Judge Eric Profancik is vacationing in the world that never was.
Some fires never die.
It's an amazing story, one that may sound vaguely familiar to you. In Centralia, Pennsylvania, 1962, the local fire department begins a controlled burn of the local garbage dump in preparation for Memorial Day—you know, making the town look its best for the big holiday. Somehow the fire gets out of control and finds a seam of exposed anthracite coal. The coal catches fire and starts an underground blaze that rages still today. Yes, a fire that started in 1962 is still burning today. The result, Centralia is the town that was: a ghost town, a no town.
The Town That Was is a fascinating film that is part history lesson and part narrative on the life of John Lokitis. He is one of 11 remaining residents in Centralia, and the film wants to know why someone so young (33 at the time) would stay behind. As one might imagine Centralia is a virtual wasteland: great swathes of land are charred, noxious fumes and steam escape from the ground, roads are cracked, and, quite simply, it's a desolate place to want to be. So why is John among the remaining? Why is anyone there? While John takes a bit of psychological examination to explain, the others are easy: They are all old (or so implied; all over 60) and in their advanced years they simply have no desire to leave the town in which they've lived their whole lives. Centralia used to be a place where you were born, you lived, and you died. Once a town that thrived on the large deposits of anthracite coal (this region of PA holds 75% of all the anthracite coal in the world), why is someone as young as John still there?
For me to answer that is to reveal the thrust of the film. I must admit I originally misinterpreted the film's intent, thinking it would be a pure documentary on the town, the fire, and its subsequent desertion. If I had just read the packaging I would have learned how it is more of John's story. And there's nothing wrong with that. You get a story that's compelling, touching, and sad; and you'll be surprised such a disaster still looms after all these decades.
This small film shows its roots as you watch it. Filmed over four years and using clips from various media, the overall picture quality is best described as soft. As such, colors are accurate but muted, blacks are not very deep, and detail is limited. Also making an appearance is a touch of shimmering, aliasing, and artifacting. Despite the general problems with the video, it doesn't distract from the movie at all. On the audio front, while the package claims a 5.1 mix the movie has only a Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Dialogue is usually clear but sometimes it sounds a touch muffled.
The bonus feature menu looks impressive, but the material contained therein isn't as deep as I expected:
• Highway Interview with State Representative Robert E. Belafanti Jr. (1:30): I was expecting a full interview but this is nothing more than a deleted scene, adding just a bit more color to the tale.
• More Home Movies from Centralia's Centennial (1966) (6:54): Exactly as the name states, home movies from 40+ years ago.
• Extended Interview with Todd Domboski (9:59): My "favorite" segment where Todd talks about the day he fell into a hole in the ground and almost died in the fire. It brings a startling perspective to the event.
• Music Video "Centralia" by The Story Of (3:40): A decent song, but the group's occasional head banging is definitely out of place for such somber music.
• Real Estate Tour of Scranton (3:12) Why? Why a tour of Scranton and not Centralia?
Rounding it out is a Photo Gallery (1:45) and trailers for 12 in a Box, A Galaxy Far, Far Away, Becoming Family, El Tinte de la Fama, The F-Word, Goodbye Baby, The Line, and Google Me.
The Town That Was is a fascinating and remarkably interesting film.
But with that said, can I recommend it? For the casual person, no, I cannot.
Don't buy it but try a rental instead. For the fan of the film, despite a few
technical shortcomings, I see no roadblock for you not to add it to your
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