Happy Canada Day! It was a four day weekend for me, so I managed to take in a good number of films. From the non-fiction end of the spectrum, I managed to check out two of this week’s new DVD releases, both of which have a travelling theme, Alison Murray’s ‘Train on the Brain’ and Doug Pray’s ‘Big Rig’. I also continue my look at the films of Frederick Wiseman with his second feature, High School. Here’s what I thought of them.
I love the universally simple topics (and titles) of Wiseman’s films. His second feature, appropriately named ‘High School’, literally shows us the every day workings of a high school, from the mundane (gym class aerobics) to the unusual (a student run simulated space flight). Whereas most high school documentaries I’ve seen in the past have focused on certain students, documenting their educational career’s, Wiseman takes on the eductational system from a disjointed fly-on-the-wall perspective. We see a number of students dealing with a number of different issues, from unfairly being sent to detention to debating appropriate formal wear for the prom. One of the more entertaining sequences involves the preperation for a student fashion show. An older, plump woman heads the class, parading young girls onto the stage and bluntly criticising their clothes and their bodies. Even when a girl sports a dress she deems appropriately fashionable, she throws in a reference to the fact that the girl ‘knows she has a weight problem’. It’s moments like this that make High School remarkably interesting and entertaining. (See video below for this very scene) Another great moment is provided by an overzealous hall monitor who approaches every student he sees, aggressively asking if they have a pass. I can’t help but wonder if Wes Anderson was inspired by this very scene when Max Fischer, the main character in his film Rushmore, gives the hall monitor a ‘one second’ gesture as he gabs on a pay phone. A classic moment. I simply love seeing the way things worked in the late sixties and hearing the kind of advice teachers would give to students, which by today’s standards, seems completely old-fashioned and misguided. In one instance, a gynecologist gives a talk to a large group of males, fielding questions anonamously written on little pieces of paper. In one of the more uncomfortable moments in the film, he goes into detail as to the meaning behind the expression ‘pop her cherry’. Yikes.
Doug Pray’s ‘Big Rig’ is an inside look at an industry that I’ve always been a little curious about; trucking. The film follows multiple long haulers as they discuss the ins and outs of their industry. Most interestingly is the idea that if these big rig hauler’s were to go on strike or suddenly stop shipping, within three days the country would begin to fall apart. It’s easy to take their service for granted. All of our fresh produce and gasoline is replenished thanks to them. We’re also given a lesson on some of the code words shared among truckers over their CB radios. (A flatbead truck is a ‘skateboard’) Some of the female drivers share their thoughts on the dangers of trucking alone, including stories of harsh run-ins with some lonely men looking for love on the road. The film is beautifully shot, using a roadside view of America as the backdrop. It truley gives you a sense of the sites that these folks are treated to during some of their longer runs. I suppose the only real crticisim I’d have about Big Rig is the scattered approach to the subject matter. We’re introduced to a large number of charcters, and it can be tough to keep them all sorted out. I would’ve preferred a closer look at a smaller number of characters rathter than the larger, broad approach to the topic.
Director Alison Murray takes to the rails in this sparce look at life on the move, boxcar hopping across Canada. She teams up with a group of self-proclaimed, and seemingly self-made, hobo’s in an attempt to experience the allure of riding railway cars. What starts off as a simple cross-country trip turns into a more focused goal; to make their way to Ohio via train-hopping to attend the annual ‘hobo convention’. For the majority of the film, Murray sticks with Wendy, an ‘Earthy’ rail-rider who’s instincts on the rails are finely attuned thanks to a great deal of experience. Along the way they meet up with some other characters, one of which is a 16 year old runaway who hopes to travel to San Fransisco. She also happens to like the Grateful Dead. Go figure. People come and go, some more experienced than others, and some with some sketchy intentions. The cinematography, shot hand-held on what looks to be a consumer video camera, might leave a little to be desired for some. Personally, I thought the aesthetic suited both the story and the characters. Murray plays a major role in the film as well, giving us that outsider perspective which we can all thankfully relate to. *SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT* Unfortunately, the ending seems to be a bit of a cop out, but I guess you gotta do what you gotta do. (I’m trying not to get into details, but if you’ve seen the film, you probably know what I’m talking about.) Train on the Brain is available on DVD this week. (June 1st, 2008)