Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Balderson at the Arena: Firecracker
it is for the best, but the younger generations coming up today will probably
never experience a carnival sideshow in the flesh, so to speak. They might be
exploitative and generally problematic, but they remain one of the darkest,
most voyeuristically intriguing corners of Americana. So many cultural
references will become obscure as they recede from the collective memory, but
at least the geeks and freaks get one last hurrah in Steve Balderson’s true
crime-inspired Firecracker (trailer here), which has a
special revival screening the weekend at Arena Cinema to help celebrate the release
of his latest film.
year the carnival comes to Wamego, Kansas. In the fifties, it provided a spot
of excitement for the sleepy prairie town, especially the exotic dancers.
Usually, the clean cut looking but mean-as-a-snake David White manages to
secure some alone time with Miss Sandra, but she is finally fed up with his
abusive behavior. She already gets plenty of that from her violently jealous lover,
Frank Shehi, the carnival owner. This year, White’s long-suffering
seventeen-year-old brother Jimmy also sees Miss Sandra’s act and duly becomes
obsessed as well. Unlike his pseudo-rivals, Jimmy’s earnestness rather touches
the burlesque dancer’s heart, so she will offer him some Mae West-ish words of
wisdom, before shoeing him away for his own protection.
three potential suitors make for bad company, but it will be David White who
apparently disappears. However, the lack of concern displayed by Jimmy White
and his devout but passive mother Eleanor stalls Sheriff Edith “Ed” Carlisle
Firecracker was shot on
location in Balderson’s hometown of Wamego, where a David White really was
murdered in the 1950s, including the very house where it happened. Balderson also
features real life side show employees, but most of them are just there to
provide color and bring out the uglier attitudes of the townsfolk. This is far
from a post-millennial Freaks, but Balderson
has plenty more for viewers to gawk at, including two leads cast in dual roles.
would be Karen Black (Great Gatsby, Easy
Rider) as Miss Sandra and Mother White, opposite Mike Patton as her two
unwanted lovers, Shehi and the senior White brother. It is weird, but there is
method to Balderson’s madness. Both pull out all the stops, as befits a
deliberately over-heated, tripped-out noir melodrama. Consequently, sulky Jak
Kendall’s introverted Jimmy is almost entirely overwhelmed by the two playing
four. Yet, Susan Traylor still carves out a memorable niche as the soft-spoken
but down-to-business Sheriff Ed.
has its rough-edges (some of the attempts to mix
black-and-white cinematography with symbolically significant flashes of color
look like they were executed on the cheap), but its atmosphere is compellingly
evocative. It brings viewers back to a time before the mainstream media
homogenized pop culture and the social justice warriors started enforcing their
puritanism of victimhood, when average Americans could personally experience
the macabre. Basically, Balderson revels in the luridness of the tale, but he
makes that work. Recommended for fans of idiosyncratic indie oddities, Firecracker screens this Saturday (9/10)
at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood and is also available on VOD via Vimeo.
Labels: Steve Balderson