Commune (2005)

Rating: WTF?Commune takes us inside the Black Bear Ranch, a utopian hippy commune someplace out in the sticks in California in the 1960’s. Most of the information is drawn from archival footage and the reflections of the now aging hippies themselves, who have long since left the commune to pursue more individualistic hippy life-trajectories.

While I can understand the impulse that might drive one off into the woods in the hills, a flight from the oppressive capitalist superstructure into the arms of an oppressive collectivist commune is, charitably speaking, counterintuitive.

Commune

Commune basically confirms every stereotype of hippies as self-absorbed malcontents that anyone in the mainstream might tend to harbor. Jonathan Berman is the producer, writer and director, and he is in no way to blame for the apparently negative portrayal. This is not a hatchet job. The interviewees are allowed to look stupid, insane, and absurd on their own terms and in their own words.

There’s a lot of running around naked with goats, and toothbrush sharing that goes on in the film. The participants in the commune get so wrapped up in cogitating on the collapse of the military-industrial complex that they let the goats raise their kids for a while. A freaky cult turns up at some point and some of the hippy kids got exported to India or someplace for some reason best not speculated on. Then the hippies got all bent out of shape and kicked the cult guys out. All-in-all, Melissa Harris-Perry would do well to study this example of collective childcare.

In among all of that insanity, the hippies somehow survived way up there in the mountains. As it will do, living in the margins of society imposed a practical sort of reality on even the most hard-headed of the bunch. In the words of former commune occupant Creek Hanauer, everyone had to “basically chop wood, haul water, cook food, or become a dead Zen guy.”  And that was truly the only redeeming feature of this particular commune experiment insofar as I could tell.

By all means, do check it out if you find old hippies entertaining, or if you just want the to see a stack of freaky, leftist ideology driven full force into the California wilderness. I can’t say that Commune is uninteresting, but I can say that it is ridiculous.

Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment

Rating: FY!You can’t believe anything that you see on TV, but I’m willing to take a leap of faith on this one and say that it seems pretty real for a reality show. With this underlying assumption I can say that Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment is kind of awesome. It represents a pinnacle of the survival reality genre. It is so good in fact, that it will almost certainly be canceled outright.

Gopher StewThe show is premised on the idea of dropping off a bunch of “regular people” in the Alaskan back-country with nothing but a brief survival orientation, a pile of outdoorsy junk, and a map to civilization. It seems realistic because the cast members are acting as I would expect regular people to act in this kind of a situation. There’s a little friction early on, but it pretty much melts away by the second episode because everyone gets hungry. They spend the remainder of the season obsessively looking for food and firewood. By the time they get out of there everyone has lost a bunch of weight and just wants to find a grocery store.

 Watching people get along out of necessity and eat mice and gophers and porcupines without cringing or making a big deal of it just isn’t inherently entertaining, and many people have trashed the show for that. If you’re looking for loud-talking,  buffoonery and bar fights, skip this one and see if there’s a rerun of Jersey Shore on somewhere. If you love survival stuff, self reliance, hunting, camping, escaping from the world as we know it… TV doesn’t get any better than Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment.