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Entries in Rocky Mountain Express [2011] (1)


Rocky Mountain Express (2011)

Tracks of My Tears

Growing up, I never understood my father’s fascination with trains. I spent more weekends than I care to remember at hobby shops and model shows, shifting impatiently on my feet as the old man poured over shrink-wrapped kits and elaborate layouts that were, to me, absolutely identical. At home, dad could often be found in the basement, tinkering with an artificial expanse of countryside, towns, and tracks that devoured our laundry room over the course of a decade. I didn’t get it. Movies were my thing, and occasionally, we’d bond over them—especially ones featuring trains.

Speaking of movies, Teen Wolf posited that sometimes familial traits skip a generation. That’s certainly true in the Simmons line, because my son is into trains. He isn’t nuts over them like he was a few years ago, but we’ve worn the hell out of several hours-long Blu-rays featuring soothing country-crossing montages. Ironically, I’m helping raise a kid who doesn’t care for movies, so you might understand my jitters when putting on Rocky Mountain Express, a 45-minute IMAX film that combines the casual background footage he’s used to, with documentary elements about the history of the Canadian Railroad.

Last month, I wrote about Journey to Space, another IMAX conversion put out by Shout! Factory, and co-produced by Ryan Mullins of Big Picture Digital Productions. When I spoke to Ryan about his upcoming slate of releases, he said he couldn’t wait for Rocky Mountain Express, because, unlike the archival footage used in Journey to Space, the new film used entirely state-of-the-art equipment in capturing the long, hard journey of Hudson steam locomotive 2816. His enthusiasm was not hype, it turns out: Rocky Mountain Express offers an even more dimensional viewing experience, even though the terrain is far less fantastical than Martian topography.

It’s clear that director Stephen Low has fallen under the train spell, too. Rocky Mountain Express fetishizes its hero-locomotive and the bridges, mountains, and valleys it has traversed, on and off, since the 1930s. The camera moves range from abstract close-ups to traditional train-mounted and aerial photography. Combined with sounds that switch from soothing, distant steam whistles to the hard-driving percussion of metal-on-metal-on-wood-on-rock, Low conveys the awe-inspiring feat of man’s triumphant technology in navigating the even more awe-inspiring natural world.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve spent hundreds of hours watching similar footage. No matter how slick the production values or how fancy the pans, a new train video is just a new train video. Which is why Rocky Mountain Express’s narrative is so important. Low doesn’t shy away from history’s less flattering details, instead diving deep into a decades-long story of cold financial calculations, personal hubris, and an unconscionable willingness to sacrifice human lives in the name of progress.

The director paints a stark and haunting contrast between pleasant modern-day footage of 2816 making her route, and old photographs of the businessmen and engineers who drew up the route in the 1880s; animated maps detailing the natural barriers to the Canadian Pacific Railway's plans; and pictures from disasters that befell countless immigrant workers tasked with executing those plans. Because we live in an era of Google Maps, it’s almost impossible to conceive of the inhumane conditions and back-cracking labor that went into scouting and forging a path through practically vertical mountains and over rivers. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve always accepted trains as part of the landscape, as things that just simply existed. By facing these grim details head-on, Low elevates Rocky Mountain Express from hobbyist entertainment to a relevant and socially conscious work.

I still don’t love trains. But, through the medium of film, I’ve come closer to understanding their enthusiasts' reverence. There’s something primal in the very idea of locomotives, a declaration that we, as a species, are smart enough to conquer the planet and determined enough to bend its very makeup to our will. I doubt my five-year-old understands this, or would even agree with the sentiment if he could. But my dad was a believer.

One day, a group of sheriff’s deputies evicted him from my childhood home, taking sledgehammers to the basement layout he’d begun before I was born. Though he lived in crappy apartments for the rest of his life, he never gave up on the idea of someday owning a home again. This house, too, would have a great, big basement—one in which he’d unbox the smashed fragments from the worst day of his life and rebuild.