Spark: A Burning Man Story, opened yesterday at the Village East in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. (Future screening information is here: http://www.sparkpictures.com/). This is a documentary about a yearly event that began in 1986 that is a combination of a 1960s “be-in”, Mardi Gras, and art festival featuring mammoth constructions including the trademark effigy that is burned at the climax. For some time now, it has been staged in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
I first heard about it in the Village Voice around the time it got started but was not sure what to make of it. After seeing this fascinating documentary directed by Steve Brown and Jesse Deeter, I am still not sure what to make of it. For the artists who contribute their time and energy, it is a chance to create monumental site-specific pieces with a subversive edge. In the Burning Man event depicted in the film, there are effigies of Goldman-Sachs’s corporate headquarters as well as other “one-percenters” that will be burned to the ground after Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping have had a chance to conduct a service. The irony that film deals with head-on is that such costly structures and the infrastructure needed to assemble and maintain them do not come cheap. They rely on donations from Bay Area millionaires who still retain some fondness for their bohemian youth.
Furthermore, the Burning Man festival has become such a coveted affair that the organizers have been forced to sell tickets on a lottery basis, as if you were going to see a rock-and-roll superstar. Like a Rolling Stones concert or a NY Giants playoff game, scalpers bought large numbers of tickets online and made a killing. Since Burning Man was supposed to operate on a “gift economy” similar to indigenous Potlach exchanges, this turn of events made some founders wonder where they were going.
I could not help but think about a new book by Ben Davis titled 9.5 Theses on Art and Class from Haymarket Books that I am anxious to read insofar as it focuses on the tension between art and commerce, one of my foremost concerns. Adam Turl reviewed the book for Red Wedge, an online magazine that calls for “The Independence of Art. The Revolution for the complete liberation of art!” Turl’s review concludes:
Indeed, beyond the bourgeois patron and the academic specialist, art audiences are drawn to art out of the need to escape the disenchantment of everyday life.
The art world, however, is unable to resolve its core contradictions. Ideas of craft, conceptualism, participation (the art world is still disproportionately white and male), radical gestures (street art, etc.) and collective action — all come crashing, again and again, into the realities of neoliberal capital and economic crisis. Only revolution will begin to resolve this.
The first step for artists in the here and now is to recognize that art is not just an intellectual game. Art must be more. Indeed, the language of contemporary art often fails to articulate the breadth of contemporary human experience and suffering. Art is “magic.” But this magic only works in dialectical interplay with the narratives of actual life (Davis himself doesn’t necessarily share this vision; it is based on the writing of AustrianMarxist art and literary critic Ernst Fischer). Separated from the real world that magic becomes hollow and reified.
As Davis writes, “[A]rt is not a world unto itself. Art is part of the world. That fact has to be a fundamental starting point for everything.”
Although you might be as bemused (and amused) by Spark: A Burning Man Story as I was, you certainly will come out of it with a better understanding of the contradictions highlighted in Turl’s review as well as Ben Davis’s book that is high-up on my must-read list.
In my commentary on Jeff Bezos, Tina Brown and the Washington Post in Counterpunch I alluded to amazon.com’s CEO plans to colonize space presumably for members of the upper class:
While Bezos would be appalled by Bellamy’s socialist utopian vision, he is something of a futurist himself. In 2000, the year of Bellamy’s future world, Bezos launched a space travel company called Blue Origin. The initial goal would be to sell thrill rides on rocket ships to rich bastards like him and Richard Branson, who expressed interest in a partnership. But ultimately, the goal would be to create “space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people orbiting the Earth”, according to a report by Amy Martinez in the April 23, 2012 Seattle Times.
That was reason enough for me to check out Elysium, a typical summer blockbuster that is based on exactly this premise. As someone who found South African director Neill Blomkamp’s first film “District 9” only moderately entertaining and socially relevant (except for the rancid stereotyping of Nigerian gangsters seemingly inspired by a Steven Seagal movie), I wasn’t expecting very much.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that his new film is both better as a film (obviously limited by the parameters of the summer blockbuster action genre) and as anti-capitalist agitation. Like Avatar, Robocop, Total Recall and other dystopian films set in the future, the story is one of evil corporations screwing the working class. In Elysium, set in 2154, there is no mistake about its relevance to our present conditions. The wealthy denizens of a space platform live in a kind of paradise with medical technology that can cure cancer and just about every other illness.
Matt Damon plays Max, a factory worker assembling robots for a corporation run by a scummy boss. When his foreman orders him to go into a radiation-laden chamber in order to make some adjustments to allow production to go on unimpeded, you might think of Fukushima. Max lives in a Los Angeles that has been turned into an arid wasteland much more ominous than the cities in Bladerunner. It must be said, that like all summer blockbusters, Elysium is a pastiche of a bunch of other genre-related films.
Where all such films fall short is their failure to see revolution taking place except through the efforts of a heroic leading man who alone has the power to storm corporate offices and drive a stake through the CEO’s dastardly heart. In other words, much more like Superman than Ken Loach but still worth $15 dollars or so for two hours of fun.
Finally, there’s The Conjuring, a ghost movie that is even more of a pastiche than Elysium. It contains references to:
1. Amityville Horror, with its home-bound malevolence..
2. The Exorcist, with the final 15 minutes or so devoted to the standard “Devil, I command thee…” stuff.
3. A slew of Japanese and Korean horror movies about some aggrieved dead person haunting the present-day living for no good reason at all, plus the usual walking on the ceiling.
4. Poltergeist, with a crew of ghost-hunters equipped with the latest gear. Of course, since the film is set in 1971, this means a Super-8 camera to accompany the retro clothing and hairdos of all the characters.
Every time I see this kind of movie, I wonder why I bother. When the camera pans in on a door that is opening slowly with a creaking sound out of a 1930s radio show, I cover my eyes partially out of fear of what is going to come hurdling out with bared fangs.
Then I remember what my 7th grade teacher Miss Cramer once told us about horror movies. You are not being frightened. You are being startled. You cover your eyes not because anything is so horrible that you can’t bear to look at it, but because you don’t want to be the victim of what amounts to a practical joke—like a friend sneaking up behind you and yelling, “boo” when you least expect it.
That being said, the film succeeds as a summer blockbuster with good performances, especially by Patrick Wilson who conducts the exorcism. The screenplay was written by Carey and Chad Hayes, the twin brothers who wrote “House of Wax”, a 2005 remake of the Vincent Price movie that was really damned good.