Subversive Saturday: Routine Pleasures (1986)
The following review is a continuation of Matthew Blevins’ Subversive Saturdays series.
Thanks to the bold decisions by the Criterion Collection for their Eclipse series releases, we can now see three films by Jean-Pierre Gorin that were previously either unavailable or of poor transfer quality. Today we explore the idiosyncratic beauty and contradictory elements of Americana with Routine Pleasures. Who better to illustrate the unique and diverse nature of America than a French filmmaker with Marxist leanings? Gorin is able to approach the framework of idiosyncratic passions and contradictory philosophies that lay the foundation for the real greatness in America with objectivity as he is removed from the ideologies that define it and can look in from the outside. It is through the missed notes of Thelonious Monk, the naïve infantilism of men that dedicate their lives to fastidiously attending to model trains, or the person that dedicates their life to writing film reviews for films that few will watch and fewer will appreciate that makes the world interesting. Gorin is able to approach these oddities with an anthropological curiosity, and can disconnect himself from the jingoistic nationalism that obscures the true greatness that runs just below the surface of this social experiment we call “America”.
Passions are unusual things that run in logical opposition of basic survival instincts. It is only in an affluent society that one can dedicate significant portions of their lives to obsessions that seemingly have no bearing on the outcome of the world around them. When you have removed the fear of starvation and death by predator, the human animal is starved for external stimulation. It is through the ways that we choose to satiate this hunger that defines who we are as individuals. Some fill this void with faith, some choose to define themselves by their occupation, some fill their time with unusual hobbies, but however we choose to fill the void, we are all searching for the same thing. There is a horrifying existential void that one cannot easily stare in to, and when all of our requirements for survival are met there is nothing left but the void. That void exists in us all somewhere, but some are able to more easily construct barricades to remove it from their sight.
When you have removed the fear of starvation and death by predator, the human animal is starved for external stimulation. It is through the ways that we choose to satiate this hunger that defines who we are as individuals.
Gorin chose an unusual group of guys as the subject of this experimental documentary. These men are obsessed with trains, and spend every Tuesday night diligently working on their massive model train landscape. They have constructed an entire world with its own set of rules, and each Tuesday night they perform a carefully orchestrated show for no audience. They spend countless hours over several decades working on details in this model world. These details will likely go unnoticed outside of this circle of friends, but that does not remove the profound significance behind the illogical actions. It is only when they are consumed by these passions that their world goes from grey to vibrant Technicolor, and Gorin illustrates this by choosing to film the men in color when they are doing what they love. Passion runs in logical opposition to necessity in the natural world, but in the world of man it is these illogical actions that define our humanity and grant us divine significance as guardians of humankind’s history. In laboring so intently to capture realism in this model world, these men are capturing a time and manner of thinking that will never again exist. It is not important that anyone ever observe or take notice of the results of their passion and fastidious laboring, as all things will eventually turn to dust and pollute the cosmos as whispers of worlds long gone.
They spend countless hours over several decades working on details in this model world. These details will likely go unnoticed outside of this circle of friends, but that does not remove the profound significance behind the illogical actions.
Gorin tried to alienate himself from this group of men as their idiosyncratic nature made them a bit unusual, but in the grand scheme of things we are all unusual in our own wonderful ways. The men seemingly accept Gorin with certain trepidation, and insert him in to their landscape in the form of a model car. They move this car around their model landscapes to offer him an entry point in to their unusual world. His interviews with the men early in the film show a discomfort between these vastly different sets of personalities. The men seem uncomfortable with Gorin’s unusual behavior and body language shows a disconnection between subject and observer. Eventually these surface differences erode, and Gorin begins to understand their passion as he gets caught up in this false world of American idealism that has been carefully locked in time. We learn to accept passion on its own terms, and no matter how it chooses to manifest itself it carries nobility in its illogical nature. The less logical and more time consuming the passion, the more nobility it possesses. This is what I tell myself each day as I watch films that are largely ignored outside of very specific circles and spend hours trying to pick around the edges with my limited vocabulary in the hopes of engaging at least one other oddball in the world so that we can share a moment of euphoria when the hushed screams our idiosyncratic passions find another voice in the darkness.