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The Sacred and Profane , the movie
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  September 27, 2006

DUCK IN A ROW: Common holiness

Early in the documentary The Sacred and Profane, a bald man and the camera, manned by director David Camlin, go off to see a man about some goats. In a dim barn, charming horned creatures leap up to greet them, their bleating at once pastoral and obscene. There’s a sweet old nursery rhyme in all this, the bald man thinks, but neither he nor our cameraman can recall it, and soon enough, a spry old farmer drives up on a tractor to discuss how these beasts will best sate the hungers of throngs out on an island.

The scene is a little playful and a little dark — and it’s one to which Pan himself, that immortal debaucher, would surely thrill. It conjures up the part-human, part-beast condition common to the best of us, a state of being that is actively encouraged in the yearly Peaks Island bacchanal of magic and earth, dark and light: the Sacred and Profane. And in anticipation of the event’s 11th anniversary, Camlin’s evocative documentary (a College of the Atlantic student work, and in Camlin’s own estimation still “unfinished”) is now available for gratis rental from Videoport.

The festival of installations, performance, and feasting, enacted in the dark old Battery Steele bunker, maintains a guiding mythology of anonymity, mystery, and near spontaneous generation. In keeping with that spirit, organizers requested that director Camlin (full disclosure: he and I go back to the dark mysteries of Wells High) keep everyone nameless and faceless. His challenge was thus to balance the documentary’s need for structure and exposition with the sensually amorphous nature of the event itself, and his movie — narrated by the bald man and a slew of disembodied founders and organizers — thrives under these restrictions.

If the “sacred” and the “profane” constitute one obvious duality of the festival, another is system and chaos, as Camlin shows us scattered, anonymous glimpses into last year’s rag-tag, rain-drenched preparation: a man in the dark pokes at the skeleton of a teepee. A small, backlit procession sets stepping stones through a long puddle. A skinny guy drags a board a few feet, stops, then looks at it. We hear much more than we see: the shrill surge of a power drill, dense metal being scraped over concrete, the sizzles and spooned plops of cooking. The work, thus shown, seems almost whimsical, as if these random tasks are more rites than causal action, and otherwise ordinary tools and materials are given a sense of both greater banality and greater curiosity.

The result of the work, once the crowd has arrived and entered the Battery’s darkness, is a phenomenon that eerily exceeds the sum of its hodge-podge parts. And Camlin’s swooning handheld camera is utterly susceptible to the strangeness. His fascinated gaze hovers, moth-like, near nests of illuminated eggs, the foggy auras around flames, photos of hands flickering in candlelight, as wails and the resonant tones of struck steel echo. Trusting the event’s currents, Camlin wills us to unlearn what we expect of the behavior of light, sound, raw materials, our human companions, and — most essentially — our own perception.

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