Friday, April 13, 2012

Routine Pleasures

A few years ago I was doing a Google search on something or other and came up with hits on a movie called Routine Pleasures by Jean-Pierre Gorin. The descriptions I found sounded interesting, so I looked for a DVD. Couldn’t find a copy then, couldn’t find one whenever I remembered to have another look. Never any luck. Turns out this year, Eclipse, an imprint of Criterion Collection, released it along with Mr. Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo and My Crasy Life; together, the three are know as Mr. Gorin’s California Trilogy.

It’s a little hard for me to say what kind of a movie Routine Pleasures is. If pressed, I’d say it’s a documentary about two interrelated things: the first, and biggest, looks at the world of the Pacific Beach and Western model railroad club; the second, and you’ll need to watch the movie to see the interrelatedness with the first part, is about the artist Manny Farber and two of his better known paintings, Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz. and Chew on Me. As you’ve no doubt guessed, on the art film to mainstream movie continuum, Routine Pleasures skews towards art film. Don’t let that scare you off, it’s more on the fun, witty, insightful, respectful side, and not the obscure, cynical, condescending, or incomprehensible side if that’s what comes to mind if there’s a whiff of the arty in the air.

Routine Pleasures was released in 1986, but it looks like it was shot around 1982. The movie is partially an attempt by Mr. Gorin to figure out what makes the members of the club tick, and learn why they are fascinated by model railroading. Along the way there are interviews, but mainly there is just lots of just following the club members around as they hang out at the club and run the railroad. Interviews and observation and interaction. And there is Mr. Gorin’s excellent footage of the model railroad itself.

There were two particular things that kind of jumped out at me in the narrative. One was Mr. Gorin’s use of the term ‘trainmen’ to describe the club members. Not ‘model railroaders’, but ‘trainmen’. I thought that was insightful because it did seem that the interest of the club members was indeed trains, and model railroading was their expression of that interest.

The other was that Mr. Gorin referred to the layout as ‘The Machine’; the caps are mine, but to me it sure sounded like ‘The Machine’ and not ‘the machine’. The complexity of the layout, both in terms of track, trains and scenery, as well as the flip-side of wiring, structure, clocks, controls and so on, combined with the fact that the club members not only surrounded it, but also entered it, when operating suggested that it was almost something akin to a crude Earthbound spacecraft; hence, ‘The Machine’. I hadn’t thought of a layout on these terms, but it does make some sense - watch the movies, the visuals of operating and maintenance sessions make this quite clear.

Thirty years have gone by since this movie was shot and I was curious to see if the Pacific Beach and Western model railroad still existed. I did a little more Google searching with just the knowledge that The Machine was located in an old hanger at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego, and that construction started in 1958, so by 1982 or so, it was fairly mature. I couldn’t find anything, which isn’t a good sign. No doubt the fate of many a model railroad has also befallen the Pacific Beach and Western.

One thing I did find were references to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum at Balboa Park. The museum posted this interesting 2012 dated youTube video about the history of model railroading in the Balboa Park area. Interesting, but unfortunately no mention of the PB&W.

So, Routine Pleasures is out there after being more-or-less lost from general circulation and I’m glad to see it back. Take a look. There’s much more than I’ve discussed here.


  1. Very interesting, I will have to check it out. I totally understand the idea of the model layout as 'the machine'...considering the amount of maintenance, work, repair that goes into it just to get basic operations to work...yes, it is very much like a hugely complicated machine - and sometimes it feels like 'the machine' runs me more than the other way around! What an interesting insight from someone outside the hobby.

    1. The one thing I found a little jarring was the music chosen for the soundtrack - no doubt that says more about me than the movie. Also, it's not a long movie - 78 minutes according to the package - so it moves along.