Most people know at least one or two things about Burning Man: It's that annual high-tech neo-hippie-punk festival in the Nevada desert around Labor Day. Everybody gets naked and plays electronic Hacky Sack or something. All attendees are required to keep a video diary of everything they do. And 25,000 people are free to be childlike -- and childish. They burn a gigantic wooden statue, and everyone's sins are absolved. Then they go home, look at each other's videos, and start working on next year's Burning Man.
But of course there's another, deeper dimension to the puzzling nouveau-Be-In in the Black Rock Desert beyond those obvious clichés. Rising to the challenge, San Francisco filmmakers Paul Barnett and Unsu Lee decided to make their own Burning Man video in the form of a TV-news-style documentary featuring a mixed cast of Bay Area characters -- a hip-hop filmmaker, an actress, a taxi driver, an heiress -- on their first trip to the festival.
As advertised, there are amazing shapes, giant creative toys, and a few naked people. The gathering's overall visual effect is of a weeklong sequel to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But the philosophy of Burning Man, best expressed by its founder and resident wizard, Larry Harvey, is actually pretty seductive. For one week in the year, urban people who presumably have better things to do in the workaday world are "willing to go out in the desert to get communal," and to get in touch with their inner tinkerer. In this city of the future, the enlightened souls are encouraged to wander through a wonderland of mazes, pavilions, and Tinkertoy architecture -- the Artery (Burning Man's art gallery), the Playground, the Cradle, the Chapel (for weddings), and the mystifyingly beautiful Mausoleum, a cross between a Thai wat and a Victorian gazebo, into the corners of which people place mementos of their past they would rather forget, such as photos of old lovers, etc. And it, too, goes up in smoke.
The articulate Harvey explains that Burning Man originated in the late '80s at San Francisco's Baker Beach near the Presidio, where he and a few friends danced around a large wooden man they intended to burn. The cops came down and told them it was okay to party, but not to set the man on fire. Realizing there couldn't be a Burning Man without a burning man, in 1990 Harvey and his group went to the wide open spaces of Black Rock City, northeast of Reno. "Then we started getting creative," he says, and over the years the event became a magnet for those who missed out on the '60s, or who otherwise wanted to let their freak flag fly, with a little help from microchips.
For East Bay hip-hop videographer Kevin Epps, creator of Straight Outta Hunters Point, a visit to the mostly-white hippie party is a shot of pure creative groove-juice. "This is bigger than bling-bling," he enthuses while visiting the festival's own radio station, KBK 104.3 FM, and rapping with DJ Action Girl. It takes Epps no time at all to go completely "desert" and join in all the reindeer games. SF taxi driver Michael Winaker volunteers to perform his same job at Burning Man: driving people through the meticulous, grid-like streets of the fest in a dune buggy, but here for free. Winaker has a sad story to tell at first, but after a few days baking in the sun he announces, "I'm going into politics." It's tempting to think of Anna Getty -- one of those Gettys -- as a different breed of animal, but apart from the fact she arrives at the festival in a private plane and is prone to making statements like "It's part of my whole growth right now," she's just a wide-eyed celebrant like any other. Getty, the "Jill of All Trades," has something she wants to burn in the Mausoleum. So does actress Samantha Weaver, whose mother shows up unannounced at the festival (parents? at Burning Man?). Somewhere along the line, filmmaker Barnett steps in front of the camera long enough to propose marriage to Weaver.
"They're not bottom-line people," Harvey says of his constituency, and it's true enough. It would have been helpful to hear a few other, less worshipful points of view, but Burning Man is so essentially harmless, who could object? The same thing could be said for Burnett and Lee's feature-length profile, evidently the one and only official Burning Man-approved video of the event. All is peace and love and gorgeous bonfires. By the way, the Man himself is not nearly as impressive as the Mausoleum when it bursts into flames. Confessions of a Burning Man has a one-week engagement at Oakland's Parkway Theatre, starting March 19.
The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the notorious Abraham Zapruder amateur footage of it are other examples of large-scale events we think we already know about -- but as with Burning Man, the more we know the more we know nothing. At least that's the implication of "The Eternal Eternal Frame," a compilation of five "altered documentary" shorts on the JFK assassination, playing Wednesday, March 17 at the Pacific Film Archive.
David White's Elm Street (1975) opens with a shot of tree blossoms against a blue sky, then rolls through the Zapruder footage, looped repeatedly beneath classical music, until the horrific images become blurred and indistinct -- very much like the WWII movies of Jews in Poland being shot in open pits by Nazis. In Keith Sanborn's The Zapruder Footage: an investigation of consensual hallucination (1999), the background sound is Moroccan trance music from the pipers of Jajouka, laid over a complete disassemblage of Zapruder's footage -- looped, shown frame by frame (all 485 frames), then backwards, then with black box blocking the JFK limousine, then upside down, etc., to the point of total abstraction.
The most polished of the five shorts is Bruce Conner's 1963-67 experimental montage of newsreels and radio broadcasts, which tosses in everything from test patterns to the Pope to bullfights to The Bride of Frankenstein to TV commercials in trying to put across this "national trauma." In fact, the cumulative effect of watching these shorts is hypnotic in itself, as the PFA's Steve Seid undoubtedly intended. The evening's centerpiece is The Eternal Frame, the video record of Ant Farm's 1976 restaging of the Kennedy assassination, with actors (including Jacqueline Kennedy played by a man in drag) reenacting the events in full replica costume with a limo at Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, to the mixed delight/bewilderment of onlookers (remember, this was years before Michael Moore). Declares the actor who portrays JFK: "No president can ever again be more than an image."
But the program's highlight is Death in Dallas by Serbian filmmaker Zoran Naskovski. We see more or less the same old newsreel stock as in the other films, but the eerie soundtrack, a plaintive Serbian folk ballad that describes the death of JFK in minute detail, seals the deal. The primitive, intensely mournful song peels away the layers of repetition and puts the hero's blood in our laps, so to speak. Veteran videomakers Chip Lord and Doug Hall appear in person. The second program in the PFA's "JFK night" is a rarity from New York -- an unfinished 1966 Andy Warhol film called Since, with Factory denizens Mary Woronov, Ondine, and Gerard Malanga playing the parts with improvised dialogue. Seid and the PFA should have gone all the way and added Mark S. Waters' The House of Yes.
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