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    Confessions of a Burning Man

    Smoldering man

    "Confessions of a Burning Man" shows enough to interest us in the alternative desert festival a bit, but not enough to convince us that it's truly an adventure in outré artistic expression rather than an inward-looking ego boost.


    Somewhere between the apocalyptic milieu of "Mad Max" and the warm, kaleidoscopic sensibility of the Summer of Love lies the Burning Man festival, an annual unleashing of San Francisco's Id in a built-from-scratch city in the desert of Nevada. "Confessions of a Burning Man," treating the annual event with the earnestness of cult propaganda through the sanitizing lens and slick production style of corporate PR, bypasses the event's media-sensationalized aspects (massive consumption of hallucinogens, public nudity, and orgiastic frenzy) in favor of portraying the more quotidian and spiritual experiences of four Burning Man novitiates. The film succeeds in this to a fault, as the dullness of the four is unwelcome ballast, pinning the audience down and away from the more interesting things happening on the film's periphery.

    Directed by: Paul Barnett, Unsu Lee.
    Featuring: Kevin Epps, Anna Getty, Samantha Weaver, Michael Winaker.
    Cinematography: Paul Barnett, Unsu Lee.
    Edited by: Robbie Proctor.

    Related links: Official site
    The film has other aims, also: it portrays the logistical details of creating a large city that is ephemeral by design, and, through interviews with the festival's founder, unfolds the anti-consumerist, anti-corporate philosophy of the event. Imagine the philosophy of unlicensed pleasure advocated by the 1960s Situationists, with the world-revolutionary Marxism replaced with a fuzzy anti-commercialism and eco-friendliness, and you have a pretty good idea.

    Disappointingly, the reality of the festival leaves an even more bitter taste than the softheaded political critique which the festival purports to embody. Rather than political utopia, the Burning Man is more an exclusive, temporary resort that replicates social inequities just as a resort in Cancun does: only those with leisure and money can attend (the ten-day festival costs $250 a head, plus thousands more in travel arrangements, provisions, quarters, etc.), and the crowd is overwhelmingly white. Even the anti-consumerist aspect of the critique can't stand in the face of the rampant consumerism on display: GPS positioning devices used to demarcate camp plots, special materials used as shelter, large vehicles for transportation, prepared foods, and the downplayed use of drugs, one of America's favorite consumption items (though not a conspicuous one, by fiat of the "establishment" — a word that predictably floats through the film). Philosophically, it doesn't really matter that commerce is banned at the event when everything is bought beforehand.

    Confessions of a Burning Man  
    However, trim the self-righteous yet wholly inadequate politics, and the festival has its great side. It is an active and nurturing site for the aesthetic imagination, and will serve, if it does not already, as a crucible for significant visual art and artists. The festival's carnival atmosphere, Dionysian drive, apotheosis of self-expression, creative tolerance, and wide-open moral license is fuel to both aesthetic production and appreciation, and the film can't help but get caught up in the feverish artistry on display in multiple media (watch for the fire dancers, dildo chess, gargantuan sculptures, and mausoleum built of discarded goods).

      Confessions of a Burning Man
    Notwithstanding the tantalizing glimpses, the avant-garde nature of the festival is not the film's focus. The focus is the "journey" of the four featured newbies, especially Samantha and Anna Getty (of the Getty family). Their self-absorbed quests for meaning evoke little interest or sympathy, especially as they take the festival to be just another tool in their toolkit for getting to know themselves. Samantha mouths eyeroll-provoking, New Age neo-platitudes, while pining for a steady relationship (her wish is granted). Anne waxes on the travails of being a Getty. Both are trying to work through the traumas of their childhoods. Only the cantankerous Michael, a career taxi driver who serves the same role at the festival, has enough detachment (and palpable disenchantment) to turn his thoughts outward, gruffly making some trenchant observations about the festival itself.

    The navel-gazing is front and center, while the roiling revels, imagination-expanding sculpture, dance, and ritual, and social experimentalism native to the festival are relegated to picturesque and peculiar background. The incongruity of Samantha and Anna unimaginatively negotiating the most ordinary concerns in an extraordinary place, perhaps the most freewheeling, uninhibited community in America, has satiric/ironic potential, but the filmmakers play it straight (for reasons that become obvious later, on bended knee). Those seeking the flavor, and some of the philosophy, of the Burning Man will find a taste here, but will have to look strenuously beyond the numbing MTV "Real World" foreground.

    MARCH 22, 2004

    Reader comments on Confessions of a Burning Man:

  • [no subject]   from , Mar 25, 2005
  • hey take it easy   from patrick, May 20, 2005
  • madnomad films   from robin, Jul 20, 2005
  • you dont know unless youve done it   from maria, Jan 24, 2006
  • comment on "smoldering man"   from John Comeau, Sep 6, 2006
  • Burning Man movie   from Vena, Jan 2, 2007

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