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Movie Review: The Livelong Day

By Mike Everleth ⋅ December 29, 2009

Closeup of a model train running on a track

Building and maintaining model trains and their tracks is an art form. That’s not something I ever pondered or considered before, but I understand it now after watching David Fenster‘s The Livelong Day, an absorbing documentary about model train enthusiasts.

Train modeling is also a lifestyle born out of an obsession. Guys — and they almost always seem to be guys — who are into model trains are also into the real thing and they follow their passion to the exclusion of almost everything else. Fenster opens his documentary with an interview with one middle-aged man who describes having a yearning to fall in love and start a family during his younger years, but his passion for working on the railroad — the real railroad — forced him into a life of isolation and loneliness.

The documentary then ends with a young man, probably in his 20s, who understands what he is about to give up once he follows his dream of riding the rails. He doesn’t want that life, but he’s drawn to it nonetheless. At the end of the documentary, we don’t know which path this young man will choose, but we have a pretty good idea. Once one gets sucked into the train lifestyle vortex, there’s no escape.

The Livelong Day appears to be geared mostly to non-train enthusiasts, although model train lovers will certainly appreciate the massive San Diego Model Railroad Museum display that the majority of the film takes place around. Otherwise, Fenster takes some extremely creative approaches to help the non-obsessed understand and appreciate this particular obsession.

Some of the interview subjects in the film do discuss why they like working on a model train track. For them, the appeal of building a highly-detailed, miniature landscape for their exact replica model trains to travel across is to transport themselves spiritually to an earlier, less complicated time. A time when railroads held an important, respected position in American society.

While it’s fine and dandy to hear an enthusiast talk about the reason behind his passion, Fenster dramatically illustrates this visually. The film contains both shots of modern, life-size trains moseying along their tracks as well as the model trains traveling across the museum’s display. However, for each shot where we see just a train and no human subjects, it takes a moment for the audience to orient itself and figure out if its looking at a model or the real thing. Fenster keeps the perspective on the model world and the real world the same so that the viewer is transported back in time visually the way the enthusiasts are transported mentally.

Fenster also chooses an interesting overall film structure and way to present his interviews with his subjects that gets us into their heads rather than just listening to their words. There are no direct-to-the-camera interviews with the subjects at all. Instead, all of the interviews are presented as voiceover narration as the enthusiasts work on their elaborate miniature landscape.

The documentary is structured so that only one enthusiast speaks at a time while we see just him working on the models. Sometimes the work overlaps and several subjects appear onscreen at one time, but its never not clear exactly who is the one speaking. Although we never see the words coming out of the subjects’ mouths, we get a better understanding of why they do what they do by just watching them work instead of seeing them speak away from their work or being distracted by having to speak while they work. As an audience, we are there in the trenches working alongside them, so we feel a part of that work, not separated from it.

The Livelong Day paints a sensitive and intimate portrait of the model train enthusiast. At the end of the film, we may not feel connected to living the train lifestyle, but we at least can comprehend, understand and appreciate it on an emotional level. And the men who say they prefer to live in their more innocent, ideal, miniaturized world than anywhere else, well, it doesn’t seem like such a bad place to live at all.

More on this film: Watch The Livelong Day Online

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