Film | Sports

April 4, 2005

Step into Baja

In his latest extreme-sports documentary, Dust to Glory, Dana Brown reminds us that there's nothing wrong with having fun.

Peter Jamison

In today's world of documentary filmmaking, cynicism sells. The heralded documentaries of recent years—films such as Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven, Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound, and of course Michael Moore's blockbusters Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11—often seem to approach their subjects with a leer. The practice of setting up people to look stupid or disingenuous on camera has become a standard one. In an era grown obsessed with probing the surfaces of our values for fault lines, this kind of thing passes for journalism or—even worse—high-art filmmaking. Moore is perhaps the worst offender on this front: His footage of deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz licking his comb before putting it through his hair in Fahrenheit 9/11 is downright mean. The architect of our Iraq adventure may well be a bad guy, but that's not the point. The point is that such low blows—and there are plenty of them in Moore's movies—don't agitate for change. They just show human beings at their worst, and behind the director's pretensions to muckraking, one can almost hear the snicker.

Courtesy Dust to Glory

Amid this crowd of mockers, Dana Brown cuts a curious figure indeed. Where other documentarians subvert, Brown affirms; where others lie in wait for the first platitude or inconsistency to leave their subjects' mouths, Brown gives people the benefit of the doubt, allowing for small flaws in the, after all, imperfect medium of conversation. "Every dream is important," he wrote in the director's statement to his most recent film, Dust to Glory. "Every dreamer of value." A far cry from Morgan Spurlock's badgering the obese about how many 7-11 Big Gulps they consume each day.

Brown, a lifelong surfer from southern California, announced his sunny vision of life to the world with his acclaimed 2003 surf documentary, Step Into Liquid. Two years later, he's back with another look at the positive values embodied in extreme sports, turning his lens this time on the world of off-road racing.

Dust to Glory tells the story of the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, a 1,000-mile off-road race across the Baja Peninsula that begins and ends in Ensenada, Mexico. In last November's race, as chronicled by Brown, 1,200 participants driving 270 vehicles competed in 11 vehicle classes. Over 200,000 spectators gathered for the event—locals; foreigners from places as distant as Germany, New Zealand, and Japan; and a large number of thrill-seeking Americans. Such a high turnout for a competitive racing event will not surprise those who keep a finger on the pulse of contemporary American sports: NASCAR racing—once a fringe subculture confined to the southern heartland—is the fastest-growing sport in the country. But the Baja 1000 is not just a symptom of Americans' growing obsession with watching cars drive in circles around each other at breathtaking speeds. Anarchic, accident-ridden, open to amateurs and pros alike, the Baja 1000 is less a racing event than an alternate universe, a brief step through the looking glass into a riotous, dust-raising carnival that smells of engine grease, sage brush, and Pacific salt wind.

The Baja 1000 was first held in 1967, and over the years plenty of celebrities have lent their names to the race's dockets: Steve McQueen and James Garner both competed (McQueen must have boasted an unfair PR advantage, I'm afraid—I can't imagine anyone who's seen Bullitt trying to pass him on a tight curve), and the tirelessly versatile George Plimpton, late editor of The Paris Review, participated in the race and wrote about it. This year, the Baja 1000 was graced with the presence of the best-known racer in the world, Mario Andretti, who served as the event's grand marshall.

In some ways, it's a race like any other: Teams of drivers make pit stops at scattered checkpoints to spell one another behind the wheel and get some maintenance for their sorely battered vehicles. But for the majority of drivers at the Baja 1000, the prize is simply crossing the finish line. Completing the race—a roughly 48-hour ordeal—can prove daunting to even the most skilled drivers. Robbie Gordon, NASCAR champion and two-time winner of the Baja 1000, failed to finish the race in 2004 after he drove his "trophy truck" (a modified 800-horsepower pickup) too hard over the first few hundred miles.

The race's prevailing atmosphere is at once democratic and intense, and Brown's narrative structure in Dust to Glory reflects this attitude. Using over 50 cameras and a crew of 90 people, Brown plunges in up to his elbows in Baja's grit—the documentary's final cut was reportedly made from 250 hours of film. Rather than following one group of racers, he keeps tabs on a dizzying array of competitors and vehicles, arranging the film in a series of episodic and often unrelated storylines. The result is a bit diffuse: In an event whose value resides so much in the individual's struggle with the elements and, occasionally, with the intractability of his machine, jumping back and forth among a dozen subplots seems to rob these stories of some of their dramatic effect.

Brown would doubtless counter that the Baja 1000 is about the diverse community that participates in it. There are the goat-herding spectators who watch machines that might as well have been constructed in a different galaxy tear by them at speeds topping 100 mph. (For strange looks, nothing can beat a tricked-out dune buggy, which—when its shocks kick into gear over sinkholes and road bumps—seems to scurry in a way that reminded me of the giant man-eating insects in Starship Troopers.) Then there are the misadventures of happy-go-lucky Andretti, who as grand marshall takes his friend's jeep out for a test drive along a back road, trashes it, and has to hitchhike for a ride back to Ensenada (in the process justifying all those who have ever upbraided a friend, family member or spouse for "driving like Mario Andretti"). Brown does his best to capture all the disparate facets of this spectacle, a Sisyphean task that perhaps could have made way a bit for a central narrative.

Mike 'Mouse' McCoy (right) at the finish of the Baja 1000

As it stands, the closest thing we have to a baseline story is the tale of Mike "Mouse" McCoy, who after Marlon Brando is perhaps the craziest man ever captured on film. For reasons which he never fully discloses, Mouse has chosen to ride the entire 1,000 miles of the race on his own, without stopping (except for gas and tune-ups), and on a motorcycle. If such a feat sounds likely to induce injury, delirium, and loss of consciousness, does. By mile marker 200, Mouse is looking pretty shell-shocked, and over the course of his next few pit stops, he recites the same breathless story to his support crew over and over again, of how he had to go 40 miles out of his way because of a flat tire. Brown captures these scenes brilliantly, allowing full play for the situation's humor (Mouse's signal, quite understandably, gets dimmer and dimmer as the race wears on) while keeping it classy. Mouse's travails could have easily been manipulated to score cheap points with an audience; instead, under Brown's deft touch, the motorcyclist never loses our sympathy, and in the end comes off—rightly, I think—more as Indiana Jones than Captain Ahab.

What the film lacks in narrative unity, it makes up for in its visceral presentation of the race itself. Brown attached tiny "lipstick cameras" to the front of racers' motorcycles, trucks, and buggies, and the results deliver a vicarious thrill, as well as a churning stomach (watching some of this up-and-down footage reminded me of a bumpy four-hour nonstop bus ride I once took between Monterey and Carpenteria after drinking three pints of beer—ouch). Such worm's-eye views are complemented with panoramic shots of the race taken from helicopters (at a recent press screening in San Francisco, Brown pointed out that his crew could only use the helicopters during the day, since at night they might have been mistaken for drug traffickers by the border patrol and shot down). Some of this aerial footage is simply stunning: At one point, we witness a showdown between the one- and two-spot motorcyclists along Baja's coastline, one racer seeking to pass the other by dropping onto the beach and going full throttle at the water's edge while the other continues along the dirt path traversing the beach's headland. The resulting scene might have been pulled from a Hollywood thriller.

Important as the Baja 1000's courageous racers are to the unfolding of Brown's story, the most captivating presence in the movie is without question Baja itself—deserts silent when not disturbed by the inconsequential whine of car engines, vacant white beaches that stretch for miles, austere pine forests clustered along precipitous cliffs and long, empty valleys. "Quiet," "beautiful," "mystical"—these are a few of the words Brown's racers come up with when pressed for a description of Baja's stirring desolation, and one senses in their fumbling articulations of the land's power an unflinching reverence. Brown's ability to capture the power of place over people—already strongly evident in Step Into Liquid's evocations of unconventional surf spots such as Easter Island or Ireland's County Donegal—is honed to mastery in Dust to Glory with his portrayal of this enigmatic slice of Mexico.

Like many strongly optimistic pieces of art, the film at times comes dangerously close to camp. It's hard to avoid the reaction with which some critics greeted Step Into Liquid: a vague sense of annoyance at the general hunky-doriness of Brown's universe. Offroad racing, after all, is a dangerous business, and not just for those who have chosen to put their lives on the line by competing. Running over a vast area of countryside, parts of which are populated by innocent bystanders, and crossing public roads which—for reasons I can't begin to fathom—the Mexican government refuses to close, the Baja 1000, unlike NASCAR races or the Indy 500, manages to put a lot of people at risk. The race has other troubling characteristics, like the spectacle of thousands of gringos descending on a pre-industrial paradise with rumbling autos, and that women didn't compete until last year.

In the end, I think, reasonable minds will easily forgive such faults. In the director's statement, Brown wrote that he set out to demonstrate "the value of happiness," and offer "proof that Fun is good." His celebration of the pursuit of happiness is the driving motif of his growing opus, and can be seen as surely in Dust to Glory as in Step into Liquid. It's a theme that stretches back through the work of his father, Bruce Brown, who directed the movie that documented—and in many ways created—modern surf culture, The Endless Summer, and one that has been picked up by Brown's son, Wes, who released his own highly respected surf documentary, Islands in the Stream, last year. It's a theme readily dismissed by the sophisticates who often set the bar for contemporary documentary films, but a welcome one in a culture where affirming the value of fun—Brown's kind of fun, the kind that boosts your adrenaline, numbs your hands and feet, and leaves you with a fearsome suntan—is only getting harder.

Related on the Web

•Official site for Dust to Glory

•Watch a preview of the movie at Dirt Rider Magazine

•See other reviews from the New York Times, the Onion's A.V. Club and elsewhere.

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Article by Peter Jamison

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