2007 Denver International Film Festival
A short distance from Taos, New Mexico, on a patch of earth about fifteen miles square, live approximately 400 people; all “off the grid,” and, to a man, woman, and child, united by the belief that life is best lived outside the mainstream. Though without electricity, running water, or even stable incomes, these people live harmoniously, always with a sense that true meaning comes from cooperation, friendship, and the freedom to be left alone. At least that’s the romantic side of the coin. In truth, and as one resident admits at one point, though with a sense of pride rather than shame, this isolated neighborhood is “the world’s largest outdoor insane asylum,” and rather than renegades, heroes, and unbridled individualists, we have drunks, drug addicts, gun nuts, paranoid survivalists, and, most frequently, mentally ill veterans suffering from extreme cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of us would like to believe that abandoning civilization is the stuff of legends and dreamers alike, but as life on the mesa proves, it is defined not by poetry and star-gazing, but dirt, poverty, and full-tilt insanity. As one man states, “Out here, we don’t call 911, we use 357.” As in Magnum, friend. And he blasts away at the sky to prove it.
Still, as ridiculous as these burnouts and junkies are, there’s a nobility to them, as they can at least lay claim to an authenticity so lacking in civilized society. They are out of their fucking minds to be sure, and prove it again and again, but they’re far from concerned about the judgments of outsiders. Take Gene, for example, a half-cocked cuckoo living in a ramshackle mess of a home not suitable for himself, let alone his children. But there they are, and from all appearances, they love this bizarre lifestyle. And what kid wouldn’t? Dad’s taken them out of school for good, believing that they are far better served by acquiring practical skills than anything to be learned in a classroom. Sure, Gene is demonstrably unstable, and is clearly using his kids to get back at his ex-wife (now living in Connecticut), but why not try and make a demented camping trip last a lifetime? And yet, despite his shortcomings, Gene is arguably one of the normal ones, as characters cross our path that are each unique creations, but somehow uniform in that they fit the stereotype of those not suited for the suit-and-tie world. Were these people educated, sophisticated, and reasonable, we might accuse them of “playing poor,” but at least they wouldn’t be yet another caravan of loonies trying to convince us that such communities are anything but depressing dumping grounds for the homeless, only with the added touch of the great outdoors.
We have earth mommas who yammer endlessly about “female aura,” while assuming that we want to watch them take their monthly baths in a nearby stream. We have kooks named Luna, Moonbow, and Cowboy, and some roughneck named Maine, who just happens to be fighting cancer by sitting by and doing nothing. There’s Dreadie Jeff, who claims to hate President Bush exclusively, though I imagine he loathes anyone holding even a small degree of power over his life. And down the road a piece is Stan, the pig farmer, who takes in runaways by the carload, not to molest them in a drunken rage as we’d expect, but rather to act as parent, counsel, or simply a good friend. There’s a touch of madness in his eyes, of course, and a sense of mystery behind his unkempt beard, but we can see why the young people love him so. There isn’t a trace of indecency to be found, and his refusal to judge even the worst of cases makes him the only sort of saint we’re bound to get these days: one without property or any trace of his marbles. Interestingly, at another film festival screening, Stan sat directly behind us, chatting amicably with a few filmmakers in town for their movies. Hearing him speak, it is clear that he’s a good man and likely to be the first to shake your hand or place dirty, spit-stained coins on the counter to buy you a cup of coffee, but I still wondered what the hell he was doing on the mesa. He loves it, yes, but why? Is it easier to love strangers than a real family he can call his own?
Stan’s patience reaches its biggest test when he encounters Virginia, a block of wood passing as a human being who just happens to be among the dumbest creatures ever to set foot on the mesa. She is drawn to Stan’s warmth and guidance, but apparently not enough to avoid getting knocked up by a crackhead who last saw sobriety in the Reagan administration. Virginia also loves the rock, and though she quits long enough to have the baby, it never occurs to anyone on the mesa that a certifiable retard might not be the best bet for mother of the year. And so the dark side of living the dream. With romantic visions clogging their brains, no one in the community dares make a judgment call of any kind. Freedom, then, becomes an endorsement of recklessness, and in the name of staying out of each other’s way, a child’s life is ruined forever. Sure, there’s no excuse for the authorities to raid a resident’s house for marijuana, especially in light of the compound’s distance from any real city or town, but what of the anti-government sentiment that coincides with a willingness to accept disability checks? And if they firmly believe in self-sufficiency, what of the monthly trips to the food bank, where the generosity of others is exploited for personal gain? As always, there are compromises with any tough stand, and even on this godforsaken ground, there are rules and regulations to live by.
This is best typified by the arrival of the “Nowhere Kids,” runaways and drug fiends who are fleeing abuse and neglect, but because of their youth, threaten the stability of the small subculture. Some of the kids steal and hoard weapons, but through meetings with the elders, a peace is reached without, as they so proudly proclaim, bringing in the police. Sure, it may have worked this time around, but what’s to be done if Mama Phyllis is found raped and gutted by the wood pile? Or if Virginia goes into cardiac arrest after one too many trips to the coke shed? No evidence is on display, but one wonders what limits there are to their sense of “going it alone.” Regardless, this is the kind of movie that is always too brief, and one that could only be found at a film festival. It is both insightful and delightfully entertaining, more so because the people are so blissfully fucked in the head. Many talk of plots, conspiracies, and imminent threats, but if they’re miles from nowhere during such rants, who are we to care? Only a fool seeks to evade responsibility of any kind, and the first sign of mental instability is an affinity for anarchy, but if they’re outside the city limits, they can howl at the moon until intoxicated by hysteria if they so desire. As hopeless as they are, at least they’re not on some street corner, bugging me for change and bringing down the property value.