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Journey to the Flames - 8 Years of Burning Man
Anyone who's interested in Journey to the Flames: 8 Years of Burning Man probably already knows the answer to this question, but it's still worth tossing out there. What is Burning Man?
Well, that's a good question. Burning Man is a phenomenon more than a thing (although there's an actual 40-foot Burning Man, whose glowing bone structure graces the DVD cover). See, every year about 35,000 people drive out to a stretch of Nevada desert and set up a tent city of gargantuan proportions. It's a city of spontaneous, participant-generated art and music. The participants let it all hang out, and predictably the week-long Burning Man festival involves a lot of weirdness, sex, and drugs. (Journey to the Flames is actually very discreet about that last bit, but it's pretty obvious that a lot of the participants are high as kites. Not all of them, sure - please don't email me telling me that you went to Burning Man and were perfectly sober the whole time, I'm sure you were, honest - but a good many of them.)
What Journey to the Flames sets out to address is the next level of question. OK, so that's what Burning Man is. But what's it all about? What would possess people to set up camp in the desert, bringing in all their own food and water, every year for the past eight years? And while Journey to the Flames is (like its topic) a bit weird and trippy at times, it does a good job of answering that question as much as it can be answered.
The documentary gives us an overview of what Burning Man is, and then structures its exploration of the event by following a group of friends who are participating in it. We see footage from Burning Man, showing us what it's like and what the experiences of the participants are, and we also get a lot of interviews with the central group of friends. What's most interesting is that most of the interviews were done outside of the Burning Man week, so that the participants get a chance to reflect on the significance of the experience.
I'm not sure how well Journey to the Flames manages to capture what Burning Man means to the people involved, simply because the participants themselves often find it hard to put their experiences into words. (One woman is moved almost to tears in talking about setting up one of the theme areas, involving the use of black light. Clearly it meant something to her that she wasn't able to articulate, but as viewers we're left not knowing what that was.) In fact, one of the points that's made is that Burning Man is something you do, not something you see: several participants mock the viewer's passive, uninvolved relation to what's shown. In that sense, Burning Man is clearly acting as a kind of cultural critique, striking a blow to the culture of apathy and disengagement that's typical of the TV-viewer relationship. I think that the filmmakers are aware of the irony of making a film that tries to capture what is inherently a moving target, that tries to make an experience into an object; while it's never really brought out into the open, it provides an interesting edge to the film.
For me, what was interesting about Journey to the Flames was seeing a glimpse into an intense reaction to our modern culture. Burning Man rejects structure (though ironically the film makes it clear that the spontaneity of Burning Man is based on a year's hard work to lay down a support structure) and embraces self-expression. I found the footage of the different art projects and performances to be much more interesting than the interviews or the footage of the participants: in the art, I think we really see a raw search for meaning. Burning Man clearly has close connections to the ancient idea of "Carnival," in which the social order is turned upside down for a short time, allowing people to act out and release tension by reversing standards. But carnival is based on the existence of a meaningful social order... the glimpse of Burning Man that we see here suggest that it's a post-modern carnival, in which participants respond to the lack of meaning in contemporary life by inventing their own arbitrary rules and structures.
I suspect that the reaction of viewers to Journey to the Flames will vary quite a lot. My own reaction was to find some of it extremely beautiful and some of it quite disturbing. In any case, the film does offer a glimpse into a unique world.
As a film, Journey to the Flames works moderately well. At an hour and 21 minutes, it's a bit longer than I think it really needs to be; I think that it would have benefited from tighter editing. (The DVD notes that it is the "extended edition," but I don't know what it's extended from.) There's a certain degree of structure imposed on the experience through the use of sections with titles; that was a very wise choice, as otherwise the film would have been simply overwhelming in its loose association of events. The only fault I'd really find with the film overall is that it doesn't live up to its subtitle: although it's called "8 Years of Burning Man," it's really just a look at one instance of Burning Man, not at the history and development of the phenomenon. That's too bad, since I think it would have really been interesting to know how it got started and how it developed, beyond the few references to previous years' themes.
Journey to the Flames is presented in 1.33:1 format, and is clear enough, given that it was filmed under less than ideal conditions. The image is quite pixellated, but colors are good, and it's watchable.
The basic stereo soundtrack is adequate for the most part. At normal speaking volumes, the track is clear and clean, but when the volume goes up, it starts to sound harsh and tinny.
Quite a few special features are included here. They appear to be more intended for Burning Man fans, since they're more snapshots of the experience, rather than explanations of it.
The main special feature is an hour-long montage called "8 Years of Burning Man." This is definitely for hard-core fans only. A "Slow Burn Video" runs 15 minutes, giving us more images of Burning Man with psychedelic music. "Happy, Happy" by DMT is another music video, this time running four minutes. Three moderately interesting shorter segments are included, giving a glimpse into more of the activities at Burning Man: "Skydive," "Burn Night," and "Burning the Temple." (Yes, they do like to set things on fire at Burning Man.) Finally, we get a section with five deleted scenes.
Journey to the Flames: 8 Years of Burning Man gives viewers a slice of life from a strange phenomenon: the gathering of tens of thousands of people every year to create a city of art in the middle of the desert. It's probably going to be most interesting and affecting for viewers who are already familiar with Burning Man, especially those who have participated in it. For viewers who are interested in it from a cultural point of view, Journey to the Flames offers food for thought but not very much exploration of the meaning or history of the event. I'll give it a "rent it" recommendation, since I think that most readers of this review will find it mildly interesting to check out but not to own, but if you've been to Burning Man, you'll probably want to buy a copy.