Sarah George’s documentary “Catching Out” follows the free-spirited fringe-dwellers who hop freight trains and ride the rails either in search of adventure or in escape from the conformist requirements of society. While imperfect, it does provide an intriguing glimpse into a subculture, which many people will be surprised to learn, still exists.
Freight train hopping calls to mind the image of the hobo in the Great Depression, who sneaked aboard trains on long-distance journeys out of socio-economic necessity: the lack of jobs and housing during that economic crisis forced many people to seek a better life somewhere down the rails. It is difficult to consider the train hoppers of “Catching Out” to be the heirs of the 1930s hobo, since these people take to the rails by choice. Often it seems like a fairly obnoxious choice.
The film places its focus on three main stories: a serene tramp couple who call themselves Switch and Baby Girl whose train days are numbered when she becomes pregnant, a lyrical environmental anarchist-activist named Lee who publishes his own train-hopping zine, and a rather self-absorbed college dropout named Jessica who leaves her academic environment in favor of a locomotive-oriented version of s***s-and-giggles. All of the subjects are very articulate when it comes to describing their adventures, including the unique bonding that occurs among the family of today’s train-hoppers and the various perils that arise from their endeavors.
They seem less convincing, however, when they complain against contemporary American consumerist society. At one point, Jessica and two stoner friends babble endlessly in the midst of a narcotized fog about the evils of mass media until one of the group looks past the camera and suggests it would be a good idea if their segment didn’t make the final cut. Even more troubling are how the others run the risk of hypocrisy by swinging between their self-proclaimed freedom of the freight trains and the cozy standards of everyday life: Lee’s parents have a fairly comfortable life and they welcome his crashing at their luxurious home whenever he feels like it, while Switch and Baby Girl adapt quickly and painlessly to the so-called real world once their baby is born despite half-hearted protests of how much they’d rather be on the rails (they move in with his family in Connecticut).
“Catching Out” runs 80 minutes, but it might have played tighter if it was cut down to an hour. The film has several loose ends which could have easily been jettisoned, including an out-of-left-field bombastic rant by train-hopper-turned-lawyer/writer Duffy Littlejohn (it seems the filmmaker ran out of money to complete his segment) and a tacked-on visit to a hobo convention (which is too compressed and too late in the film to make any impact on the story).
The film, strangely, never seeks out the voice of the people who run the freight train lines to see how they feel about these freeloaders grabbing a ride. And this is the key problem to the film: freight train hopping is completely and utterly illegal and no one interviewed here has the slightest twinge of remorse that they are breaking the law by hiding in the cargo containers and empty cars that make up the freight trains. Everyone in the film acknowledges they are in violation of the law and a few claim to have received tickets for their actions. Yet the cavalier attitude of the people profiled here that they have a right to adventure at the expense of the train companies is wildly selfish and it frequently makes the film difficult to enjoy.
And yet, “Catching Out” is a compelling and unusual production that deserves to be seen. Sarah George and her crew clearly worked under very difficult and dangerous conditions to capture some wonderful footage, much of it shot from clandestine Super 16mm cameras set up on the trains while in motion. Watching the American landscape of deserts, mountains, cities, villages, shorelines and farmland pass by at train speed provides a happy reminder as to why the love affair with trains continues to this day. Train travel is the best of all worlds: there is a clear picture of the country at ground level without the hassle and blight of the highway. And there is a strangely magical rhythm to the clickety-clack of the trains as they roll down their lines, which enchants anyone who can detect the rush of a train in the distance (one wishes the film’s soundtrack has more trains and less of Pete Droge’s intrusive and frequently inappropriate score).
Ultimately the film captures a curious and little-considered corner of the American fabric, which is rarely visited. Whatever one’s view of the moral aspects of this way of life, it is nonetheless an intriguing story that will one thinking about it and even debating it for some time after the final credits. For better or worse, this is a ride worth taking.