I saw Who Is Bozo Texino? for the first time in 2005, shortly after its completion. Daniel was traveling with the film and he screened it where I went to college. I was a freshman or a sophomore. I can't tell you exactly what I thought of the film -- it's been too long -- but the film stayed with me in a way few films do. It became almost apocryphal to me, this film which left such a vivid impression and about which I could remember so few particulars.
My interest in filmmaking was nascent back then and recently I started to wonder what I would think of the film now, my knowledge having grown considerably over the years. After looking online, I discovered that Daniel had put the film on DVD. I watched a few clips that had found their way to youtube. These sealed my interest and I bought the disc.
The film is a documentary about the boxcar graffiti drawn by hobos and railroad workers. They develop drawings which act like signatures, broadcast across the country by train. The film takes its title from the most infamous boxcar artist, Bozo Texino, who wrote the name "Bozo Texino" under a sketch of a head wearing a cowboy hat. Daniel spent 16 years making the film, hopping freight trains, befriending hobos, and gradually accumulating footage while he sought out the anonymous author of the Bozo Texino insignia.
In under an hour the film manages to accomplish a lot. It explores the boxcar graffiti subculture (which forms its through-line), documenting many of the drawings and interviewing some of the most prolific artists. It touches on hobo philosophy, including their views on anti-authoritarianism, the benefits of life on the fringes, and what distinguishes a hobo from a bum. It acts, by osmosis, as a lesson on train-hopping as a lifestyle and a culture. It captures a very distinct milieu during a particular period in time, and its sometimes elegiac tone suggests that the lifestyle may not last much longer. It embodies a classically American attitude toward outsiders, journeys, and the notion of escape, and it observes the American landscape from that perspective (that of a moving freight train).
Above all, however, the film functions as a tone poem. The documentary qualities are secondary to the pure, immediate pleasures of the film's sights and sounds. Filmed in 16mm and Super-8, the film has a rough-hewn, amateurish quality which lends it an air of authenticity that a more professional production would lack: we know, by merit of its form, that this film is imbued with the same reckless spirit it depicts. It focuses intensely on the sensual presence of the trains, something the cinema is well-equipped to do (and has always loved to): the kinetic power of its mechanisms, the array of its textures, the flicker of the passing tracks, the interplay of light and space and movement among the trains and landscapes. The film's moods range from somber to wistful to playful to melancholy. The graffiti -- ostensibly the subject of the doc -- becomes merely one figure in an intricate pattern.
The soundtrack mixes music, voice-over, and the sounds of the railroad. The music is an original country score. It's a solid score and feels at one with the film, adding another dimension to the world we see. Even the voice-overs contribute to the aural texture of the film. The accents and the cadence of their speech help to evoke a certain time and place and people. Sometimes the music and the commentary give way to pure sound, and these constitute some of my favorite moments in the film. Seldom have trains been so convincing on-screen, so loud and immediate and real. This is perhaps the film's strongest quality -- its immediacy, its visceral beauty -- and when it's over it inevitably leaves you wanting to go train-hopping.
I don't mean to undermine the film's documentary qualities, which are remarkable in their own right. I'd argue that the film, like all great documentaries, makes poetry of its subject. But the film is clearly juggling the documentary form with a more experimental, sensory approach, and I think the fusion is very effective. Despite its radical style, the film is also quite accessible and I'd recommend it to almost anyone. I watched it with friends last night and we spent over an hour discussing hobo names, the romance of train-hopping, and the spirit of adventure.
If you have any interest in trains, fringe lifestyles, train-hopping, folk culture, outsider art, Americana, impossible undertakings, or just filmmaking, this film has something to offer.
You can buy the film from Daniel's website, AKPress (for international orders], or Amazon. The link to his site also has two other alternatives. He's released a book on the subject as well, Mostly True (also on the site), but I can't give any insight into that as I haven't read it. Even if you're not willing to take the plunge and buy it, I believe a torrent of the film can be readily located through a Google search. Maybe seeing it will convince you to buy it.
I apologizing for such frank promotion of the film (I guarantee you, I do not stand to benefit), and I hope you forgive me for waxing lyrical about it. But I think it's an extraordinary little film that deserves all the exposure it can get. This is fiercely independent filmmaking -- grass roots, word of mouth, shown in person rather than distributed. Hell, when I bought the DVD Daniel emailed me to let me know he'd be in New Orleans soon with his next project. I'm just eager to share a perhaps unknown film (a search of the forum yielded no results) and to hear what others might have to say about it.
Here are some of the youtube clips I mentioned: Clip 1 Clip 2
Fun fact: Bill Daniel is the brother of Lee Daniel, a cinematographer and frequent Linklater collaborator. He shares a cinematography credit in Who Is Bozo Texino?.
Discussions of specific films and franchises.
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