By S.T. VanAirsdale
As a young college radio host years ago, Doug Pray had a thing for trucking songs. Something about the chrome, the freedom, the wildness. In the years since, during which films like Hype!, Scratch and Infamy have established him as one of the foremost documentarians of American subculture, the truckers who lived that music attracted Pray as potential subjects. But this one would be different, he insisted; forget about the existential angst of those hip-hop DJ's and graffiti artists streaking his previous work. Now was his chance to have fun.
"When we got out there, it just hit us," Pray told his audience following Tuesday night's New York premiere of Big Rig, presented by Silverdocs as part of the ongoing Stranger Than Fiction doc series. "We would go out to truck stops and approach drivers for interviews, and they'd be like, 'Stop right there! Are you gonna do one of them goddamned 20/20, Barbara Walters [shows] that makes us all into rapists and accident-causing whatever?' They'd had it up to here. We never set out to feel sorry for truckers. We went out there and we thought we were going to make this completely kick-ass movie about hookers and speed and yee-haw! I'm not kidding. But we went out there, and however you feel right now is exactly how we felt day after day after day."
Despite a vignette structure emphasizing anecdotes that never quite cohere into the fine contextual tapestry of Pray's best films, Big Rig retains those efforts' steady, unambiguous and affecting gravity. Much of its power follows from its simplicity: Pray, producer Brad Blondheim and usually one assistant hired locally on the fly hit the road in four two-week bursts, riding along with drivers throughout the United States. (Pray previously talked with The Reeler last year about the making and editing of the film.) From their seats behind the wheels they share candid bursts about everything from infidelity to gas prices to politics, their stories as achingly familiar as they are revelatory and discrete.
From there, Pray said, he saw a pattern recalling the media perversion of Seattle rockers in Hype! or the edging out of DJ's by high-profile rappers in Scratch. "I didn't realize this until I was editing, but every film I've done, whether it was a popular subculture or not, lets a community that's misrepresented speak," he said. "And that's never my goal -- it's not like I set out saying, 'I'm going to save the truckers,' or anything like that. 'I need to save DJ's!' That's not my thing at all. It's always because I'm interested in the subculture as an observer."
As such, the freewheeling lifestyle evinced by only a handful of drivers profiled in Big Rig (one man's truck has 268 lights installed from front to back; "The truckers we've shown this movie to kind of hate him," Pray acknowledged) gives way to bureaucracy and loneliness. Pray does elide the realities of drug and prostitute solicitation still common among drivers, instead choosing alternatives including insights from a sympathetic Vegas madam. Even a brilliant sequence featuring a livestock driver attached to the pigs he hauls to slaughter tapers out bittersweetly. It's as much advocacy as exposition, maybe even more so.
"Why is our country so disrespectful to its working class?" Pray said. "That's the biggest question I have, and I hope the film asks that." The filmmaker even offered counsel to a curious filmgoer who wondered what she could do to "help." "The simplest thing you can do is just respect truck drivers. Don't cut them off. Just respect them. Give them the right of way. You have to think of it like: 'OK, well that guy's probably late. He was up probably later than he should have been because he arrived at the dock at 3:30 and didn't get his damn cabbages until 11, so now he still does have to drive all this way, because the guy in New York said he doesn't get paid if he doesn't show up.'
"There's all sorts of bullshit out there in terms of what they have to put up with," he added. "All I can say is to try to respect them. It's that simple."
Posted at October 31, 2007 2:34 PM
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