An amazing and privileged inside look at one of the few certifiable counterculture events of this thoroughly commercialized age, “Burning Man: The Burning Sensation” is a knock-out documentary with a renegade personality ideally suited to its anarchic subject matter. Bound to excite the young and the reckless just as it gives respectable citizens pause, Alex Nohe’s dynamic account of the annual art/lifestyle bacchanal in the middle of the Nevada desert has the potential to become a hot item on the specialized circuit, especially in campus towns and big-city alternative theaters; in its present cut, it’s too raunchy for any mainstream cable outlet. If successful, however, pic could lead, ironically, to the over-popularization and eventual commercialization of the Burning Man event itself.
“Participants Only: No Spectators,” reads the ticket for the freeform rave/happening that’s held around Labor Day on forbidding, lunar-like terrain far from anything resembling culture or normal life. “You get to be whoever you want for a week,” says one observer, and this freedom, combined with the considerable demands of basic survival in such a brutal environment, conjures up a creativity in the postmodern pilgrims that is bracingly original, wacky, ingenious and spontaneous.
The “program” for the week is unplanned, other than that it will conclude on Saturday night with the burning of a 50-foot wooden figure that looks strikingly like the little figurine from “The Blair Witch Project.” Indeed, there is something profoundly pagan about the gathering, which in its haphazard juxtaposition of high-tech elements and hand-wrought artifacts looks like nothing so much as a manned oasis in a “Mad Max” film.
After rolling in across the sun-baked terrain in a hodgepodge of vehicles and securing their “lodgings” against the hostile elements, the first thing many of the 24,000 celebrants do is remove their clothes. This divesting of inhibitions creates some great comic relief that is sprinkled throughout the film, including glimpses of a Body Hair Barber Shop where females, in particular, receive some very close shaves; a topless bicycle race featuring women with heavily decorated breasts; a distinctly aroused man indulging in a little spanking episode with a partner; and a Bill Clinton Lotion Dispenser from which nude frolickers can grab a quick spurt of sun block from a lifelike sculpture of presidential privates.
On an occasionally more elevated level, the film documents the many bizarre manifestations of performance art/installations that spring up on the lifeless landscape: a homemade rocket launch for a deep-space burial, elaborate geometrical contraptions in which people place themselves at what seems like considerable risk, an extraordinary sculpture made entirely of bones, outstanding lighting displays and a woman who “marries” the United States in a provocative dance/sex act with the American flag.
While organizers admit that there were problems with guns and drive-by shootings some years back, these are said to be a thing of the past. But while no outright violence is seen or referenced, a decided air of danger hangs over the proceedings, and it is this, as much as anything else, that seems to turn on the avid participants, just as it would threaten the wary. Burning Man adherents seem overwhelmingly to be whites in their 20s, with a contingent of aging hippies and a few minorities on hand. By extension, one can surmise that this alternative conclave provides a way for mainly “straight” people to throw off the constraints of everyday life and create an improvised but momentary community that provides an open forum for “radical self-expression” and, by its very existence, stands as an implicit rebuke to the negative aspects of contempo Western consumer culture.
While some of the nutty behavior on view is simply an expression of restless and horny youth, and plenty of other stuff simply qualifies as goofing off, the truly anarchic attitudes that form the foundation and appeal of Burning Man rep manifestations of rebelliousness that have not been seen in American culture in quite some time. If this is really the beginning of something, Nohe’s invigorating, outrageous, often hilarious documentary will stand as one of the first vaguely mainstream artworks to publicly express it; if not, it still impressively marks the extent to which people will go to escape the rules and engage in unfettered self-expression.
Largely an account of the 1999 pre-millennial event, pic also features footage captured the previous year. Snappily edited short feature by the director of programming for Independent Feature Project/West boasts guerrilla-filmmaking production values and techniques completely at one with the subject matter.