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The Sonoma Valley Film Festival:
Long Gone

There is a saying that the rails call to a man at his darkest hours. This must be true, for I can't think of a darker set of humans than those who were chronicled in the outstanding documentary Long Gone.

Shown as a part of the Sonoma Valley Film Festival's Lounge program, Long Gone is an exceptionally powerful film that tells the story of the men and women who travel America courtesy of American freight trains. It is also the story of what happens when people lose hope, find freedom, and try their damnedest to make themselves a family from what they pull together.

If you were simply to look across the surface of this marvel, you would see only the cinematography, which is easily the finest I've seen in any documentary for years. Much like Confessions of a Burning Man, the subject just lends itself to beautiful shooting. There are grand vista shots, sweeping views of the countryside as it rolls by, and amazing looks at the squalor that some of these people live in. It's easy to see why Long Gone won the Slamdance prize for Best Cinematography.

You can't watch the film without noting the powerful music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. They provide another layer, making the whole piece come off even more desperate and sheltered.

The next level down are these amazing characters with crazy names. Horizontal John. Joshua Long Gone. New York Slim. Dog Man Tony. They sound like names that could have come out of 1930s hobo movies, and in essence, they are the last remaining vestige of those days. They are real people, though at times it's hard to look at them as human. They are entertaining, especially the philosophical New York Slim, and at times, a bit scary. They know that they are not what the rest of the world wants them to be, and this only bothers one or two of them throughout the film. There is a sense of loneliness to every character, even the best friends Joshua Long Gone and Horizontal John. Though they travel together, there is always a sense of isolation to them. The characters are deep and as the shoot took almost four years, we get to watch every character develop, morph, and a couple of them even die.

A nearly tragically mismatched couple, Jessie and Stoney, travel across the US, ending up in NYC. They are just out to have a good time and explore, but it becomes obvious that Jessie is a remarkable young woman, shown playing classic piano in one scene, and Stoney is a strung-out loser. It's hard to watch, but nice to see where each of them ends up.

These characters have their fights, their slugfests, their painful break-ups, their quiet sicknesses. The filmmakers seem to be more interested in watching the events that shape these people and this way of life. There is a frightening feeling as we watch one of the tramps slowly waste away that the filmmakers are documenting when they should be intervening, but then when you realize that his closest riding partner can't get him to get help that they were equally powerless.

Once you've come past the easy parts, you get to the ultimate core: this is the price we pay for what we all want, the price for our freedom. It's a hard lesson that. Most folks say they are working towards complete freedom and here it is shown as a rougher road than the one you walk to get there. We see people who chose this life, only to have to deal with far greater pain now that they've achieved what they were looking for. It's the oldest story in the world: be careful what you ask for, and here, it is shown at its darkest.

We see the filmmakers go far in their attempt to document this lifestyle, but they also refuse to pull back when they might want to put the camera away. Documentary ethics and those of the average viewer often come into stark contrast in these situations. We see graphic drug use at one point, an illness conquer a vibrant personality, a series of brutal fights. All of this leaves you numb at times, but there is still something amazing creeping in at the edges. Perhaps it is simply the beauty of the work and the music. Perhaps it is the charisma of the characters, or some left-over romantic notion of hobos from our parents and grandparents. Whatever that feeling is, it's certainly there, and that is what makes this film more than just a charming piece of whimsy.

Chris Garcia

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