"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.
By PETER THEIS
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
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.
|CONFESSIONS OF A BURNING MAN|
|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
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.
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).|
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
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|
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