Originally posted on Film Threat (now defunct)
2007, Un-rated, 56 minutes
Three and a half stars
It makes perfect sense that Dominic DeJoseph would want to document the man called Johnny Berlin. We’ve all encountered eccentrics like Berlin at the bus stop or in a near-empty bar. They have interesting stories and opinions but, as you have unwittingly become their intimate live audience, you are at their mercy, and it’s difficult to sneak away to use the bathroom or just read the book you brought, should things get uncomfortable. A documentary gives you an intimate look into the life of one of these guys with a nice, protective fourth wall to ease the tension. Unfortunately, “Johnny Berlin” is just a little bit too slice-of-life. The story lacks flow and is never really tied together.
“Johnny Berlin” follows the titular train porter (a cross between a maid and a bellboy) as he carries out his tour of duty aboard a refurbished 1930s luxury train traveling up and down the West coast. He makes it clear from the start, however, that while he takes pride in his work (such as gingerly hand-brushing the pubes from a dirty bed for the next guest) this isn’t a career for him. He is a lost soul in a dying industry. Though nothing much happens to Johnny, during the 56 minutes we meet him, nor during his lifetime, he is filled with dreams; rock and roll dreams, dreams of writing the great American novel, dreams of meeting the right girl. It sounds romantic enough, but looking at the middle-aged man telling you these things, one is left with the distinct notion that most, if not all of these dreams will remain elusive.
Working on a luxury train must be a lot like working on a submarine. The quarters are close and claustrophobic, lonely and dark with no ventilation. Johnny is clearly disturbed by it because he frequently mentions the excessive dander floating in the air with no means of escape. He must relate a bit to the dander as he himself floats aimlessly, trapped in his life with no recourse. He is dissatisfied with the workaday world, even though his day job is unusual. He has artistic designs but is he eccentric or just loony? His novel pitches are curious enough. The one he wants to write in Cambodia is about a world-weary protagonist who decides to trek around the world…by rolling on the ground. But would the end results be brilliant (a la “A Confederacy of Dunces”) or utterly un-publishable.
While the subject of “Berlin” is documentary gold, director DeJoseph doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. We are plunged into the world of this tragic character without the text introduction or narration. We don’t know if he ever made it to Cambodia. Our time with Johnny simply begins and ends. For that reason, watching “Johnny Berlin” is a lot like getting stuck next to the chatty weirdo on the bus, but without the pesky fear that he may pull out a knife and stab you at any moment. He’s a fascinating character, but the short time you spend with him is quite enough. Maybe even just a little bit too much.
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