Drat! It happened again. For the umpteenth year in a row, I’ve missed the National Hobo Convention. Held annually for over 100 years now during the second week of August in Britt, Iowa. The Convention is,per the National Hobo Museum, “the largest gathering of hobos, rail-riders, and tramps, who gather to celebrate the American traveling worker”. I’m also guessing it’s the only one of its kind, or at least the only one that is so formally organized.
I’m not sure exactly what happens at the National Hobo Convention. There seems to be a reunion–like convergence of these latter day rail riders, flocking together to celebrate their freedom, tell hoary old tales of the train, and swap tips on which rail yards yield the best rides. There’s a parade, there’s camping, there’s even a competition for king and queen of the Convention. It looks like a good time.
Except there’s this ugly aspect to it, too, which reveals itself in the hesitant and somewhat condescending reaction of the “audience”, the locals and gawkers who show up to take in the spectacle. The Hobo Convention exists somewhere along the continuum of Americana kitsch where you have no idea where the line between honesty and irony lies.
Sure, it seems like a genuine celebration of an anachronistic slice of American life, but there’s also this undertow of contempt. As one of the “hobos” interviewed by director Alison Murray puts it matter-of-factly, “These same people cheering for us today, will be spitting on us tomorrow”. It’s great to “celebrate” the indigent until they’re on your doorstep for real, unsanctioned and uninvited.
And anyway, I couldn’t have made the Hobo Convention, since, on its last day, as I was busy watching Alison Murray’s short documentary, Train on the Brain, where I first head of the National Hobo Convention. I’m guessing this is the first you’re hearing of it, too. And I’m guessing also that you haven’t been thinking of hobos a whole lot either, lately, or whether they, as a category, even still even exist (unless you happened to see this summer’s criminally underrated Kit Kittredge: An American Girl). Itinerant workers and the homeless, of course, are modern variations of the Depression-era’s hobos.
But “hobos”, in the spirit of the word, do still exist – sort of. There are a small, but enthusiastic, number of the lost and unfettered, the poor and the homeless, who have decided (by choice or by necessity) to check out of the normal stream of society and take to the open rail, crisscrossing the country on freight trains. They are not out there so much to find work, though (like “classic” style hobos back in the Depression) but to find something elusive – a self, a soul, a place to belong.
This is what Murray hopes to discover when she gives up her life in London to ride the rails herself, seeking some sort of inner peace in the freedom of the wide open space only accessible by train. She spent about three weeks and 3,000 miles crisscrossing North America in the summer of 1998, heading from Vancouver east to Winnipeg, then south to Iowa (for the Convention), before getting sidetracked in Memphis, stranded in Montana, and finally jumping off in Washington State to catch a flight home. It’s a long and winding, but alas not particularly enlightening journey.
The problem, of course, lies in the disconnect between the Romantic notions of being a hobo and the harsh reality, which becomes apparent immediately. It’s not as simple as running along side a slow moving train and jumping into a box car full of hay, and then seeing America with your legs dangling over the side, a harmonica planted in your mouth.
There are heavily-fenced train yards to infiltrate, guards and workers to dodge (though some of the latter are helpful), and wretched conditions on the trains to endure. The cars vary in everything but discomfort – some days it’s a rickety, nausea-inducing box car, others an exposed coal car full of soot and grime. Food is scarce, water scarcer, and rudimentary hygiene isn’t even a consideration. The life isn’t much of one, and there’s precious little time for quiet contemplation of the majesty of North America when one is low on food, sleep, and clean and comfortable clothing.
Murray spends much of her film smartly concentrating on the people she meets, who are mostly aimless 20ish drifters who have no home, no job, and no place to be. They ride the rails not so much out of necessity, nor to find work, but because there’s nothing else to do. Murray meets up with Todd and Wendy early on, both veterans of the rail, and she will continue her journey with them, as others come and go. That is the life on the rails – tenuous friendships founded on survival and protection, drifting together then apart, as circumstance dictates.
For awhile they journey with Lindsay, an underage teen runaway seeking escape from her life of perpetual adolescent boredom on Cape Cod (though she also hints at a strained relationship with her father, mentioned once in quick passing). Initially Murray and Wendy take her under their wing, both to protect her and perhaps steer her back home. But Lindsay proves to be a liability when she willfully disregards their advice and hooks up with the shady, untrustworthy Travis, a rather unwelcome fellow traveler, who telegraphs unwholesome designs for Lindsay. Happily, disaster is averted after Murray and Wendy rescue Lindsay and convince her to return home (and via bus, not freight cars).
They also meet Firecracker, the self-proclaimed “hobo cheerleader”, a role she takes quite literally by cooking up cheers and fight songs endorsing rail rider pride (she even tries to parlay this into a bid for Queen of the Hobos at the convention). Her ceaseless round-the-clock yammering and relative obnoxiousness eventually forces Murray and Co. to seek peace and quiet on another train. These and others are interesting characters, sure, but due to the brevity of their screen time and the lack of interviewing, we learn nothing about these people, about the real reasons and motivations for their lives of perpetual transience. They serve only as caricatures, and they are forgotten once the camera turns away. .
I don’t really know what to make of Train on the Brain. I like the idea, I liked parts of the film, and there’s a gritty aspect to the film stock (like we’re discovering some faded crackly old Super 8 footage) that is appealing. Murray’s style is to just take it all in as it comes, unprocessed and unquestioned.
But that approach to documentary filmmaking also nags me, the same way its short run time nags me. Surely she had more footage to choose from and incorporate, if only to add depth in certain places where it’s obviously lacking. True, the finished product was tailored for BBC television, so a 50-minute run-time makes sense, but for this version, eight years after the BBC show, I would have liked for her to include more vital footage.
But ultimately, my main issue is with Murray herself. I could never quite shake this whole notion of her deliberately slumming it for kicks, that she was just a tourist, who has the wherewithal to jump straight back into normal life whenever she wants. The film, and the life on the rails, seem like a joy ride to her, even despite some of the obvious hardship (to her credit, she does “live the life” for three weeks without cheating by, say, cleaning up at hotels, or gorging at a restaurant), whereas for her companions, this is their lives, from which there is no vacation, no safe haven to return to.
That said, Murray is never smug, we never get a hint that she is condescending (like the people at the Hobo Convention might be), but there’s something fundamentally dishonest about her approach to the subject matter, especially since there’s no real pay off in the end, no real statement beyond it being a mere travelogue, and this ultimately derails Train on the Brain from being the film it wants to be.