In the French classic Boudu Saved From Drowning , Jean Renoir lionizes his tramp, Boudu, for his lack of conceit, his renunciation of the bourgeois comforts and their attendant hypocrisies. Nevertheless, we think of the tramp as peculiarly American, as Chaplinesque. It was Chaplin's The Tramp that annealed that iconic figure into the American consciousness. Emmett Kelly's ?eary Willy, with his bindle and tattered clothes (now the model for every sad circus clown), followed, and transformed the tramp into the hobo of the Great Depression. It was Willy who inspired Preston Sturges' John Sullivan (in Sullivan's Travels ) to take to the rails in order to ?ealize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium that it is. In Catching Out , Sarah George, a novice documentary filmmaker, continues the tradition?er film, about modern train-hoppers, hobos, outcasts and iconoclasts, is both social commentary and character study. George even heeds the advice of John Sullivan's producers?er story has ? little sex.
George's subjects are an odd mixture of eco-activists, vagabond youths, and middle-aged men with Peter Pan complexes. They ruminate, sometimes in the halting, stammering speech of recluses, on the pleasures and dangers of ?atching out or hopping freight trains. It's illegal, so a few train-hoppers like lawyer Duffy Littlejohn do it mostly for kicks; they like dodging ?ulls or railroad cops. Others have simply chosen an alternate lifestyle, like Lee, whose home is a forest ?quat in Northern California. He train-hops because it's a cheap way to travel. Switch and Baby Girl, now retired from train-hopping, found each other in a soup kitchen in Roseville, California, and fell in love traveling the rails. Now they roam the states in an old van with their baby boy. It is in a shot of the couple embracing on the threshold of an empty freight car near the beginning of Catching Out that George adds ? little sex and updates the American mythos of the lone hobo.
In letting her subjects speak for themselves, George does a good job of exploring the lure of the road, or in this case the rails. Her presence is felt in her selection of subjects, not in the usual directorial choices of locale or of camera angles. In fact, Catching Out is hardly eye candy, as one might imagine a film about train-hopping to be. The filmmaker is squarely focused on the inner landscape, on what motivates Duffy Littlejohn, Lee and Switch and Baby Girl, and their fellow tramps. When at the end of the film Lee heads for the yearly hobo convention, George films only the parade of arrivals into town. The convention would be another film entirely. Quotidian aspects of ?atching out are sometimes discussed, and one or two times we witness the long waits at train yards and the actual hopping, but mostly George isn't interested in providing a ?ow to.
With the advent of train-yard cameras and onboard heat sensors, ?atching out may soon disappear altogether, so George's documentary serves an ethnographic purpose as well as a cinematic one. While the filmmaker can't be accused of advocating an unlawful activity?here's even a disclaimer to that effect at the end of the film?eorge, who traveled 10,000 miles on freight trains, articulates in Catching Out , sometimes wistfully, the enduring and idiosyncratic American affection for the Iron Horse.