Judge Dennis Prince once regarded himself a burning man. A discreet dab of Desitin cleared it right up.
For the first time ever, the real story of Burning Man—from the inside out.
Burning Man? Sounds like some sort of reggae band. Or maybe it's some sort of mass-consumption product brand—a beef jerky, perhaps. No? Well perhaps it's a superhero from the pages of the latest graphic novel? If not, then maybe it's a form of corporal punishment?
What is "Burning Man?"
As stated on its official Web site, trying to explain Burning Man to someone who hasn't experienced it first hand is much like trying to describe a color to a blind person. The difference, of course, those unfamiliar with Burning Man can gain the enlightenment it embodies, the sort that sadly evades the sightless should they aspire to see. But even to those of us who do enjoy the gift of human sight, Burning Man poses this sort of challenge: you have sight, but do you really see?
Burning Man is not a competition, it's not a show, and it's not a commercial undertaking. Burning Man is revolution of the most civil sort. It's a coming together of individuals who are more similar than they may at first realize and it's an opportunity for a spontaneous "community" to demonstrate their skills, their aptitudes, and their belief in the goodness of mankind. It's a human festival, if you will. It's art. It's expression. It's realization. It's "now," in the truest sense of the word.
No, it didn't make much sense to me at first, either.
To be clear, I have never attended the annual Burning Man festival, that which occurs every year in the expanse known as the Black Rock desert, a dusty expanse—a former lakebed—situated amid a mountainous perimeter within Nevada. As you make your way to the site, you'll encounter the tiny town of Gerlach and then, desert. Identified as the second-largest flatlands within the United States, the Black Rock playa covers 400 square miles of featureless terrain, a weatherbeaten mudscape baked to an arid chalkiness of presumably uninhabitable land. Here is where it is determined who is blind and who can see.
To some, it is a desolate wasteland; to others, it is an oasis of hope.
Some of the long-time planners and participants proclaim the Black Rock playa embodies an overdue stripping away of life's distractions, a complete undressing of all that is façade in our modern existence. The clamor, the clatter, the clutter: all are gone at the playa, affording individual and communal revelation that can only be achieved by returning the egg, so to speak. Much as the caterpillar sheds its chrysalis to emerge renewed and transformed, so too do the short-term inhabitants of Black Rock City testify to their own rebirth. I've never been, but I'm severely intrigued at this point.
Long regarded and reported as some sort of freaky hippie-fest that takes place in a dirty Nevada lakebed, the Burning Man experience has been celebrated annually since 1990. Co-founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James began the ritual of erecting an effigy of a human being—towering at 40-feet high—that which is assembled by committee, raised upright, and ultimately burned into nothingness. The initial troupe of participants, identifying themselves as the San Francisco Cacophony Society, consisted of "randomly gathered free spirits who surf the bleeding edge of culture, space, and time." Though their earliest celebrations were quickly banned from the origin point of Baker Beach, their unplanned exodus to Black Rock served as a turning point for their event, its attraction to similar free spirits, and its current explosive growth that tops 30,000 participants. From artists to artisans, from architects to auteurs of the "living theater," they apply to participate directly in the Burning Man celebration, crafting their idealistic expressions in one form or another, eager to make the annual pilgrimage to the site and share their visions, their dreams, and their hopes. They erect a fully functional city, comprised of smaller entities, all revolving around the core of their civilization—the Man.
He's constructed of wood, angular and skeletal yet decidedly robust. He is the simple yet significant beacon that draws the masses. If the Man is to be dismissively deemed "ancient" in its design, it should be simultaneously revered as "advanced" in its purpose. Like us, the Man can appear as rudimentary in outward appearance, simple, familiar, and predictable. Yet because of the Man's ability to present itself in a different way to each one who looks upon him, he harbors a complexity of components, an orchestration of seemingly disparate elements that join together in uncanny precision, and ultimately represents the greater potential that remains untapped. At the conclusion of the weeklong celebration during which the participants and attendees share their experience with one another, the Man is burned. His conflagration draws the entire city into the one centralized gathering, each person gazing upon the massive spectacle with awe. He symbolizes the destruction of all that can be destructive in the human experience. He embodies the energy within each of us that so desperately wants to emerge. He burns away the bad while bringing to light the good. Each who looks upon him sees something uniquely different and personally poignant.
So it seems it's not so much about what the Burning Man celebration is but, rather, what Burning Man does to and within its participants. And that is key to the experience—this isn't a spectator event; it's a full-participation awakening or a furthering of a near-spiritual hunger within each of us. If you need to liken it to something from modern American suburbia, consider it like a golf game that you're always "working on"; you return time and time again to improve upon what you did in your last visit. At Burning Man, the residents of the transient Black Rock City also return, time and again, to gain more from the experience and to further perfect their individual and collective harmony. Upon completion of the burning of the Man, the area is picked clean of any remnant or residue of the event, returning the site to the same state of existence it was before construction commenced. Aided by the typical wind and dust storms that blast the playa with seasonal regularity, the net result is net nothing—that is, as far as the human eye can see. Each participant, however, leaves with an indelible mark of some sort that they'll nurture until next year's reconvening. Their collective vision: to bring the essence of Burning Man to the entire world's citizenry.
While I feel as if I've been there now, upon viewing Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock, I simultaneously know that I most certainly haven't. Credit filmmaker Damon Brown's compelling vérité style, one that successfully brings us along for the experience and gains us access that few who actually attend the celebration ever enjoy. Granted rare access to document the event from start to finish (and each new celebration begins the day immediately following the one just concluded), Brown provides a unique look into the enormity of the undertaking, from the screening of applicants to the management of the vast infrastructure and everything in between. Although you may cast a quizzical frown at the proceedings as the documentary begins, you'll likely feel a longing to experience it for yourself by the time the film concludes. Dubbed the "official account" of the event, this DVD puts you at ground level amid the effort and introduces you to many of the 3,000 "employees" who work year-round to support each annual pilgrimage. You'll see incredible artistry and remarkable feats of engineering, architecture, and applied psychics. You'll witness a peaceful community that, while they do partake in some recreational substances and practice an expected amount of personal exposure, never appears to be a front for anarchy or unruliness; quite the opposite, frankly. And you'll feel dusty—very, very dusty.
Presented on DVD by Lightyear Entertainment, Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock serves as the authoritative dossier of the event, beginning with the feature documentary that runs 105 minutes. Framed at a full-frame aspect ratio of 4:3, the transfer is well-managed and well-delivered, sporting a picture quality that's clean and crisp (yes, despite the dust). The audio comes by way of an equally clean and satisfyingly immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The two-sided disc also features a number of extra elements including deleted scenes, extended interviews, and various other "outtakes." Add to this the bonus 16-minute short film, Preacher with an Unknown God, and it adds up to an impressive 335 minutes.
By the time this disc finally stops spinning, you'll know you've been somewhere special. Like a good book that may dissuade through an ambiguous title, Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock will likely leave you wanting more when all is said and done. It's an unusual journey that steers well clear of mouse-eared theme parks or manicured walking paths. It's elemental, a bit primal, and revealing.
Watch it—and see what you can see.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
Studio: Lightyear Entertainment
• Deleted scenes
Review content copyright © 2006 Dennis Prince; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.