"I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen."
"Thirty [fires] a night for thirty years. That's how you burn a city down."
"I feel like I'm in the burning of Rome"
- Firefighters of Engine Co. 50, Detroit, Michigan
Born in Detroit and raised in one of its suburbs, in my twenties I became fascinated with the city's rich movie theater history and the dozens upon dozens of gorgeous but closed movie theaters, big and small, spread across the city. I eventually turned an undergraduate independent study course into a book called Motor City Marquees, a work that necessitated hundreds of hours of combing in and around abandoned movie theaters, theaters turned into reupholstering shops, bizarre indoor parking lots, storage facilities, and flea markets. As I drove all over the city tracking down these mostly-forgotten structures, I was struck by the landscape: oases of locked-down neighborhoods for the moneyed brave enough to stay; beautiful, expansive middle-class houses stripped of woodwork and fixtures now prohibitively expensive for ordinary homes being made today; rows of abandoned, dilapidated, half-collapsed or burned-to-the-ground structures; veritable open plains of empty lots, often dotted with a single, untouched home in perfect condition. It is, as one firefighter describes it, "Katrina without the hurricane," beautiful and horrible at once.
Burn (2012) is an extremely good documentary following the men of Engine Co. 50 over the course of one year. While it can't escape unavoidable positive stereotypes about firefighters as overworked, underpaid heroes putting their lives on the line every day, the political subtext makes clear that Detroit's problems are not endemic, but a prediction: a dire warning that Detroit's problems are fast becoming a national problem, in neglected urban centers all across America.
The two-disc deluxe edition of Burn offers more than four hours worth of extras (factoring in the audio commentary tracks), some on a second Blu-ray disc. As noted on both the film and its packaging, "a portion of the proceeds goes to the Leary Foundation to purchase equipment for Detroit firefighters."*
The movie opens in winter and concludes at the end of summer, curiously ending just short of "Devil's Night," the October preamble to Halloween that 30 years ago was every Detroit firefighter's worst nightmare, an evening when arsonists would set a year's worth of fires on a single night. They haven't been that bad in years, but Detroiters still hold their breath every October 30th.
The film follows three individuals in particular: Dave Parnell, a veteran pushing 60, on the verge of retirement and an uncertain future; Brendan "Doogie" Milewski, a younger firefighter coming to terms with a life-changing injury that's left him paralyzed from the waist-down, and an uncertain future; and newly-appointed Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin, whom the film portrays as a clueless bureaucrat, whose actions may effect everyone else's uncertain futures. At the Detroit premiere, dominated by firefighters, the audience booed and shouted obscenities whenever Austin appeared.
The movie and the firefighters themselves point to statistics that speak volumes. Detroit once had a population approaching two million. Now it's around 700,000. Yet while Los Angeles, a city of four million, has an average of 11 structure fires per day, Detroit, with less than one-quarter the people has three times as many fires. Its citizens are predominantly poor and crime is rampant, with 70% of murders within the city left unsolved. Compared to the city at its peak, half as many firefighters are fighting three times as many fires.
The starting salary of a Detroit firefighter is around $30,000/year. In 2013. Most are forced to take on second jobs while others have incomes close to what would qualify them for food stamps. Of course, as one firefighter notes, food stamp benefits are being cut, too.
They do the best they can, using fire trucks driven into the ground (an odometer on one shows something like 175,000 miles) and held together with duct tape and maybe spit and chewing gum. A little girl dies because the fire truck on the scene wasn't adequately equipped. At her funeral, the weeping mourners know who failed them: not the firefighters, but the City of Detroit itself.
The city, of course, is broke, having filed for municipal bankruptcy only last month. Michigan's Republican Governor, in a heinous policy blatantly designed to wrest control away from minorities and their democratically elected officials (among other things) while seizing community assets (selling off the treasures from the Detroit Institute of the Arts has been proposed), has appointed a (Republican) emergency manger with almost dictatorial control over the entire community and its government. This for a city that hasn't had a Republican mayor in more than half a century.
Donald Austin was born and raised in Detroit but served his years as a firefighter in Los Angeles. The movie paints him as out-of-touch with his hometown's needs. Looking at the beaten and battered fire trucks, he admonishes the drivers for not taking better care of their equipment. When the crew films him vacuuming his own office, he talks about firing the office janitor like Austin is the one making the big sacrifice, rather than the janitor now among the ranks of the unemployed. And this guy is supposed to be their ally.
Video & Audio
Shot in high-def video yet presented in the 2.35:1 CinemaScope format, Burn looks really great (and, at times, terrifying) on Blu-ray disc, with top-drawer videography. Behind-the-scenes featurettes show how the crew used multiple cameras to cover the fires, including "helmet-cams" worn by the firefighters themselves and allowing for footage covering them as they rush into battle. At times the effect is like something out of Aliens. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is also quite strong, and optional English, French, German, and Spanish subtitles are included.
I wonder if most, if not all the special feature content on Disc 2 couldn't have been squeezed onto the first disc (the movie is just 86 minutes long), but regardless there's a lot of the usual behind-the-scenes material, most interestingly material presented in ways that break down the documentary filmmaking process. For instance, one especially good extra shows the same fire viewed from something like eight cameras, all synched up and presented simultaneously. Also included are commentary tracks and interviews with producer Denis Leary, producer-directors Tom Putman and Brenna Sanchez, and the firefighters themselves; interviews and introductions from various screening events; bloopers and deleted scenes; trailers; and even a "sponsor's reel" with the filmmakers extolling the virtues of various camera lenses and like. Gotta pay the bills.
This is a story about firefighters fighting for the city they love but which doesn't love them back. "Emergency management" isn't the answer, but what can substantively improve things for the city's firefighters? Can it ever get better? A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
* Reader Sergei Hasenecz helpfully adds, "The full title is The Leary Firefighters Foundation, and you should mention that it was established by Denis Leary, one of the producers, after Leary lost a cousin and a close friend, both of whom died along with four other firefighters, in 1999 during a fire in Leary's home town of Worcester, Mass."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.