J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Balderson at the Arena: Firecracker

Maybe 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.

Every 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.

Obviously, 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 investigation.

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.

That 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.

Firecracker 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.

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