by Whatsblem the Pro
There’s a moment at Burning Man that is etched indelibly into my memory: while biking out in the deep playa, I spotted a mysterious object way off in the distance, too far from Black Rock City itself to be seen from anyplace in town. Was it a mirage? The playa has no shortage of them, and they can distort distances to the point that it’s impossible to tell if something is ten miles away, or only a quarter of a mile or so. I pedaled toward the tiny enigma and watched it get noticeably larger, indicating that maybe it wasn’t so far away as to be unreachable. A little more pedaling in the arid desert silence, and the blip resolved itself into a rectilinear structure of some kind. . . and then, as I finally got close enough to see clearly what had drawn me so far from the mother of all parties, my jaw dropped. There, all by itself in the middle of that vast sun-bleached gypsum plain, there in the trackless, blank heart of a mercilessly empty land, was. . . a movie theater.
This was no makeshift, ramshackle attempt. Anyone can put up a screen and project movies onto it, almost anywhere, but this was different. The movie theater I was looking at was made of brick, and looked like it couldn’t possibly have been built anywhere else. It seemed to be a permanent structure, and it looked old and a little run-down, but who on Earth would build and maintain such a thing – who COULD build and maintain such a thing – in such an empty, godforsaken place, so devoid of people and so far from anything and everything?
The building was tiny, but looked like it was neatly sliced out of a larger theater somewhere, as though some dimensional anomaly had warped space-time, causing a discrete section of a cinema in the Midwest of the 1950s to extrude itself through some mind-shattering Lovecraftian shortcut to the Black Rock desert. The thing was truly, clearly a labor of love, with a lighted marquee sporting Art Deco touches, and regularly-scheduled films being screened on-time in a genuine theater interior furnished with real theater seats. They even had a candy counter with those big movie-sized portions.
The laborers of love behind the Bijou are a couple of burners named Release Neuman and Sam Gipson. Their shared vision and loving attention to detail has given a unique and landmark experience to every burner lucky enough to stumble across it while braving the depths of the wilderness outside Black Rock City.
When I read their Mission Statement at the Black Rock Bijou website, I was really impressed. The experience I had the first time I saw the Bijou was entirely what they’d had in mind for me right from the start. The Bijou is built purely to blow minds, and designed to be discovered accidentally. Release and Sam run a tight ship of a genuine theater in pursuit of that mind-blowing quality, knowing that some hokey half-assed Halloweeny mock-up would not achieve the desired effect in the minds of those who stumble upon their brick mirage. The attention to detail is remarkable. . . and the Bijou isn’t just a strange visitor from another place; it’s as much time machine as anything else. The films shown Monday through Saturday at midnight, 2:00 AM, and 4:00 AM are all films that might have been screened in the theater the Bijou is modeled after: the Royal Theater in Archer City, Texas, made famous in the film The Last Picture Show.
I got together with Release and Sam to talk about the Bijou in August of 2013.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
Release, Sam. . . how did a fully-equipped old-school movie theater come to be operating in the depths of the Black Rock desert?
Here’s how it started for me:
The first time I remember hearing about Burning Man was around 1997. I met this kid who was just out of film school, named Lance Black. Lance won the Academy Award a couple of years ago for the Milk screenplay, but this was long before his fame and fortune. He said there was this festival in the desert that 10,000 people went to, where they burned a big man in effigy. Lance said it was a crazy and fun adventure, and since I was with an Internet company at the time that was very cutting-edge, making made-for-the-net TV shows and films, we commissioned Lance to go make a film about Burning Man with a friend of his. I’m not sure I ever saw any results of that project; apparently the trip had gone a bit chaotically and the footage didn’t get through post-production before the company went out of business. As it turned out, we were ahead of our time in a bad way anyway; serving up streaming video didn’t work very well on 56k modems.
At any rate, I was intrigued by what I heard. I had been into the EDM scene since the acid house days of the 1980s, and some of my more with-it friends had gone up to Burning Man as part of that interest. They came back saying I really needed to go.
In the Summer of 2003 I was in one of those agonizing reappraisal times of life, and I decided, for no particular reason, to check out Burning Man. Something inside me, I guess, said it was time. . . but I was very uncertain as to whether or not I would like it. I have never been a camper and feared physical discomfort. Moreover, I feared being trapped there, maybe not liking it and wanting to go home right away. A friend and I decided we’d only go up for one day and one night, to get a toe in the water. We planned on going in Saturday afternoon and leaving Sunday morning, and we really didn’t prepare at all; another friend, Morgan, told us that we didn’t need to bring anything, since we could just come to his camp, have dinner there, and spend the night.
We never found Morgan, or his camp.
We spent the entire night wandering around the playa, with only a few bottles of water in our backpacks. We were quite cold for much of the chilly night. We didn’t know anyone. We watched the Burn in astonishment, wandered from art piece to art piece and theme camp to theme camp, meeting the most interesting people. At sunrise we found ourselves sitting around a fire with a group of strangers.
Every minute of the experience was magnificent, and we had the time of our lives. . . and now I feel like an alcoholic talking about his first drink; I’m still trying to recapture the buzz of that first Burn.
Caught up in the sheer wonder of my first visit to Black Rock City – the art, the people, the city itself – the thought popped into my head of an old movie theater. I really don’t know why a theater came to mind, but it had a little to do with wandering into the front door of Paddy Mirage, an installation that had a funny front door painted like it was an Irish pub. You’d walk through this Irish pub door and find yourself standing on a dance floor the size of an acre. I liked the weird juxtaposition of that sense of a familiar kind of place (the entrance to a pub) with what you got when you walked through the door – and through the looking glass – into this unexpected, unfamiliar environment. Then and there, that first and only night of my first Burn, I thought that someday, I wanted to build a movie theater in Black Rock City. I thought it would stun people and evoke a sense of wonder, just like the Fishmobile and Paddy Mirage and the Ambience Ambulance and the tented bar whose name I forget that served “Pink Things.” They all left me in a state of awe and delight. I thought about it for a few years, but didn’t share it with anyone. . . I mean, who do you tell? “I want to build a movie theater in the middle of the desert!” It sounds insane.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
How about you, Sam?
Well, in between Release’s de-virginization and the birth of the Bijou, I was declining Burning Man invitations from him. This became an annual discussion I had begun to expect from him, thinking I knew this kind of thing wasn’t for me. I guess I had it in my head that this was some kind of trip to Yosemite (I love Yosemite, for the record) but definitely not something I wanted to go all the way into the desert and spend that much time doing. Life’s funny. . . I judged Burning Man for years, and now it has opened me up to taking on life’s little curiosities instead of judging them. It was definitely a rite of passage for me.
I finally gave in to Release’s seduction and met him on the playa in 2007. I was blown away. . . I had never seen such liberation, openness, and – above all for me personally – creativity. There were no boundaries, and when that many minds are firing off together with no boundaries, you have a culmination of genius. What I was seeing on the playa was genius. I was trying to rationalize, reason, make sense of it all. Who was this wizard behind the curtain making all this stuff? It took me a couple of days but I stopped spectating quickly. I wanted to throw myself in. I wanted this, I had been wanting this, and Release knew it before I did.
The next year, we were out in deep playa, and Release said something about how cool it would be if there was a fully-functioning old movie theater right there, far away from everything. I didn’t think about it much; I may have laughed. He kept going, though; he stressed that this wouldn’t be a screen and a few chairs, this would be the real thing. A mind-fuck for the deep playa traveler. Real movie-sized candy, a candy counter, real seating. . . a real theater. It was a fun conversation and that’s how I took it.
The next year we found ourselves at Burning Man again and he brought it up again. We had more laughs and thought nothing of it. A few months later, he called me and told me that he really wanted to pull this off. I hadn’t taken him seriously until that point; I didn’t realize it then, but I do now; that’s where the wizard behind the curtain of Burning Man is hiding: long journeys into the deep playa.
Once Release made the decision to pull the trigger, he gave the design and execution of the job to an artist who we’ll refer to as ‘Skam’ for a number of reasons. This gentleman had worked with Release before, and he had an impressive résumé that indicated he was well-qualified for this massive undertaking. I was going to come in and assist this guy in anything he needed, and together we were going to make the vision of a movie house in the deep playa a reality.
Unfortunately, at a point when we were already about $7,000 pregnant, Skam abruptly vanished. Spirits were very low; here we had this warehouse and all this equipment, but no foreman, just some vague and unreadable plans, and no real qualifications ourselves for pulling off a large art installation of any quality.
Release told me he was willing to just cut his losses and heed the sign that this may not be meant to be. . . but by that time, I was a little too excited about the project. I had enjoyed three years of Black Rock City at the cost of others getting their hands dirty, and I felt overdue. I literally begged him to stay with the project and let me take the lead. I told him I’d do the project with a cheaper budget than Skam’s, and capitalized on our friendship with the old “you know damn well you can trust me.”
Release was very reluctant. He kept asking me discouraging – but necessary – questions, like “are you sure you know what you’re doing?” or “this is a huge undertaking, you know that, right?” or “have you ever done anything this large before?” I countered with more cheap shots like, “as a friend, I’m asking you to let me have this. Consider it a token of our friendship!”
I think between the guilt trip he knew he’d have over it, and the determination I was showing, he had to relent. . . so we got busy redesigning, and started anew. I later found out that he was mentally prepared to take a loss!
We recruited two more artists to help with the execution of the Bijou: Matthew Pearson, and my brother, Rocky Gipson. What you see in the build video is three guys hammering it out for two months in a warehouse. That’s it. That was shocking information to everyone who asked that first year, and even I look back on it and say “what were we thinking?” I would never try anything that big again with just three people. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re ignorant, though. . . and now we have a group of over a dozen that help get things done, whether it’s painting, building a website, or bringing extra candy to the scene mid-week.
Basically, the road from the Bijou’s conception to its birth was a spontaneous turn of events that in no way could have been planned. It just worked.
Ha ha, yes, all true. Sam is describing that first year of the Bijou: 2010. After that we gradually grew the team by word of mouth. What was especially fun in that first year is that the Bijou was a surprise to everyone, including the Artery and DPW. The DPW folks would stop by and look on in astonishment. One DPW guy wondered if the reason we were so far out in the deep playa was because were on some sort of punishment with the Org! We explained that no, it was actually part of our concept. In fact, if it were on the Esplanade, it wouldn’t be the same at all; it would lose its magic. The Bijou is designed to be stumbled across, and I only ever wanted it in the deep playa; it’s the only place I ever want to do any installation. The deep playa people are my tribe at Burning Man. We’re not the bridge and tunnel crowd.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
Why a theater in particular?
I have always been interested in film and classic film, going back to my childhood. I enjoy turning the unfamiliar on to the magic of classic cinema, and the Bijou lets us do that.
One of the great things about the playa is that it’s sort of a continuous exercise in being in the moment. So in the moment, when you duck under the curtain and enter our auditorium and a big John Ford image from the Monument Valley envelops your consciousness, it’s quite an experience. Sometimes in that moment you rediscover the magic of cinema, or might discover it or recognize it for the first time. That’s what the Bijou is about.
WHATSBLEM THE PRO:
I love it! You’ve transplanted a physical cinema to what Cacophonists call “the Zone,” — a concept that itself sprung from cinema, especially Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker — where we are forced to look at it with new eyes, as though it’s something we’ve never seen before. . . a rediscovery via forced or voluntary unfamiliarity, providing the visitor with a pry-bar for the mind.
I also like that your theater is smack dab in the middle of such a blank geographical canvas. The playa itself becomes a sort of theater as soon as anyone shows up and starts doing things, making things, and being things on it. The Bijou serves as an avatar of the playa-as-theater; it’s a kind of meta-playa within the playa, or meta-theater within that larger theater. Thank goodness you’re not showing Synecdoche, New York or any films about Burning Man in there; you’d probably create a cultural black hole or something and destroy us all!
So, what’s the current state of the Bijou, and what are your plans for it for the future? What do you need to make those plans a reality? How can people get involved and help?
As you may know from our Kickstarter, we are undertaking some significant improvements, and if we get enough support from the burner community, we’ll be able to afford all of them for this year.
Our tradition is to execute a giant mural on the city-facing side of the theater each year; each year the illustration ties into the theme in some way. For this year, in honor of the Cargo Cult theme, we will execute the most famous desideratum in cinema history: Rosebud. That famous logo from Citizen Kane will grace the wall in Wildfire blacklight paint, illuminated by a massive spotlight. If it turns out like we want it to, it should stop you dead in your tracks, thinking about Rosebud and your own desiderata.
We’re also going to double the size of the lobby. It’s just too small for the crowds that like to pop in and visit us, so we will expand it and create more of a social space.
Lastly, and this is the big challenge, we’d like to create a huge vertical neon sign, in the tradition of most classic movie houses, with the theater name: BIJOU. Imagine that radiating out across the deep playa, a beacon and a lighthouse for the deep playa traveler. It’s expensive to do right, so while we’ve only asked for $10,000 in our Kickstarter, we really need to go well past that goal to get everything done that we want to do. . . $15,000 would cover it nicely.
One ugly curveball that came our way – one of those “five minutes before the playa” shockers that always challenge an art project – is that our candy donor for the last two years dropped out. We have been so lucky, each of the last two years, to get 4,000 theater-sized units of candy – everything from Snickers to Skittles to plain and peanut M&Ms – donated gratis to the Bijou. This made it possible for us to provide candy for virtually everyone that walked into the theater. We are looking for another donor. We realize it probably won’t be on that scale, but any leads in that respect would be much appreciated. We must have candy at the Bijou, though we probably won’t have the supply of prior years.
People can get involved and help in so many ways. At this point the best way is the Kickstarter, as fundraising is the current priority. Donating is great, but we could also use some help getting the word out through social media for the short remaining duration of the Kickstarter.
As for the build, our construction team is assembled and will be heading to the playa a week from Sunday. It’s a bit late to join that group, as early arrival passes are all distributed and we don’t have the opportunity to expand that further. . . but if you’re interested in helping us to build next year, get in touch via our Facebook page and let us know. Also, there may be opportunities to help us with tear-down this year, which is a much quicker process and usually begins within twelve hours of the Temple Burn. We do have to MOOP and do that stuff; many hands make easier work! Just give us a shout and we can connect you.
Beyond that, we’ve made investments this year and last so that the Bijou can be a perennial playa installation. We now have two big storage containers with the Burning Man Org, which greatly ameliorates the hassles of getting the theater to and from the playa. Provided the fundraising ends successfully, this year we will take the marquee, the sidewall, and the lobby up a big notch. We have taken steps to expand the team, which was originally just us and a couple of close pals. We came to the inevitable realization that the Bijou is just too big an undertaking for one small clique, so we’ve opened the clubhouse to those who share our passion. . . which means, of course, that it’s not like it was before. I think it’s better!
Each year we will reassess and let our imaginations inspire us as to how the theater should evolve. That first year we didn’t even have doors on the front. Each year we keep improving it, taking it closer to the ideal.
In my fantasies, eventually the theater will have a bona fide balcony up on the second level, beyond our raised platforms. I’d also love to get that camp that makes popcorn all week to come out and provide popcorn. A soft drink machine may be over the top, but a boy can dream. . . and if I could, I would love to hire an actress who looks like that sad old lady who ran the Royal Theater in The Last Picture Show, and have her stand behind the counter, taking tickets and giving out candy. Someone who looks like this is her job, and like she doesn’t even know she’s at Burning Man; someone who looks like she thinks she’s in Anarene, Texas, and it’s 1951. That would be the ideal!
Lastly, when it’s time for the theater to go, I don’t want it to just disappear. I’d like us to return to the playa, build the exterior completely, board it up, stick a ‘CLOSED’ sign on the front door with an apologetic, hand-written note from the owners, lamenting that we were a victim of changing consumer tastes, and talking about how we just couldn’t compete with that new multiplex in Black Rock City anymore. I want graffiti on the building, so it looks as if it’s clearly been abandoned and has gone to pot. Then the next year, we’ll reopen it as a seedy porn theater. The year after that, we’ll board it up and graffiti it up again. Finally, we’ll have a deliberate arson staged as performance art. The theater will go up in flames, calamitously, as fire trucks from Black Rock City race to the deep playa, sirens blaring. That’s how I’d like it to end.