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Town That Was, The
It's hot, dusty, and you're thirsty. Stepping off a wooden porch onto the arid street of a no-horse town with five buildings and not a soul. Tumbleweed rolls on by. Ghost Towns are part of the American story; boom towns gone bust. They would rise in an instant wherever gold was found. Without foundation, they for all intents disappeared as soon as the boom went bust - almost as if they never were. These towns were never meant to last, it's almost as if they were fortified campgrounds. But real towns, towns with histories and generations of families don't disappear, or do they?
Centralia, Pennsylvania began life in 1841, incorporating as a borough in 1866, and rising to a population of more than 3000 on the fortunes of anthracite coal. This purest of coals very nearly forms the foundations of Centralia, but one spring day in 1962 some of it caught fire. Perhaps a controlled burn in a landfill is to blame, or haulers dumping hot ash, as others attest. Whatever the case, the fire below Centralia still burns today, almost 50 years later, and the town is gone.
This is no Silent Hil, though closed, buckled thoroughfares run past mounds of blackened alien landscape; bleached carcasses of trees and robust steam-clouds rising to the sky. Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland's superb documentary - The Town That Was - gets to the heart of the matter; what confluence of bizarre earthly circumstance and bureaucratic nightmare brought this about? What is the meaning of home? And what do you do when a town is over? Home movies, other archival footage, and interviews spanning four years strengthen yet demystify the horror and fantastical nature of this occurrence - one largely unchecked for 20 years, until a twelve-year-old boy was suddenly sucked into a literal hell of hot mud and nearly killed.
From 3000 people down to 11, Centralia now sports one die-hard young man named John Lokitis, a grim idealist who still believes the town may yet rise again. Lokitis forms the mournful backbone of this story - for all intents he's the only one left in town. It's no ghost town either, it's been erased. When the government finally started giving people the old heave-ho in the 1980s, they tore down buildings, dug up foundations, backfilled everything and planted grass. City blocks are now cemetery-like lawns (tended by Lokitis) with at best one lonely house per parcel. These are images of muted surrealism, staggering in their weird finality and utter denial.
Perkel and Roland capture Lokitis staring with tight-lipped, stoic resolve into nowhere, really. He hangs on because it's where he's from, and he doesn't give up. Ultimately, you want to leave him in slump-shouldered peace, mowing lawns for cars just driving through, hanging Christmas decorations that he's refurbished himself, for good times done and gone, and families never to return. On the backside of the steely, irrational American Dream of hearth and home we find loneliness and reflexive, quixotic strength in The Town That Was - haunting, sorrowful and unforgettable.
The DVD that is presents its story in 1.66:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, with sharpness and clarity during contemporary interviews that really brings out the details, such as cluttered end-tables of old-timers, or John Lokitis's grandfather's tobacco pipe that the grandson leaves resting where it has been all along, and most importantly bleached, craggy branches and billows of smoke from the still-burning fire. One late-evening scene suffers from heavy digital noise reduction, but otherwise transfer/ compression issues aren't a problem.
Dolby 5.1 Stereo Surround Sound is used to best effect with a gorgeous and haunting score that will affect you emotionally as it wraps around your ears. Otherwise, this is a documentary, so talking head interviews are mixed up front and are easy to understand, but don't really need to take advantage of an exciting sound design.
Other than the Original Trailer for The Town That Was and a lengthy bunch of Cinevolve Coming Attractions, the rest of our numerous extras zip by in under a half-hour. First is a Highway Interview with PA State Representative Robert Belafanti, a one-and-a-half-minute discussion of the closing of portions of Route 61. An Extended Interview with Todd Domboski takes ten minutes to allow Todd to get deeper into the harrowing story of his near-death experience falling into a subsidence as a young boy. More Home Movies from Centralia's Centennial (1966) roll on for seven minutes, while a Real Estate Tour of Scranton (close to Centralia) allows a disillusioned agent three minutes to wax on about the destructive effect of mine closures on the town. The Music Video 'Centralia' by The Story Of features some emotional, powerful art rock, and an auto-navigated, 90-second Photo Gallery finishes things off. This short-in-duration collection of extras makes for a good capper to the documentary.
Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland's absorbing, emotionally resonant documentary of the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania - a town slowly devastated and ultimately erased, first by an underground coal fire and later by a detached government -will echo in viewers' minds long after the DVD stops. As filmmakers follow John Lokitis, one of the town's eleven remaining residents, feelings of morose resignation and blind faith conflate into a deep examination of memory and place, making this a documentary that's enthusiastically Recommended.