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Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs

More chuckles than belly laughs, more episodic than Big Score, but still worth watching —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

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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.

  • sharon: who owns the land these people live on May 23, 2008 reply
  • Ana: I really enjoyed watching this movie on the Sundance channel - it was really sensational and moving. I found the part about the "Nowhere Kids" really interesting; one wouldn't expect so many runaways to hide in the bleak desert. I highly recommend this movie -- it's exactly the kind of film America needs to watch. June 11, 2008 reply
  • Jim Zimmer: EYE OPENING!!

    For all of us freedom lovers and constitutionalists this movie shows the real cost of freedom, our freedom. It is paid everyday by ex-military types in the form of PTSD. Their memories are etched with images of Iraq just like the Vietnam era vets.
    I thank them for their life long sacrifice that they bear alone only in their minds. If you didn't see it then it isn't real, but they did. Forever imprinted with images of reality that I can only imagine.
    Live on Mesa dudes! Live FREE!!

    Your friend, Jim September 21, 2008 reply
  • William: Sharon: the ownership of the land is a complex question, with complex answers. Some may actually belong to the nearby Taos Pueblo Indians, who own a lot of land around Taos, including the northern end of the town... suffice it to say that these people live on the back lot of the mesa, beyond the expensive homes with electricity and roads. Nobody currently cares much about the land, and nobody wants the ugly, violent scene that eviction/development would result in. LIVE FREE OR DIE!!! October 25, 2008 reply
  • Ed: Iwould like to know where this land is located, as I would like to see for myself how these people live and maybe consider moving there myself October 27, 2008 reply
  • Gene aka Gecko: It was my x wife who chose the place,I just ended up the mix!
    I am sorry for ever doing it.
    I did however make one good friend.
    And having read a few reviews for the movie the out come was to be expected.The small minds and big wallets shall rule the world. December 17, 2008 reply
  • s: most of these people own their own land or live with someone else that owns some. January 12, 2009 reply
  • nick: is Maine still alive? he was by far the most intriguing person in the film. I loved the documentary. I highly reccomend it. July 7, 2014 reply