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You’ve talked about this thing being an experience beyond yourself, that you’re just the one who provided the framework for it.
Oh, yea? I mean, at this point, it’s something I’ve made and moved on from, sure it’s mine as much as anyone’s. And I am probably more curious what it is in the eyes of other people. Maybe you should tell me the answers.
What would you ask?
I think I’m fresh out of questions at this point—the whole process of making this movie was asking myself questions, trying out solutions that didn’t work. From the shooting process, where a crazy snowstorm derailed our original travel plans and thus our story arc, to the editing, where I had to put aside original intention and just put together the puzzle pieces I actually had, it was all questions. At the end of the day though, it’s really just a train ride that you take and hopefully enjoy because honestly I wish I was on a train most of the time. Anyway, I try to tell people not to over think it.
I was going to ask you about that clichÉ of the train ride as a kind of proto-cinema.
I don’t know, if you tried asking the commuters on their way home from work or drunks coming back from a baseball game, you could see if they think it’s a clichÉ that riding a train is like watching a movie, watching my movie is like riding a train. Just as long as you don’t mix them up. The movie’s just a movie, whatever else it wants to be.
The idea for the thing was a pretty cloudy one, which is how I’d like to work, or how I seem to work, at least. I sent friends an email and pitched the thing as a three-day collaborative filmmaking adventure, “to explore motion, romanticism of travel, technology + travel and landscape (out the window and at stops along the way) in concurrence with a more character driven narrative.” You said that I gave this ride a frame, but it really was the opposite: I picked a project that already had a framework in place, and of course, the movie itself became something else breaking that frame entirely. It’s the train thing, that the more determined the course, the less determined the course. The more fixed the frame, the more the elements seem to fluctuate. It’s like those Rousseau and Duras films. You can limit yourself to an Amtrak seat, a scummy window, and the sky, with the train fixed on its path, the camera fixed on the window, and think that everything’s under your control, when nothing is, except maybe the decision you haven’t made yet.
It feels like a place you’re going with your movies, using these tight structures as a way of relinquishing control. God does the lighting, Amtrak does the sound.
I don’t know if I believe in either God or Amtrak.
Maybe Amtrak. We had this great ticket taker on the trip who, judging from her voice, must have smoked at least three packs a day. A few months after the we shot the movie I was taking the train back to Ohio to visit my family and brought a sound recorder to try and recapture various sounds, including the story of the Horseshoe Curve that you hear during the opening of the movie, and the first thing I heard when I boarded the train was that woman’s wonderful voice.
But, let me finish what I was getting at earlier.
The idea really came when I saw Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired girl. The train being used as the framing device got me to think about how trains are the perfect, preassembled set. You don't need to light them, they're already decorated, and because they're moving, they're always interesting.
It’s like my love of courtroom movies, this miniature mockup of society as a movie set, with everyone playing the roles they’ve been assigned from outside, even though they’re in a self-contained world. It’s kind of great, this way of turning society into a collective theater; at the same time it’s absurd, people propagating this system whose values are anything but collective. For research, I was watching movies like Human Desire, Class Relations, and Mission: Impossible, and it’s always the same thing: every seat carries a token citizen of a different class, and the train is this collective space where they have to confront each other and reestablish their roles through the simplest gestures of who gets priority to the bathroom, who can afford a sandwich, who can afford to tip someone else to get him a sandwich. And sandwiches are expensive on Amtrak—though not as gross as the equally over-priced and under-microwaved frozen pizzas they sell.
But, David Harvey’s writings are pretty great, about how the land that had tied down feudalism, became a real nuisance to capitalism, this fixed object with a fixed value in a mobile world—how the railroads would change all that by offering land an exchange value relative to its nearest supply station and distribution center. Raising the land value no longer meant waiting for sheep, cows, and backyard vegetable patches to multiply over winters: a nearby railway line was enough. Just think about Joan Crawford standing her ground in Johnny Guitar as she waits for the railroad to come to town so she can reap the rewards.
And of course movies do the same thing, boosting the economy wherever they go. The politics are crazy. If that snowstorm hadn’t stranded us in Pittsburgh and screwed up our connecting train to Cleveland, the shoot would have gone over the B&O line toward Chicago, which Stephen Douglas turned into America’s national hub in exchange for “popular sovereignty” and a civil war in Kansas. And then our own civil war. That meandering route would have been one of the bases for his transcontinental railroad—he was staring down a fortune. There are all those movies like The Iron Horse and Union Pacific to celebrate the railroad as this consecration of the new American unity. In the future, Hollywood will probably shoot odes to Walmart, Starbucks, and eventually Whole Foods, uniting North and South, East and West in the same lifestyle beyond all those divides. But I started realizing how the railroad brings everything together only to expose those divides.
How much of that is in the movie?
Well, it’s in reality, anyway, so hopefully it’s in the movie by extension. If I did my job right it should be. Not my place to say, really, but the divides in the landscape are definitely there, maybe some of the divides between people in those traces of all the cut characters and stories. I realized after I finished it that there’s this kind of double montage effect that you see the landscapes changing both through the unfolding of time in the long takes, but just as much in the cuts.
But, anyway, relinquishing control?