Movies in April, 2015

  1. Short Circuit Film Shorts Program at the Little, April 4: Jenn and I often appreciate short films so we couldn't resist checking out this rather under-advertised program, part of The Little Underground Film Series. First was an experimental film with distorted, shifting faces, and distorted digital audio. Then was a narrative that rambled around with a gay guy and his mentally disabled partner, touching on interesting things like enlightenment, but then abandoning them just as quickly. The third was about a girl who is sexually attracted to murder. —We made it partway through the fourth film about a young gay man going to a sleepover with some friends before we had enough dour, impenetrable, rambling student-quality films and left. In all, quite a disappointment.
  2. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow at the Little, April 4: That evening, Jenn and I returned to see this documentary in the Little Underground Film Series. It looks at the studio/estate of Anselm Kiefer in France where he builds giant sculptural spaces out of concrete, metal, and other materials. It is not an introductory documentary, so I was a bit lost not knowing a lot about Keifer in the first place. Although the artworks were impressive, I was turned off by the blaring horror-movie-style modern orchestral composition and found that the digital recording—with all its lack of dynamic range—did no favors to the use of dark shadows and bright sunlight in the artist's work.
  3. The Wizard of Oz at the Dryden, April 5: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this special screening of a great 3-layer Technicolor print. The story is still engaging and amusing, and I picked up a couple things I had missed. For instance, Glinda adds snow to wake the dozing travelers … in a field of poppies … could it be cocaine she's "snowing" down? And I recognized the Scarecrow's blunder when he says, "the sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side"—that's only true on a right triangle which cannot be isosceles. And my favorite zinger was when Dorothy whacks the Cowardly Lion when they first meet, she says, "it's bad enough picking on a straw man, but picking on a little dog." Heh … strawman. It's interesting to also watch for L. Frank Baum's metaphors: set in Dustbowl America, the Cowardly Lion is political leadership, the Tin Woodman the industrialized worker, and the Scarecrow the farmer.
  4. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter at the Little, April 7: Jenn and I wanted to see this, largely from the trailer. It's about an antisocial, delusional woman who thinks she can find the treasure hidden during the plot of the movie Fargo. I felt I needed to write about it as soon as I could because, since Kumiko's decision-making process is so skewed, any recollection of the film will quickly vanish like the memory of a dream. I really wanted to like the movie, but it just doesn't quite make it. Kumiko is just too hard to like, not to mention too hard to comprehend. I felt like there was some inkling of a theme—the alienation of humanity in our modern world? the lonely path of pursuing money over the company of others? the similarities of people in Japan and America despite the appearance of polar opposite cultures?—but none quite fit. The cinematography, at least was excellent, and a testament to what a skilled operator can do with modern digital technology.
  5. Danny Collins at the Little, April 11: Jenn and I were looking for something to do and figured this could be an okay way to kill time. We had checked online reviews and the consensus was something along the lines of "a weak story is saved by good acting." The gist is that Al Pacino plays Danny Collins, a 1960s rock star who keeps singing the same songs today, but he tries to do better when a handwritten letter from John Lennon is discovered and given to him. When I left, I said, "that exactly met my expectations"—referring to the reviews we had skimmed. Indeed the story is rather eye-rolling bad with its artificial conflicts and saccharine resolutions, but Pacino is so affable, Annette Bening's hotel-manager Mary so sweetly plausible, Christopher Plummer's friend-and-manager Frank so witty, and the saccharine moments adequately earned, that the resulting movie is, well, entertaining.
  6. The Hunting Ground at the Little, April 14: I had a chance to see this documentary about rape and sexual assault on American college campuses—and how its occurrence is systematically hidden from the public. This isn't new to me, and I expected an affirmation of what I already knew. But I was quite horrified at the breadth of the problem, and at these women (and some men) who were raped and then ignored by the schools they adore—or worse, blamed for the forceful, uninvited actions of someone else. (Read more in my more complete discussion.)
  7. Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora's Box) at the Dryden, April 21: With Louise Brooks as one of Jenn's favorite actors, we went to see one of her finest performances. It's story of a woman living as a courtesan as her world of comfort and wealth collapses around her. Brooks performance emphasizes the casual, innocent nature of the character—that despite trading sex for money, she treats it like it's any other profession, and eschews any emotional attachment to each man she is with (with one glaring exception). The story is boldly presented and avoids only nudity and intercourse, making it seem like it could have been made today. The whole thing is quite brilliant, and I think the snapshot-style act structure works well.
  8. While We're Young at the Little, April 23: Jenn, Chris, Jim, and I went to see this together. I was rather lukewarm on it—I'm too often disappointed by Ben Stiller performances. I was quite pleased, then, when I found his acting to be perfectly fine, but the script was shockingly astute. The film is about a couple in their 40s who rekindle their youth hanging out with a couple 20-somethings. As Jenn and I are right at the age of the "old" characters in the film, all those elements resonated well. And the writer had a stand-up comic's knack for observing and making relatable the quirks of our lives. It's a film that stuck with me and I think I'd like to revisit it in a while.
  9. Rochester International Film Fesitval screening at the Dryden, April 23: Jenn and I attended the first of four screenings this year. Although all the selections were competently made, I have to agree with Jenn's assessment that they all seem kind of flat and similar. I theorize that with the proliferation of cheap filmmaking technology, a much higher number of people are exploring short films as an introduction to filmmaking. As such, the stories are kept simple, and in most cases, unfortunately too simple. I'll mention my top three picks: I thought Tuning Oscar (Mikel Alvariño, Spain, 20 min.) was an amusing and somewhat spooky tale about a guy who's getting over his former lover. Children of Stateless (Moonsik Chung, South Korea, 14 min.), while perhaps the most flawed in the bunch, was a document of life as a Burmese refugee in the Mae-La Refugee Camp in Thailand, and for that reason, deserved attention to preserve it. And finally, Carry On (Yatao Li, China, 17 min.) was a polished and heartwrenching tale of a Chinese father trying to "protect his daughter from the Japanese who have occupied China during World War II."
  10. Ex Machina at the Little, April 24: Jenn and I caught this together. It's about an artificially intelligent robot in female humanoid but distinctly robotic form, and a test to determine if it can pass for "intelligent". Nathan the inventor and Ava the robot are well-defined characters, each with their own motivations: hidden, overt, and conflicting. Unfortunately the film splits its time mostly between Ava and Caleb (the young man doing the testing) and Caleb is flat and boring. Reviewing wise, I think Ex Machina is an excellent science fiction film, but as a movie, it's just so-so. Regardless, the visual effects are astonishing and it is easy to believe in Ava as a robot.
  11. Power to the Pedals: Wenzday Jane and the Culture of Change (Bob Nesson, U.S. 2014, 32 min.) at the Little, April 27: I biked through a light rain to see this, which turned my bad mood worse. I guess the movie is supposed to be an inspiration—how Wenzday Jane created a pedal-powered delivery company in the heart of Boston. But I saw it as a mere trickle of hope against a deluge of hopelessness. For instance, it was amusing to see Jane's worker pedaling recyclables to the waste management site amidst huge garbage trucks, but to me it only underscored how fucked we are—that we actually need fleets of garbage trucks to handle the waste we produce.
  12. A Sampler of Cinematic Gems from the Museum's Collection at the Dryden, April 29: Jenn and I went to see motion picture curator Paolo Cherchi Usai's selections from the museum collection. The world's first sound-on-film motion picture (in competition with—and quick successor to—record-based Vitaphone) called "[Theodore W. Case Sound Test # 4: Canary]" (US 1925, 2 min.) was fascinating to see—not because of its content but for its historical significance. In Absentia (Stephen and Timothy Quay, UK 2000, 20 min.) was a brilliant partially-animated non-linear narrative related to the asylum life of Emma Hauck, and incredibly scored by Karlheinz Stockhausen. To lighten things, Usai dropped in a hilarious short comedy Pass the Gravy (Fred L. Guiol, US 1928, 22 min.). Next was Kitchen Sink (Alison Maclean, New Zealand 1989, 14 min.) which the Dryden screened prior to Maclean's Crush on May 19, 2010—a dark tale in the style of David Lynch. Finishing up was the odd Gus Visser and His Singing Duck (US 1925, 3 min.)—this being perhaps the only film evidence of Visser's vaudeville performances.

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Movies in March, 2015

  1. 20,000 Days on Earth at the Dryden, March 4: Jenn and I caught this quasi-documentary. It's a fascinating film that ostensibly documents a "day in the life" of musician Nick Cave. However, it is fiction-within-a-fiction in that it actually documents Nick Cave's public persona, and as such is a fake documentary. Regardless, it's a unique and wonderful method of storytelling.
  2. A Year Along the Abandoned Road at the Dryden, March 5: I was thrilled to get to this first of two short films. This one is an unbelievable time-lapse film shot in motion along a road in a Norwegian lakeside village. It must have been a strange and unique experience to shoot—apparently taking one image each day, moving the camera a few inches, then waiting to take the next image the next day, and repeating for a whole year. It's an eerie and beautiful experience to watch, making one feel like an otherworldly being floating through the world unseen.
  3. An Injury to One at the Dryden, March 5: The title is taken from the Union phrase, "an injury to one is an injury to all", and the film documents the relationship of business and labor in the mining town of Butte, Montana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a haunting and evocative film that highlights the philosophy that winners write history. In this case, the winners were the lucrative mining companies; the biggest loser being International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little who was murdered by mining company goons parties unknown.
  4. Whiplash at the Little, March 7: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this together, although I was leaning toward another movie. The first thing I noticed was the dark and muddy digital recording—in attempting to capture the early morning of New York like an homage to Taxi Driver, it only succeeds in making itself look like a 1970's horror movie with inky blacks and dingy colors. Fortunately, I got over that. The movie moves along well and pits two passionate characters against one another: one a driven, aspiring drummer, and the other a abusive music professor obsessed with perfection in his collegiate ensemble. I assure this is no spoiler: the moment of divining greatness is not something that can be found through calculation, but rather through passionate happenstance.
  5. The Gang's All Here at the Dryden, March 16: I went to the Senior Matinee today … I guess to feel even younger than at an average Dryden screening. I guess set in mid-war America, it makes sense, but otherwise it's about a reprehensible man who stalks and rapes a dancer (née "uses his soldier's bravado to win the heart of a dancer"), all the while stringing along his soon-to-be fiancée. Fortunately it works out in the end because the girlfriend knew all along it was just a relationship based on familial ties just like the rapist believes, and the dancer loves the rapist, so it wasn't rape after all! Howeverrr … it is worth seeing two rather unbelievable Carmen Miranda-centered Busby Berkeley dance numbers that push the boundaries of cinema and clearly pushed the limits of Technicolor filming (just watch those giant cameras shake as they are rapidly hoisted into the air—yikes!)
  6. Cotton Road at the Little, March 21?: Jenn and I caught just one of the films at the Greentopia Film Festival this year. It's the story of how cotton is grown in South Carolina, shipped all over the world (particularly China) where it is made into fabric and clothing, then shipped back to South Carolina. Notable to me was how the manual laborers—the American cotton farmers and the Chinese clothing makers—existed in insufferable conditions while each step removed lived in more comfort: the American industrial cotton gin, the refined cotton warehouses, and the Chinese warehouses for fabrics faring better; the shipping companies in both nations and the American retailers faring best of all. Jenn and I both found the music to be cloying and melancholic (revealing the only evidence of the filmmaker's bias), but many other people liked it. While the Rochester audience lobbed lackluster questions at director Laura Kissel, she revealed at one point that the hardest place to film was not in China but in American retail stores. One final note: the Greentopia Film Festival asked us to fill out a survey online for a chance to win an Apple iPad—without a lick of irony—despite the widespread knowledge that Apple's products are made in Chinese factories with working conditions as bad or worse than depicted in the film.
  7. What We Do in the Shadows at the Little, March 22: Jenn and I went to this hilarious mockumentary about a group of vampires living in New Zealand in modern times. I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I was pleased that I found it extremely funny. Perhaps it was from bottling up all my criticisms after my recent indoctrination into the Cult of Buffy, but the juxtaposition humor was plentiful.
  8. The Red Shoes at the Dryden, March 27: Jenn and I went to this Technicolor classic featuring the revered camerawork of Jack Cardiff—which was, sadly, projected from a restored 35mm print that itself did not use the Technicolor 3-layer process. It's that 3-layer process with its imperfect color registration and the impossibility of perfect focus (since each color is a different distance from the lens) that gives it its nearly imperceptible shimmer whereas the modern color emulsion made from digitally-scanned 3-strip negatives has perfect registration and a single focal plane that affords razor-sharp perfection, as undesirable as it is in this particular case. Anyway, the movie itself is quite good: music student Julian and ballerina Victoria join a ballet troupe with a hard-nosed director (making the later Whiplash comparable in subject-matter). As both rise to stardom, the latest production is The Red Shoes, based on the Hans Christian Andersen story in which a dancer wishes for red shoes which happen to be cursed and she can't stop dancing until she finally dies. Both get intertwined in one another as they are central to the ballet.
  9. Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales) at the Little, March 29: Jenn was excited to see this after seeing the name Agustín Almodóvar, thinking he directed it, but it was actually Damián Szifrón and Almodóvar produced it. It's a series of 6 short stories of vengeance. And as is the case with successfully-executed vengeance: it's always and already gone wrong. The tales are told as black comedy and largely succeed … I thought the more-petty violations made for funnier stories. In the end, it all felt kind of repetitive, and I was reminded how much I liked the similarly revenge-themed black-comedy, God Bless America, which I wrote about.
  10. OnFilm Shorts by Karpo Godina and Davorin Marc at the University of Rochester Hoyt Auditorium, March 30: I go to see this fantastic program—check out the blog post for the complete review.

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Ten and a Half More Movies: March 2014 to May 2014

So here's the last 10 movies I watched …

  1. Tim's Vermeer at the Little, March 16: This is a documentary about a man named Tim Jenison who was interested in the photo-realistic paintings by Johannes Vermeer, and tried to devise a technique to replicate his technique. As a documentary, it's adequate and entertaining, but it's the subject that is most intriguing. I knew virtually nothing of the works of Vermeer coming in to this film, so I took it as fact what they said. Afterward I did a bit of research and found that Vermeer was neither as mysterious as the film implies, nor was his work — save for a couple specific examples — anomalously photo-realistic for the time period. In any case, The Music Lesson had certain qualities that Jenison found intriguing: how had Vermeer created such photo-realism 200 years before the invention of photography? He suspected a device, and set to building one. What he made (although I don't recall the film mentioning it) is a unique form of camera lucida (thanks to Jenn for knowing that!) which uses lenses and mirrors rather than a prism. With that, he succeeded in recreating The Music Lesson, and in doing so, reproduced a tiny flaw (the pattern on the virginal curves ever so slightly while its edges are drawn by straight-edge) that strongly implied the use of optics beyond the traditional camera lucida. I think this discovery is something that would be of interest to art historians and inventors alike.
  2. Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) at the Dryden, March 18: A young woman is in love with a man who gets enlisted in the Algerian war … loves are lost … loves are found. In all it's a well-worn story told in brilliant color.
  3. Here One Day in Hoyt Auditorium on the University of Rochester Campus, March 27: It's a documentary where Kathy Leichter revisits her mother Nina's suicide 16 years prior. The catalyst was the rediscovery of audio cassettes Nina recorded for many years; Kathy found them shortly after the suicide, but couldn't bear to listen to them at the time. As such, the use of the cassettes makes the event seem extraordinarily current in the lives of Kathy, her brother, and her father. It's a beautiful, moving, and insightful film that begins to bridge the gap between the thought process of a mentally-healthy person and one suffering from depression (or in this case, manic-depression a.k.a. bipolar disorder.) After the film, there was a panel discussion and one woman spoke about her daughter's depression. What resonated with me was how she saw suicide as a loss, but her daughter saw it as freedom — a concept that made me realize how much my culture mistakenly assumes everyone thinks alike in some way, and how that may be a central reason for the challenges of addressing mental illness.
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel at the Little, March 28: Jenn, Chris, and I went to see this together — Jenn and Chris being very excited about the new film by Wes Anderson; I didn't have strong expectations. The short is I thoroughly enjoyed it. It reminded me of the ensemble screwball comedies of the past (e.g. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) in which expected stars appear in a silly comedy. And this one is definitely silly and absurd.
  5. Pink Flamingos at the Dryden, April 2: I finally got around to seeing this after having been recommended many times over the years by different people. It's definitely a rough-around-the-edges kind of independent film, and also definitely delivers on being "an exercise in poor taste". I'm glad I finally saw it, in part to get the many references to it in a variety of media, but also because it's genuinely an entertaining movie. This version (from a re-release in 1997) included some (rather hilarious) outtakes and some commentary by filmmaker John Waters.
  6. Tectonics in Hubbell Auditorium at UofR, April 10: I saw this as part of OnFilm's "Earths" program (and stayed after for only four of 13 Lakes, mostly due to simple exhaustion/tiredness.) Tectonics was quite brilliant. In it, Peter Bo Rappmund filmed various locations along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico Border in-order from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. I went into it with a bit of trepidation as my prejudices of borders — and this one in particular — are that they are useless, harmful relics of xenophobic nationalism. As such, I began the film with negative feelings of frustration and anger. Rappmund's anti-temporal filmmaking techniques (where he looped sequences-of-images and time-lapse photography which created a timelessness, and used overlapped field-recordings to carry the chronological narrative) led me to experience the border as something intensely futile, intensely irrational, and intensely beautiful. It was disconcerting to me to see all this technology and effort dedicated to creating suffering. But by the end, I found myself at peace with all of it. One thing that helped was the timeless quality of the film which implied a longer-term view — that this silliness is all temporary. Rappmund was present at the screening to answer questions, but I was just glad to thank him personally for making the film.
  7. The Kentucky Fried Movie at the Dryden, April 16: I remember seeing this as a kid and finding its irreverent and ribald humor to be unequivocally hilarious. It's a movie consisting of short sketches which is still funny, although it's almost more interesting to watch it as a historical relic owing to the extremely dated scenarios. And I imagine anyone raised with access to YouTube will find the humor at best, ho-hum. Well, the Kung-Fu parody, "A Fistful of Yen" is still very funny and extremely clever.
  8. The Kodak Employee Variety Show (U.S. 1960, 90 min., 16mm) at the Dryden, April 22: Jenn and I went to the "Made in Rochester" series "Kodak" show at the Dryden to check out some of the rarities. We felt a bit slighted that it was a 90-minute film followed by 3 shorts: a far cry from "a number of test films and company home movies" as we were promised. Nonetheless, the first film was a recording of the 1960 Kodak Employee Variety Show — a presentation that appeared to be largely for the sales staff of the company. As a film, it was the worst musical I ever saw (har har); in large part, it was an insufferable company party like I remember from my corporate days. The productions were high-quality and weirdly yet unsurprisingly Kodak-centric. There seemed to be a lot of tongue-in-cheek jabs at the Russians and Communism, not long after the worst of Senator Joseph McCarthy's state-sponsored murders. But perhaps the best moment was a look in to the "distant future" of 1970 when, rather than a log book, salesmen (and yes, they were all men) would carry a device as small as a pack of matches to dictate expenses and take photos of where they were — an ironic premonition of digital photography. In all, I'm glad to have had a chance to have seen it, but didn't enjoy the process. (Although I did offer Jenn $50 if she could spot a black person, and we jokingly pointed out white people on-stage in shadow.) We snuck out during intermission and skipped the shorts.
  9. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert at the Dryden, April 23: I was glad to be able to finally see this — a ribald performance made legendary by tales told by high-school friends in the 1980's, right at the dawn of home-video. In general the comedy holds up today, particularly his insightful jabs at white culture. Pryor's artistry lets him talk about embarrassing personal situations without the shadow of making it into a therapy session that so often plagues other performers' anecdotes. It's wonderful to be able to remember Pryor at the top of his game like this.
  10. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe at the Dryden, May 6: The first of two short films by Les Blank, this one deals with, well, Werner Herzog eating his shoe. He made a bet with Erol Morris to complete his film, Gates of Heaven, which, obviously he did. The film gives Herzog the chance to talk about following through with commitments and about following your own passion. I've always enjoyed listening to him as he's got a unique articulate way of explaining his view of the world.
  11. (and ½) Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers also at the Dryden, May 6: The second half of the double-shorts program is Blank's film on the wonders of garlic. It's a fascinating sampler of off-center views in the late 1970's, and Blank's style (like the previous film) paces the documentaries exceedingly well, making them both a joy to watch.

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The 2013 Burning Man Report

I left this post for quite some time, but after a New Year's Blog-Off Challenge on Facebook, I thought I'd wrap it up and post it. It's about how back in August 2013, Jenn and I headed to Burning Man.

We left on August 23 and got to Chicago on the 24th. We met with a friend of Jenn's and did a bit of a tour of Chicago before getting back on and—in a roomette sleeper—finished the journey to Reno. We met some nice people along the way, particularly at meals when we were seated with two strangers.

The train ran pretty much on-time and we arrived in Reno around 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Monday the 26th. There were quite a few other people heading to Burning Man on the train and most of them headed off quickly. We chatted with a couple stragglers and one of the guys had a friend in Reno who was going to pick him up. We asked if we could hitch a ride with him if he had space. He arrived with a gigantic van and transported Forrest, Jenn, and myself to the Save-Mart where we hung out for some time.

We bought provisions and met other people going to Burning Man—many from the U.S., but a small group from Italy. We dawdled around a bit and had pretty okay pizza from Pizza Baron before getting a cab ride to the airport—somewhat ironically to the airport "exit" and baggage claim area where the Burner Express bus was to pick us up. The process was relatively smooth and quick: we checked in, got tags for our wrists and for our bags, waited a bit, put our bags on a trailer, and boarded a bus.

The air conditioning wasn't working so well and I felt a bit frustrated at the slow rate we made it to Gerlach. A couple times the traffic stopped completely and we got out of the bus. When we arrived at Gerlach, things were a bit less organized. The gist was that everyone on the bus was to exit, then Burning Man staff would check that we had proof of tickets (and they could confirm will-call and provide a hard ticket right there) before boarding the bus to Black Rock City. One person said we'd have time to buy a bit of water, but as we walked over, someone called out to get on the bus. We got on then had to get off again because it was not our bus. Eventually things got straightened out and we got on the same bus we arrived by (our bus was one of a few that had the ability to close the air-conditioning intake vents on the bottom of the bus; otherwise we'd be on a school bus.)

The great feature of the Burner Express bus was revealed when we turned away from the gate line into a special lane, passing several miles of cars 10 lanes wide. Random (the greeter) checked our tickets and we were on our way into the city. We arrived just before sunset and, oddly enough, the very same bus was our shuttle. We got our stuff loaded back onto it and headed down GDP street toward the 10:00 crossroad. The driver was willing to stop at each 0:15 street, so we got off at 7:45, walked 30 yards and arrived at our camp: Mama Kabuke's Big Tent at It Still Stings Camp at 7:45 and Holy.

It was great to see my friends from last year—Mama Kabuke, Jordi, Devon, Uncle Brett, and T who primarily set up the camp along with a bunch of fellow campers from last year. Jenn (now Vadra) and I (now Zhust) got the tent set up quick before it got too dark and started unpacking. We didn't stay up too late—we hadn't acclimated much from Eastern time, so by 10 p.m. we were experiencing 1 a.m. tiredness and went to bed.

We got up and had some breakfast and got settled in with the camp. This year two of our fellow campers were getting married on Thursday, and they brought a fair number of people for that but only one of them really liked being at Burning Man. We also had an inordinate number of freeloaders making for a stressful time trying to keep up with their consumption and messiness. We also had a genuine "sparkle pony"—a girl who brought only her physical beauty, nary lifting a finger to perform any tasks and frequently leaving half-eaten food and drink.

Vadra and I got out over the week to see the art and visit some random camps. For the most part, I felt like it was a year of "duties and obligations": I was tasked with setting up the lights on Connie the Baby Blue Whale (the camp's art car) we had as well as to install and test the blowhole device I made for her. I felt pretty spent by Thursday and really wanted to take a day off by then but couldn't and had a rough day.

Vadra was selected to participate in Spencer Tunick's photograph at dawn, so we got up around 4:15 a.m. and biked out into the cold early morning. We arrived at the staging area by the temple but all the slots had been filled. She was quite disappointed, having missed a previous opportunity in Buffalo a few years back.

But we made the best of it and got a chance to visit The Man. They were only letting 50 or so people into the UFO base at a time so there was a line, but it moved quickly. There were zoetrope inside that were beautifully designed but the animations were rather bland black-and-white line-art. Dawn was upon us, so we left and watched the sunrise through the hazy smoke from the forest fires in California.

Vadra surprised me for my birthday: she secretly made Instax pictures of a bunch of people in camp holding a whiteboard to spell out "Happy Birthday". It was very sweet of her and I was quite moved by it, especially after spending days feeling under-appreciated.

After the wedding, many members of the wedding party left, relieving some of the burden (although there were still a lot of freeloaders.)

It was an interesting experiment, really. We brought a camp that provided abundant resources. But in trying to embrace the principles of Burning Man, "radical inclusion" led us to attract consumers of our abundance. It gets to be an interesting puzzle, really: if you offer abundance, you'll attract people who will consume, but if you hoard, you'll expend much more energy doing so than if you simply shared.

I have been wrestling with capitalism versus communism for quite some time. Communism fails by people offering less than "their ability" and claiming more than "their needs". The way we are seeing capitalism fail is in failing to find a balance in moderation: either you are earning too little and constantly toiling, or you are earning too much and have no means to share your wealth. On the train, we met a woman named Amber who said she saw something about bacteria being freeloaders: in some colonies, they need to produce a particular protein to float, but some bacteria figure out they don't need to expend the energy; eventually the whole colony collapses.

But I recently read a blog post by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey that talks about commerce and community. I think it helps define when commerce (née capitalism) is most effective and when community (née communism) is most effective. In the article, Harvey quotes an article written by Zay Thompson, the Burning Man regional contact in Kansas. Thompson brilliantly lays out an analogy in the form of his large extended family getting together to compete in a soccer game:

If my Dad stumbles and falls, I don’t run over him in my rush to score on his team. My love for him and the value of human life causes me to suspend the game, help him up, and check to see if he’s alright. Likewise, I don’t continue to view my family as mere competition after the game is over.

In the case of our camp, it seems the balance between commerce and community was skewed. It felt like the desire to achieve enrichment by helping out was somehow suppressed. When a task needed doing, I felt an urge to not help because I felt that was the spirit of our community. It wasn't until these months later that I can even begin to articulate that, but I do recall that experience: when something needed doing, it was defiant to stand up and act rather than it being common and beneficial.

On Sunday we had a most unusual bit of excitement. Chris returned with a report of a DPW official stating that a huge thunderstorm cell was headed for Black Rock City and would arrive shortly before noon on Monday and the city would be shut down to all traffic. The report also recommended that anyone able to leave should do so before Monday. (By the way, the DPW is the "Department of Public Works", a not-governmentally-affiliated group who maintain the Burning Man infrastructure.)

I suspected it was an incorrect report—ordinarily this happens from "telephone game" failures, but this was unique in that it was reported nearly intact to the radio station. And again, Burning Man is susceptible to urban legends, but I thought immune to mass-media misinformation until now.

Many of our campmates were concerned. A couple new friends from Canada had an early flight on Tuesday and opted to leave on Sunday afternoon. Vadra was very concerned but I had instinctive confidence in the inaccuracy of the report. To calm her fears, we walked to the Emergency Services tent that were a mere 30 yards down the road. They had heard nothing of such a storm but cautiously refused to deny the report outright. Rivka pulled out her iPad and checked the weather on their private wireless Internet: partly cloudy with a chance of 0.01 inches of precipitation for Monday. Vadra was not entirely reassured but I persevered, gambling I was correct.

I know that humans are susceptible to visceral dangers more than statistically likely dangers. Even I was not brimming with confidence save for my tenacious rational side.

We stayed—and continued embellishing the tales. By Monday morning, we were expecting the caldera that formed nearby to erupt by noon, and that a raging storm would pin people down and lightning-rape everyone. I advised others that it was likely an attempt by DPW to hurry exodus, and I encouraged other camps to hurry along the freeloaders in their own camps.

Monday came and a front was indeed approaching, cooling the air and changing the wind direction slightly. I held fast, though, and we left by the Burner Express bus at 11:45 with no issues. During the morning, two drops of rain hit me, and none even left evidence on the parched lakebed. It took us 90 minutes or so to get to Gerlach and no rain arrived. I saw nothing on the weather radar once we got Internet back at the hotel room. (The Burner Express bus, by the way, dropped us off at the airport around 3 p.m. and we got to the hotel before dinner.)

Later, I contacted Jordi and Mama about the storm but none materialized. I started a thread on ePlaya that sparked some interesting theories: indeed, nearby areas received some downpours that, had such a downpour arrived at Burning Man, it would have shut down the event for 24 hours or so—and with no proper sanitation either. I suspect the nearby mountains cause vast changes in weather over just a few miles, and I believe that is what "protects" the Black Rock Desert. (For another example of localized weather, see "lake-effect snow".) But I could have been mistaken and we may have been stuck for 24 hours or longer. Who knows.

We stayed overnight in Reno then got on the Amtrak and headed back to Chicago to visit Jenn's friend there for a couple days. It was nice to visit the city more in-depth. We returned to the Amtrak for our overnight trip back to Rochester, arriving pretty much on-time on September 8.

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