A title at the end of Enid Baxter Blader’s “Local 909er” poses the question, “Does every neighborhood have to look the same?” After watching the works collected into A Film is a Burning Place, you may be similarly provoked to ask, “Does every film have to look the same?”
This compilation of short pieces and excerpts by Blader not only pushes boundaries between media – film, different types of video, still photography, sound and music – but also the edges of what is conventionally considered “good” moving imagery. Her short films and videos are full of occluded and out-of-focus views, oblique angles, and digital artifacts. In most narrative contexts, such devices, especially if used pervasively, would seem out of place, but here they raise questions related to perception, how we see in the world and how we use cameras to alter or augment our perceptions.
Film is a Burning Place organizes Blader’s works into three categories: “A Video is a Place”, “CB Transmissions and Other Faith Healing Aids”, and “Burning Films”.
Included in “A Video is a Place” is the aforementioned “Local 909er”, which is easily the most accessible piece in the collection. Blader uses a mix of sounds and images – photos, film, video, voiceover narration, a radio tuner – to sketch a historical geography of California’s Inland Empire. She pulls together a picture of a region defined by collisions between humans and nature. These collisions have created a home for both Frontier-types looking to escape conventional culture and those desiring a more domestic version of the American Dream.
She explores the corporate exploitation of the latter desire, and the implications of that exploitation for public space, freedom, and community. While Blader provides narration for the film, she remains matter-of-fact, allowing her critique to develop as much through her images as her voice. This piece is a beautiful, nuanced, and thoughtful look at place in contemporary America.
The first section also contains the four-part “Secret Apocalyptic Love Diaries”, which, next to “Local 909er”, is the other extended, complete work on Film is a Burning Place. Here, Blader juxtaposes black and white shots of extreme weather and flooding with more intimate images of people seemingly in love, falling out of love, or perhaps simply yearning to be in one or the other state of being. These shots are gauzy and desaturated, but flecked by red, green, and blue. Views are obscure and obscured.
In the opening episode, a woman, played by Blader, provides tense narration, seemingly involved in some kind of love triangle, but never appearing directly on camera. What to make of the scenes that constitute the “Secret Apocalyptic Love Diaries” will likely hinge on what you see as the relationships between the characters, and who they are, or want to be, to each other.
The idea, or at least suggestion, of people living in a natural world beyond their control runs throughout the selections in the compilation, including in the excerpts from “The Revival of Lee Mackey” that complete “A Video is a Place”, and the short works that make up “CB Transmissions and Other Faith Healing Aids”.
As its title implies, the second chapter to Film is a Burning Place is fragmentary, both within and between films. The first selection, “They Will Cure What Ails”, starts with a fuzzy long shot of birds in flight, cuts to an extreme, slow motion close-up of a woman’s eye, then moves to a long, high-angle shot of a car accident, a shot of Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) in a space capsule from The Right Stuff (1983), and finally to a long distance view of fire on a flat plain before returning to the birds.
The films and videos in this part of the DVD, whether complete works or partial renderings, are all devoted to such particular and momentary perceptions of the world: a pixelating shot of corn stalks blowing in the wind, trees through a dirty windshield, a blue-toned waterlogged landscape, all appearing to be rooted in some thought to capture how the world looks from a particular viewpoint.
The final section, “Burning Films”, contains two pieces, both easily read as experiments in narrative. The first, “Lucille”, references Cool Hand Luke (1967) as it self-consciously plays with the conventions of soft core pornography. This slow motion short is devoted to a curvy woman, attired in a partially-sheer black slip dress, washing a motorcycle in a series of deliberately erotic poses. Despite, or maybe because of, the absurdity of the scene, she appears to own her ritual more than she appears to be on display.
In fact, when a presumptively heterosexual male does make an appearance, he appears severe, maybe angry, rather than aroused. Lucille (Michelle Maaske) returns his gaze with equal ferocity, resisting the role of passive sex object.
Film is a Burning Place ends with an excerpt from “Letter from the Girl, Mailed from the Gas Station”, a film that seems to be another exercise in genre play, drawing on B-picture tropes, and using “borrowed” sound to create an unsettling and surreal landscape.
The Microcinema DVD includes a short biography of Blader and an essay by Ben Ehrenreich printed on the inside cover, but no other extras. Of course, in the context of works such as these, maybe the thought is that less is more when it comes to elaboration . On a related note, the case holding my copy of the disc quotes a total running time of one 101-minutes, but the 55-minutes noted on the accompanying flier is more accurate.
It would be difficult to promise “satisfaction” from a collection like Film is a Burning Place. The works are highly individual, and operate in an aesthetic realm that is radically different from what many are likely to think of as “film”. At the same time, if part of the power of film lies in the ability to show people the world in ways they cannot and do not normally experience, then these short works by Enid Baxter Blader are exactly what they should be.