Dust to Glory
Few filmmakers can squander good logistics like Dana Brown. As a documentarian, he has demonstrated a knack for getting his lens in places that seem tricky if not impossible, and when it comes to getting the right shot—be it aerial, underwater, or just generally in harm’s way—he spares no risk to either health or treasure. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Brown’s stunt cinematics simply serve to distract from his inability to tell a cogent story. His 2003 surfing doc Step Into Liquid strongly hinted at this, with its hours of hypnotic visuals in search of a point, but in Dust to Glory these suspicions become a hard fact.
Every fall, thousands of well-heeled and anomic-seeming Americans colonize Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to take part in the Tecate SCORE Baja 1000, a high-speed, 1,000-mile, open-course road race that runs roughshod over dished-out desert trails, screams through dilapidated villages, and wreaks real havoc on Mexican highways, which remain open to civilian traffic during the days-long contest. As sporting events go, few competitions carry so much potential for debilitating collisions—between people, cultures, and machines. But in chronicling the 2003 tournament, Brown overlooks all of these not-so-latent tensions to give us instead a blow-by-blow of the race that reaches no conclusions and draws no lessons.
The roster of racers includes legends in the Baja racing demimonde—like J.N. Roberts, who started taking this wild ride 38 years ago, and Mike “Mouse” McCoy, the Supercross icon, Hollywood stunt man, and pretty boy who determines to run the race entirely by himself. But despite a seemingly rich cast of real characters, Brown gives us no one to root for, no zeitgeist behind their struggles, and no reason to care if any of them even finish. There are instead a couple of tepid wipeouts, some mechanical problems, and a few interviews with racers that are too brief to successfully flesh out those colorful Nomex racing suits. Visually, at least, true to Brown form, there’s enough glossy footage to turn even NASCAR virgins into motor sports fans, with an emphasis on breakneck helicopter shots and night-vision sequences.
Too bad none of it matters. What Brown found in the Baja 1000 was a culture of solipsistic Americans whose idea of fun is tearing up a foreign tract of desert for a few days and then going back home with little thought given to the effects of their spree (one bystander, a Mexican national, was killed in the race Brown filmed, a fact mentioned only in passing). But all he gives us is just a bunch of stuff that happened.