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Cinemavault Releasing International Inc.
Dikenga Films, 2005
Director: Steve Balderson
Caution: Spoiler Alert!
We recommend reading this essay after
you have seen the film - not before.
There's No Place Like Kansas
Middle America has received a good deal of attention
since the 2004 Presidential Election, much of the attention based
on the apparent cultural divide between coastal states and the rest
of America, and on a sense that Middle America gets ignored in the
larger mediasphere that is "America." When rural Middle
America is depicted in this larger mediasphere, it is often a caricature
of the reality (take, for example, the only remotely rural Hollywood
movie of the summer season: The Dukes of Hazzard). Into this gathering
storm of Red and Blue State rhetoric arrives Steve Balderson's film
Firecracker, shot on location in Wamego, Kansas, and based on the
only murder in the town's history.
Less a docudrama in the fashion of In Cold Blood
(1967), and more a parable about artistic expression in the heartland,
arguably in the mold of the most famous movie set in Kansas, The
Wizard of Oz (1939), Firecracker blends black and white with color
images in a sometimes ferocious contrast of the archetypal dream
of Kansas mixed with its cinematic realization. This is Kansas as
stage-managed spectacle, Kansas as beautiful but blighted land,
Kansas as aesthetic Nowhere struggling to become Somewhere. In that
sense Firecracker feels like a deeply autobiographical film from
Balderson, a mission statement or artistic manifesto for the filmmaker
from the place that is often represented cinematically, but rarely
by the people who live there, a curious by-product of the culture
On the cinematic frontier Kansas continues to
hold a place, even if it is not always a desirable one, in the American
consciousness. A number of provocative filmmakers have recently
released films partially set in Kansas. In Todd Solondz's Palindromes
(2004), the central character Aviva takes a road trip from New Jersey
to the plains of Kansas and back. The character of Brian Lackey
in Greg Araki's Mysterious Skin (2004) grows up in Hutchinson, Kansas,
and, with the belief that he has been the victim of alien abductions,
sets out on a journey of self-discovery to New York City and the
teenage hustler Neil. Tim DePaepe's 2001 documentary Shades of Gray
looks at gay and lesbian life in Lawrence, Kansas.
Most of the time characters leave Kansas for
the coast, as in James Bridges' Bright Lights, Big City (1988),
where Jamie Conway bolts Kansas for the booze-and-coke-fueled world
of 1980s New York. Kansas used to be the setting for numerous movies
about homesteading, about people going to Kansas rather than leaving
it. Those films are less common now, but Ang Lee's Ride With The
Devil (1999) tells a Civil War tale of revenge that winds up in
On television, the show "Smallville"
has been a success. It is set in Smallville, Kansas, and follows
the early escapades of Superman. The animated series "Courage
the Cowardly Dog" (1999-2002) depicted, not surprisingly, a
cowardly dog named Courage, who is adopted by a woman named Muriel
from Nowhere, Kansas. And The Muppets recently remade The Wizard
of Oz for TV, with singer Ashanti as Dorothy.
Critic Pamela Robertson once said The Wizard
of Oz "paradigmatically enacts the road movie's contradiction
between the desire for home and away." Firecracker captures
the same tension, albeit in much starker contrasts. The sound of
the train is forever present, a reminder of things constantly leaving
and arriving in Wamego, or maybe just passing it by. More centrally,
the contrast between the carnival (which never stays) and the character
of Jimmy (who cannot leave) embodies this desire for home and away.
If one believes Sandra's advice to Jimmy, one need not leave in
order to become an artist. This tension between the artistic predilection
to be mobile (the classic trope for avant-garde artists) and the
sense of connection with the land, with "place," becomes
a metacinematic creed for Mr. Balderson, the indie filmmaker and
Both the staid black and white world of Wamego
and the saturated colors of the carnival are painted with a defamiliarizing
brush. In Wamego the camera remains static, often lopping off heads
of people who stand while speaking to someone seated. This effectively
captures the solipsism and isolation of characters such as Karen
Black's demented and dogmatic Eleanor, Mike Patton's alcoholic and
sadistic David, or Jak Kendall's abused and introverted Jimmy. At
the carnival the camera floats in childlike bemusement, and the
saturation of reds and greens works to create a composition of uncomplicated
As in The Wizard of Oz, actors in Firecracker
play dual roles that are mirror images of each other. Karen Black
plays Sandra, the carnival chanteuse who is abused by her manager,
Frank, played by Mike Patton. While Black's Eleanor devolves into
insanity at the hands of Patton's David, Black's Sandra endures
a violent captivity before escaping into a ritualistic demise at
the hands of Frank's henchmen. For Eleanor, it is the familial bond
that destroys. For Sandra, the muse, it is the bond of capital that
dispirits. Jimmy oscillates between both worlds, trying to save
his mother from David in one, and trying to save Sandra from Frank
and David in the other. At the heart of this densely allusive parable
is a standoff between feminine nurturing and creativity, and repressive
masculine sadomasochism and commerce.
If the lesson of The Wizard of Oz is that one
can become something else if only one imagines it to be possible,
the lesson of Firecracker is that imagination happens in real circumstances,
bounded by malevolent forces that will not necessarily allow an
artistic transformation simply because the artist clicks her ruby
Like the beguilingly simple landscape of Kansas,
both Wamego and the carnival are not what they seem. The defamiliarizing
effect of filming each in a dramatically different style reinforces
the search for elemental truths at the heart of the film. The depiction
of Wamego reminds us of the ambiguity of Dorothy's proclamation,
"There's no place like home!" The depiction of the carnival
exposes Dorothy's lie. There are many places like home-many places
with the same sadomasochistic desires creating forms of social organization,
whether in the family unit or the traveling road show. But simultaneously,
it is the landscape that ensures a type of singularity for one's
"home." There's no place like Kansas, but the people in
it are not so different from those on the coast. Some are creative,
some are destructive. Firecracker is what happens when the two poles
find each other in closed quarters.
Firecracker is already being compared with the
films of David Lynch, for obvious reasons. Visually, some of the
carnival scenes could have appeared in an episode of Twin Peaks.
Thematically, Balderson shares some of Lynch's interest in marginalized
identities, psychosexual symbolics, and explosions of physical and
sexual violence. Balderson's preoccupation with dreamscapes-also
a connection with The Wizard of Oz, which Lynch used allusively
in Wild At Heart (1990)-and the elemental quality of the visuals
would also suggest an affiliation with Lynch. Even the character
of Jimmy, the almost-caricatured archetype of the tortured sensitive,
resembles one of Lynch's James Dean surrogates.
At one point in The Wizard of Oz, Auntie Em asks
Dorothy matter-of-factly, "Why don't you find a place where
there isn't any trouble?" Dorothy responds, "A place where
there isn't any trouble? Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto?
There must be. It's not a place you can get to by a boat or a train.
It's far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain." The
ledgers of history and the legal records available to public viewing
in Wamego, Kansas would suggest that it is a "place where there
isn't any trouble." Through the blinkered perspective of outsiders
using Kansas as a simple metaphor, or the lazy purview of nostalgia,
Wamego may seem like a place "behind the moon, beyond the rain."
But "trouble" is a product of people more than the places
in which they live, an effect of human frailty and desire, aggression
and aspiration. And trouble can be covered up. In Dorothy's own
myopic way, she seems to be saying as much.
Art is situated, made in place. Firecracker reminds
us of this, from an unlikely place like Wamego, Kansas. But Firecracker
also reminds us that a place can look very different to different
people, and though it may be true that "there's no place like
home," it's also true that "you can't go home again."
Somewhere between the desire to stay in a familiar place and the
desire to leave when the familiar becomes strange and repressive
Michael Truscello is a doctoral candidate
in English at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He has
published in academic journals such as Postmodern Culture, Technical
Communication Quarterly, Film-Philosophy, and Rhetoric Review.
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