30 July 2012

Brian Bolster’s ‘The Lookout’

When I first met Brian Bolster several years ago, he was shy and almost apologetic about his interest in movies, which he appeared to indulge primarily through the near-obsessive collecting of Criterion Collection DVDs. Flash forward to Saturday, and Brian has made a handful of short documentaries — and sold the DVDs to help finance his work.

And he’s succeeding at it, too. His latest documentary, The Lookout, won the “Big Sky Award” at the Big Sky Documentary Festival, after a premiere at Slamdance. The portrait of a man in truly splendid isolation, watching for fires from a mountaintop in Montana’s Flathead National Forest, The Lookout is playing in New York’s IFC Center theater through Thursday, with screenings daily at 1:25. At 16 minutes, it’s the perfect lunch break, and I admired wholeheartedly what I saw.

Watcher in the Woods: Leif Haugen.
All photos courtesy of Brian Bolster.

Just out of camera range, Brian camped for a week in a tent next to the window-lined wood-frame cabin of Leif Haugen, a veteran lookout who spends his summers — fire season — scanning the majestic scenery for signs of trouble. The cabin, one of the four oldest of its kind, has a wood stove and a propane generator but no electric lighting and no plumbing. Pack mules bring Haugen’s food; he carries water himself from a nearby stream. Most days, his only human contact is the crackling voice on a two-way radio, when he checks in with the forest ranger station. What’s surprising, then, is how easily Haugen speaks with Brian, giving the audience a clear understanding of the solitude and simplicity of his life on the mountain.

You come away thinking that Haugen must be truly dedicated to his work: yes, it’s beautiful country to look at, and he does have a roof over his head, but you’ve really got to love roughing it— as well as ceaseless solitude. I certainly couldn’t do this without going stir crazy, and I probably couldn’t even manage the single week that Brian spent out there. But Haugen, a carpenter in Montana the rest of the year, gets plenty of reading and writing done, and he seems to thrive like Thoreau in the wild. Moreover, it’s important work, protecting these stately trees and craggy mountains.

With Haugen’s soft-spoken voiceover and an eye for detail that takes in each of the cabin’s few furnishings as well as the sweep of the scenery, Brian conveys Haugen’s day-to-day routine. The pace is measured, graceful, and the approach unsentimental and clear. We’re not forced to ooh and ahh over the landscape, yet Brian doesn’t ignore the beauty, either: he managed time-lapse sequences of a starry sky and a gathering storm that are stunning, especially on the big screen at the IFC Center.

Brian’s got schemes for new films now, even as he shares The Lookout with audiences, and it’s terrifically exciting to see him pursuing his goal this way. Of all the cultural developments that grew up while I was in France for seven years (you have no idea what a shock Snooki was to my system), this is surely one of the happiest. I’d tell you that Brian’s a talent to look out for — but you can see that for yourself.

Much of Haugen’s time is devoted to upkeep
of the venerable Thoma Lookout, one of the last of its kind.

NOTE: For more information on Brian Bolster and his work, I highly recommend this interview on the Self-Reliant Film website.

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