Man of many marks

He is Bill Daniel, and is his movie.
By Johnny Ray Huston

Who Is Bozo Texino?

THE FIRST THING you notice about Bill Daniel's Who Is Bozo Texino? is its free spirit. One minute, Daniel's calibrated edits make the side of a passing train car resemble a fluttering flag or a pack of cards being shuffled. The next, he's training his black-and-white photographic vision on some marble-mouthed, bearded tramps and their campsite, and you couldn't be blamed for thinking the year was 1936. The wandering eye of Daniel's film perfectly suits (to borrow its subtitle) The Epic Tale of the Improbable Discovery of the True Identity of the World's Greatest Boxcar Artist. As the filmmaker hunts the man behind Bozo – whose figure-eight cowboy hat graces boxcars across the country – he's sidetracked into encounters with characters bearing monikers as plain as Road Hog and as poetic as Colossus of Roads. Flashes of interstate momentum shift to yakky philosophical idylls, all according to whim.

"You can't take a bad picture of a moving train," says Daniel, from a cell phone inside the van that's doubling as his home during a stay in Mission Bay. "From the get-go I was interested in the relationship between cinema and railroads. Lynn Kirby wrote about their historical development [in Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema]; they both grew parallel to the industrial culture. They're amazingly similar in the way they're sprocketed and linear and geared – a boxcar going by with light coming through it is almost the same as a shutter in a projector flashing." Sure enough, one of Who Is Bozo Texino?'s most beautiful shots – a sunstruck doorway surrounded by shadow – perfectly illustrates his point.

Trains figure heavily in movieland myth. The track-tied suspense of The Perils of Pauline, the murder schemes of Robert Walker and a gullible Farley Granger (or Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray), the tear-streaked romantic farewells of Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, James Dean's iconic first moments onscreen in East of Eden – a list of such moments could fill this page. But Daniel's movie is devoted to the mythology of railroad life itself, to exploring a hidden culture where boxcars double as homes and as gallery walls.

"I was [drawn to the subject] by the graffiti impulse and the classic, corny, universal notion of freight train blues escape," says Daniel, who began the project by taking still photographs in 1983 before switching to Super 8 six years later. "When I first started seeing the graffiti on the trains – the monikers, the hobo stuff – I flipped out. It was an instant obsession. I'd just come back from New York, and I'd shot a bunch of Polaroids of graffiti in the street there: Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Futura 2000. I was really psyched for graffiti, politically and aesthetically, so when I saw the stuff on the trains, it was a real revelation."

A revelation that led to a traveling man's two-decade odyssey, a trek covering 14 states. Dedicated to photographing the Austin, Texas, punk scene when he first saw train tags, Daniel moved to San Francisco in 1989. He became "fast friends" with Craig Baldwin ("Any filmmaker in SF is going to meet Craig," he says with a laugh), going on to contribute cinematography to Baldwin's movies. "I learned how to situate ideas within experimental filmmaking from Craig," Daniel says. "How can you make a film about a nonfiction subject that has journalistic content yet is a crazy piece of art? My style is different from Craig's, but I really learned a lot from him." In Who Is Bozo Texino?, Daniel's style has a kinship to the work of James Agee (think of his Walker Evans collaboration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) and Helen Levitt – a fitting comparison, since Agee's and Levitt's works were part of the bill in one of Daniel's early Texas punk photo shows.

Daniel's traveling bug led to a late-'90s move to Portland, Ore., where he collaborated with filmmaker Vanessa Renwick. Today, he calls the dying oil town of Shreveport, La., home – when he's there. Ensconced in Mission Bay's automotive housing, he's freaked out by the way recent events are mirroring the scenario of his next film project, a Shreveport-set, Tribulation 99-style look at the end of the age of oil and the beginning of an age of environmental upheaval. "I'm really interested in people living in vehicles – I'm in my van right now," he says. "I've thought, 'In the future there won't be gas for all these vehicles, but they will be handy cheap housing.' But right now FEMA is building these huge ghettos all over the South out of RVs."

Though Daniel claims he isn't a "hardcore rider" of trains, he often rode for "a month or so at a time" while compiling Who Is Bozo Texino? The result is a film that reveals the differences between a "hobo" and a "bum," while getting deep within the mind-set of eccentrics such as the Fluxus-influenced Colossus of Roads, who adds a multilingual variety of witty tags to his trainside scrawls. One earlier Bozo manifestation, a gallery installation titled The Girl on the Train in the Moon, was Daniel's contribution to "Widely Unknown," a Deitch Projects group-show tribute to the late Margaret Kilgallen. "It was a campout," he remembers. "Alicia [McCarthy] and most of the people in the show slept in the gallery the whole time. People made their beds out of the bubble wrap that the work was shipped in. Barry [McGee] was doing his thing, Rigo [23] was there. It was bittersweet and really powerful."

Daniel is eager to discuss the thorny topic of whether art-world figures who have emerged from the so-called Mission School owe a debt of influence to, or plagiarize from, the underappreciated McCarthy ("Alicia's the real deal, man") and Kilgallen. "It's wonderful that Margaret is an influence," he begins. "But you also think that maybe people would do well to do as Margaret did, which is to go back to the original source, dig deep, and look in forgotten corners. It's a problem we have with art schools cranking out artists. It's also inherent in graffiti. Graffiti deals in collective forms and copycatting, and that aspect of it has carried over into painting practice."

Like anyone who has spent some time in local galleries recently, Daniel has compiled his own list of Kilgallen-biter clichés: "Drippy clouds, wood grain, old serif letter form." He praises the younger artist Z, a.k.a. Sara Thustra, who currently has a show ("Free Dinner") up in Sup. Ross Mirkarimi's City Hall office. "Z's my favorite artist in San Francisco," Daniel says. "He's synthesized everything that everyone else has done, and he does it well. Something about that guy is so genuine and really intense."

Similar squabbles over authorship and influence run throughout Who Is Bozo Texino?; many of the film's figures are the subject of voice-over speculation by their peers before they even appear, perhaps none more than Bozo Texino himself. After a meandering journey, Daniel's camera eventually winds up in the ramshackle backyard of the man the film is dedicated to (both in title and in final-credits inscription), a fella the filmmaker likes to call "Grandpa." He demonstrates his Bozo credentials by drawing the moniker while wearing an odd type of blindfold – some Kleenex stuffed under the lenses of his glasses. Touchingly, the person Daniel has been searching for turns out to be something of a collector and connoisseur of boxcar art himself. In close-up, Grandpa's rugged thumbs flip the pages of photo albums he's put together devoted to other artists' signature marks. "That's real art to me," he drawls, landing on a snapshot of one of Colossus's loopy marks. Take one look at Daniel's one-of-a-kind film and you'll be inclined to agree.

'Who Is Bozo Texino?' screens (along with Vanessa Renwick's Lovejoy and Eric Lyle's SF Sidewalk Engravings) Sat/1, 8:30 p.m. (doors 8 p.m.), Artists' Television Access, 992 Valencia, SF. $5. (415) 648-0654, www.othercinema.com.

'Elevation,' an art show featuring work by Bill Daniel (photography), Tim Kerr, and Vanessa Renwick (film), runs through Oct. 9. Thurs.-Sun., noon-7 p.m., Needles and Pens, 483 14th St., SF. Free. (415) 255-1534.