“I guess you could say there’s a mystery to it; maybe you want it to be a mystery.”
The best film I saw in all of 2006 was Who Is Bozo Texino, a mesmerizing 55-minute black-and-white documentary by Bill Daniel. The novel premise, about the search for the identity of a railroad graffiti artist, would already make for an intriguing film, but this piece is also a stunning decoupage of sight and sound- such a dense montage of striking visual compositions, and impressionistic voiceover. It is such a feast of a movie that one can scarcely believe it runs less than an hour.
Viewing Bozo Texino is to get the feeling of entering a secret society, and in fact, even attending the screening for it at Cinecyle in the fall of 2006 gave it that impression. I had only learned about the event by one posting on a website, but the rest of the clientele however already seemed to be “in the know”. The sense of being inaugurated into a subterranean culture is perhaps the perfect kind of inertia needed to view this film, which is in pursuit of an elusive subject. (This screening opened with Bill Daniel’s two-minute short subject, The Underground Square Dance Association- a hilarious piece about another subterranean culture, which set the tone.)
The concept of people “riding the rails”, hobos hopping a freight train to a new frontier, harkens images of the Depression Era, yet, as one narrator suggests, the tradition dates back to Jack London era, the 1890’s. This custom of hopping on a freight train has outlaw romanticism, with the hobo (not a “bum”, but a “hobo”) as the classical renegade figure, defying responsibility and authority by charting their own destination on the rails. And to think that this tradition continues today is perhaps surprising, but that is also part of the film’s appeal. Although a lot of the people who speak on film are leathery, weather-beaten old men, one gets the impression that this tradition will continue, with the brief shots of young hippies running to catch a boxcar. Very early in the film, we understand why this romantic notion continues in today’s society, with a breathtaking shot of a hobo in a boxcar looking at a mountain range. It prefaces one man’s later observation: “To be absent from society is to be on a higher plane.”
During the making of this 16-year project, Bill Daniel has also edited for Craig Baldwin’s equally dense, found-footage collages. That pursuit has served him well here, as it is a rhythm-perfect piece of film that moves like music, with crescendos and well-placed diminuendos. Seeing this flurry of images and sounds in such a fragmented frenzy, one gets the whirlwind feeling of teetering from a locomotive. And in moments when the film slows to a Zen calm (where a single shot will play for a couple of minutes), it gives one the impression of a good rest at the end of a journey.
What is more, this remarkable film implodes the conventions of documentary, with its multitude of narrative viewpoints. Its huge ensemble of anonymous voices is presented in as much a dizzying, disorienting fashion as the visuals. Despite that we see some railroad riders onscreen in several scenes, they still remain as strangers to us: as phantom-like as the plethora of signatures and drawings on the trains that we see throughout. A conventional A&E documentary would probably have started right off the bat with some exposition on Bozo Texino, yet we first see a (fleeting) shot of Texino’s drawing at the ninth minute, and only at the eighteenth (nearly one third of the film has already elapsed) does someone first mention his name. Since this hour-long film is a condensation of a lifetime on the tracks, it makes sense that we only gradually learn of the central character, just as someone gradually would hear these stories as legends after time spent riding on the trains.
While perhaps documentary-like in its structure of talking heads, narration and candid shots of people catching rides on trains, this film more succeeds in giving the viewer a synthesis of what it is like to hop a freight train to parts unknown. Its disorienting approach also compliments the fuzzy narrative, as this subculture is full of people who assume others’ identities. John Easley, for instance, has adopted the signature of an older man named Coltrane (whose trademark is an Old West scout with long hair and a huge moustache). As such, we hear conflicting opinions as to who is really signing the trains as Bozo Texino. Unlike the case of Citizen Kane, perhaps we really don’t want to know the revelation of this “Rosebud”.
Because this subculture is so steeped in legend and lore, solving this puzzle perhaps robs it of its mystical quality. This journey to uncovering Texino’s identity is another metaphor for the train ride—the destination matters less than the road trip. On screen and on paper, Who Is Bozo Texino gives us a representation of a long exhilarating ride, with its blurry narrative and blinding editing, as a lifetime of memory and folklore is distilled into one hour. Even more, each of these fleeting images is a miniature work of art in itself. With the meticulous attention to frame composition and rich contrasts, Bill Daniel ably validates this vanguard lifestyle as an overwhelming experience.
It is perhaps over-simplifying this bohemian existence by romanticizing its freedom from the clutches of modern society, but how this film was being shown to the audience adds to that image. Avoiding the usual trappings (literally and figuratively) of the film festival circuit, Bill Daniel would travel the continent in his van to show the film: fitting for the “wandering spirit nature” of its subject. My seeing it in a cold, wooden screening facility (perhaps not unlike a boxcar itself) one October night further added to the visceral experience of this truly remarkable movie.
While you should see Who Is Bozo Texino on a big screen somewhere, somehow… you can purchase DVD’s of the film at www.billdaniel.net.
(originally published in ESR #18)