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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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The folks living on the mesa don’t dial 911 when there’s an emergency. They dial 357. As in .357 Magnum.

Virtually a real-life take on fictional works like Lord of the Flies and The Mosquito Coast, Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa tells the tale of these citizens and proves to be a mostly engaging look at an extreme way of life.

A Simple Life

Eccentrics abound off the grid and on the mesa
Eccentrics abound off the grid and on the mesa

For 400 people living on a mesa in New Mexico, two simple rules abide: 1. Don’t steal from your neighbor, 2. Don’t shoot your neighbor. It’s a simple life; it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is or what month of the year. There’s no point in having a nice car because the roads will eat them alive.

They chop their own firewood, haul their own drinking water, and haul their own trash. They don’t have any municipal services and most of them don’t have any money. Their economy is, to some degree, driven by pot.

Dreadie Jeff, for one, traded ½ ounce of pot for a grid of solar panels. He fought in the Gulf War.

So did Maine. He came down with Gulf War syndrome and now he has cancerous tumors eating away at his body. But he refuses treatment; he’d rather die living free, under the stars, than in some sterile hospital.

Even after all he’s gone through, Maine would head back out and defend the U.S. in a heartbeat. At the same time, he recommends every American visit a third world country in order to better understand why the U.S. is worth fighting for.

And therein is the real value of Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa. Even though the Spartan, ultra-rugged lifestyle of the residents living in the middle of nowhere New Mexico seems unreal, they do offer an interesting reality check.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

For those living on the mesa, most of their fear comes from any governmental interaction. They don’t want to call the police when there’s a problem and, of course, it’s more than annoying when they find themselves under the watchful eye of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

So there they are, living lives of relative serenity and extreme simplicity. But when a group of teenage runaways storm the town and start stealing, the mesa’s own unwritten rule of law is challenged.

It’s clear life can’t be a free-for-all and even the residents of the mesa are puzzled by the teens’ argument that they’ve got excess goods sitting around and, if things are just sitting around and not being used to their fullest, they are up for grabs.

Well, after a meeting with the council of elders, some of the ladies are sent over to reason with the teens (sending the men in would no doubt lead to fisticuffs).

Easily enough, the teens and the residents, to some degree runaways one and all, come to a peaceful coexistence.

That episode between the residents and the teens is an interesting little detour through some of the mesa’s own “political” underpinnings, but the best stories are those of the individuals searching desperately for something different.

Where the Streets Have No Name

Some of the residents are rednecks, some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, others are mentally ill. But all believe fervently in the Constitution of the United States of America and all have a strong sense of right and wrong.

As one resident describes it, the mesa is the “largest outdoor insane asylum” and a place where you can let your freak flag fly.

OK. So some are a little nutty. But some are also simply struggling to find themselves and a life they can find comfort in.

One such individual is Gene, who left Connecticut with his three children, only to have his wife steal them back after she refused to follow his mad plan of living on the mesa.

Another is a teenage girl who never had a real father figure in her life until she met a 35-year-old man somewhere down the road from the mesa. Eventually she becomes pregnant with his child, but her obvious anticipation of having a baby to hold and love, in light of her own loveless upbringing, weighs heavily against the unsavory circumstances of her pregnancy.

It’s a big world out there and this brief, 70-minute documentary with people named Moonbow and Cowboy offers a glimpse at a part of the world that is so close at hand, but still seemingly so distant.

While Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa isn’t a particularly shocking or groundbreaking documentary, it offers enough food for thought to make it worth a look, particularly in this divisive election year wherein the economy and the basic concepts of freedom, unity, and change are at the tip of every politician’s tongue.