Spark: A Burning Man Story Dir. Steve Brown & Jessie Deeter

[Spark Pictures; 2013]

Styles: cell phone ads, vanity docs, reality tv
Others: It Might Get Loud, Henry Rollins: Up For It, Religulous, The Real Cancun

So how does one review a glossy video brochure for a gathering of privileged bohos? Especially a brochure that’s more ‘check us out!’ than ‘come on down!’ Perhaps it’s more of a commemorative keepsake for the lucky few. I can’t really review Spark because it seems to exist in a purely self-satisfied realm, and I don’t really blame it. If I had the kind of money and free time that these people do, I might live my life in a similarly limitless fashion, although maybe I’d do it with better music. Still, the ingenuity of these pleasure seekers is eye-catchingly brilliant — so much so that it’s disappointing that the filmmakers chose to focus on the building process of a giant metal heart that people sit in. I’d be more curious how something like that snail-mobile came to be. Or that one motorized recliner.

But I should ease up, of course, as there is much to appreciate about the subject at hand. There’s a lot to be said for people actually putting their backs into hosting a transcendent gathering, an event that’s not just fun, but freeing creatively and unhampered by uptight, aloof festival-goers. But unfortunately, this is a notion more told than shown in the film. Much like a sixties festival doc, there is an undercurrent here of messy human error. Hubris of all kinds abounds, but it’s neatly washed away with a series of sweeping montages set to trite, vainglorious pop-rock anthems. The founders and organizers seem awfully pleased with themselves, despite being filmed hemming and hawing during the preparation stages. A ‘we did it!’ cherry is popped on top when it all comes together — as though there was any doubt.

There’s likely something cinematically interesting in Burning Man, and I was certainly drawn to the subject matter. But right from the Coldplay-tinged (Joachim Cooder provides the suspiciously sympathetic score) montage of tantalizements that comprises the film’s introduction, I braced myself for puff. And I wasn’t off the mark. There are too many docs that serve as accessories to their subjects rather than films that can stand on their own; this is one of them, despite the subjects reaching attempts to place their Burning Man dedication in a deeper, sometimes loftier context. They fail to get small where they need to, and soon one is drowning in self-aggrandizing hype. Except, perhaps, when they briefly discuss an incident in which a drugged-out man drove his vehicle over two people in their tent some years back.

This incident is mentioned in part to show the difficultly of gathering thousands of people together without anyone getting hurt, but it also shows the more extreme downside of letting loose among your fellow human beings. Probably, more often than not, the downside is exclusion. Beyond the economics excluding most of us from participation, there is the basic issue of random people getting together in large groups. When the urge to be free and express yourself meets the scrutiny of others, sometimes that’s as bad for you as it is them. In other words, the implied ‘be free but be cool’ can only come natural to so many, and while the Maysles brothers or D.A Pennebaker kept a steely eye on this issue, Spark seems to lean on the notion that these are the chillest rich people in the universe.

I’m sounding like an uptight asshole here, but here goes: I think any social event is only as fun as your comfort level. And nobody stays comfortable for long without at least one person around who knows and loves them for who they are. A bunch of people united in a firework-gawking moment is quick and illusory. What really unites us is familiarity and the ability to be patient with one another’s hopeless erraticness. This is hard to find, of course, but I think it’s cruel of this film and Burning Man’s organizers to suggest that it can happen at a counterculture carnival for adults over a week. That being said, I really don’t want to criticize the eye-candy filled event itself all that much. It’s the redundant, pedantic film that really stinks, however gorgeously lensed. I’d recommend searching for photos, clips, and stories of the event online instead. The real intrigue’s in the details!

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