beck.
Train on the Brain is the first release for the indie American DVD distribution company Hollywood Can Suck It!. It is available directly from the film's website TrainOnTheBrain.com.
Train on the Brain is presented in its original full frame (1.33:1). Overall the DVD image quality is acceptable, though interlacing artifacts are apparent.
There are no subtitles on this release.
The audio is surprisingly good. Dialogue is clear, and post-production sound, especially the soundtrack, is dynamic.
The only extras on this DVD are trailers for Alison Murray's other films, Mouth to Mouth and Carney.
I'm hesitant to say that this is the most definitive train hopping documentary that could ever be made, but it's probably the best that will ever be made. Murray is a highly-competent documentarian with an artistic temperament, intellectual curiosity, and humanistic world view well-suited to her subject matter. I look forward to seeing more from this talented indie filmmaker.
Train on the Brain is highly recommended.
Viewers interested in this release should also consider seeing Sarah George's documentary Catching Out.