The Joy of Eating Dust

Step Into Liquids Dana Brown surfs the dunes

To say of a movie that it makes you feel like taking a shower afterward usually isn't taken as a compliment. In the case of Dana Brown's DusttoGlory, it should be. When you emerge from the theater after two hours of this documentary about the world's longest nonstop point-to-point road race, you haven't just learned something about the Baja 1000—you feel like you've been there, right down to the crick in your tailbone, the rattle in your jaw and the thick layer of silt that covers your body from head to toe. And it's absolutely exhilarating. Directed by Brown, who two years ago made the outstanding surf documentary StepIntoLiquid, DusttoGlorywas cut down from more than 250 hours of footage shot by a 90-man crew—on a variety of film and video formats, from vantage points both earthbound and airborne—and the result is a piece of interactive moviemaking that employs no special effects to hurtle us into the action. Pound for pound, it's more kinetically thrilling than anything Hollywood has produced in years, not least of all because it's real.

Brown is the son of pioneering surfer and surf filmmaker Bruce Brown, whose lovingly rendered chronicles of the sport (Barefoot Adventureand TheEndlessSummeramong them) have for five decades inspired successive generations of viewers (including this writer) to pick up a board and paddle out. To say that Dana Brown has spent his career following in his father's (wet) footsteps is not intended as a criticism. (And if you think DusttoGlory, with its dry desert setting, represents an act of filial rebellion, think again: in 1971, Bruce was nominated for an Oscar for his motorcycle documentary OnAnySunday.) Rather, at a moment when American sports culture in general—and so-called extreme sports in particular—has been subjected to relentless corporatizing and commercialization, StepIntoLiquideffused an amateur spirit the value of which can hardly be overestimated. That film's indelible appeal rested in the way Brown appraised surfing not as a competition or moneymaking opportunity, but as a common language able to transcend barriers of religion, nationality and age. What's glorious about DusttoGloryis how, despite the change in milieu, Brown's giddy, childlike enthusiasm remains—unlike the bones of some of his subjects—intact. It's a movie made by a kid who never stopped dreaming of go-carts or looking at televised auto racing and thinking, "Cool!"

Established in 1967, the Baja 1000 is a grueling, daylong trek across that many miles of unpredictable off-road terrain, where the obstacles are both natural (blinding dust clouds and perilous mountain passes) and man-made (the drunken spectators who regularly stumble onto the course). Over the years, the participants have ranged from the famous (Steve McQueen, James Garner, George Plimpton) to the anonymous, from the young (represented in Brown's film, which was shot during the 2003 race, by 16-year-old Andy McMillan) to the young-at-heart (like Andy's granddad, 74-year-old Corky McMillan). And when they race, they do so in just about everything imaginable this side of a bathtub on wheels, be it motorcycle, unmodified Volkswagen Beetle (humorously classified—or perhaps quarantined—by race officials as a "Class 11" vehicle) or state-of-the-art 800-horsepower dune buggies whose exorbitant cost outpaces the race-winning purse.

But as DusttoGlorymakes clear early on, the Baja 1000 isn't remotely about money. For some, like veteran motorcyclist Mike "Mouse" McCoy, who elects to run the race solo, it's a gladiatorial combat of man and machine against the elements. For others, like the McMillans and the all-female team composed of racers' wives and daughters, it's a family tradition passed down from one generation to the next. For all of them, the glory lies not (or not only) in the winning, but in an incomparable sense of freedom generated by miles of open road stretching out toward the horizon like waves at dawn.

As in the best sports reportage, DusttoGlorybalances the event with the individual, graceful, death-defying triumphs with hammering defeats, flurries of furious racing action with bursts of physical comedy. (Indeed, there may be no more precisely timed gag on movie screens this year than what follows when a wayward Volkswagen collides with a stalled-out truck.) And just as StepIntoLiquidevinced the same affection for pro-surfing's Malloy brothers as it did for pratfalling longboarders striving against nature (and all good sense) to ride the still waters of Lake Michigan, DusttoGloryis as invested in the competitors striving neck-and-neck for 195th place as it is in the pacesetters.

That's emblematic of the perspective Brown brings to just about everything he turns his camera on—be they surfers, riders, or the Peckinpah-worthy eccentrics who dot the Baja countryside. It's the same sweetly naive openness toward the world—an optimism, if you will—that informed the most memorable passages of StepIntoLiquid, like the one in which Vietnam vet Jim Knost bonded with the Vietnamese members of the Da Nang Surfing on his first trip back to Asia since the end of the war. Here, you can feel something similar in the scenes in which Brown records Baja 1000 racer Malcolm Smith and his son visiting the orphanage they help to support in the nearby town of Valle Trinidad. Or in the affectionate gaze he bestows upon a one-of-a-kind roadside retreat known as Coco's Corner. For all DusttoGlory's visceral charge, what lingers most is its hearty embrace of so many varieties of human experience. It may be the least politically charged film to enter the documentary marketplace in months (or at least since TheWildParrotsofTelegraphHill), and yet there's something downright progressive about it.

DUST TO GLORY WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY DANA BROWN; PRODUCED BY SCOTT WAUGH AND MIKE McCOY. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE, AND EDWARDS LONG BEACH.

 
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