Will Fraser’s documentary Once Upon a Time in Knoxville gives us a glimpse at the life of Rollo Sullivan, a modern-day guru of sorts, living on his own land and building his own community from the junk and other materials left behind by society. A practical philosopher, Rollo believes in the self-sufficiency of the land and the intelligent use and re-use of all materials, seeing today’s modern culture of consumption to be an exercise in wasted potential (and material).

To get the tech side out of the way, the film looks quite good and the few stylistic flourishes, such as title cards and other exposition appearing as if on crumbled, recycled paper, give it an appropriate aesthetic. Like the best docs, though, while the technical aspects add to the story, they don’t distract or call too much attention to themselves, instead letting the subject, Rollo, carry the day. Which he does, with great humor and intelligence.

Of course, when Rollo is telling tales of consuming peyote, weed and then interpreting the messages of howler monkeys in a matter of fact manner as if such topics are not that out of the ordinary, it does make you wonder if where he is coming from is all that lucid a place. Then again, does it really matter? He’s got his opinions on where the human raise is going, and how consumption is far out of proportion to creation and re-creation, but he’s not out getting in your face about it. Man decided how he wanted to live, and went out and did it.

Which means he builds houses out of recycled material and scavenges for whatever he can. He designs a more efficient outhouse system that allows you to easily move the entire building once you’ve, ahem, filled the hole to its top (ewww, but also a practical concern). He takes care of fainting goats. He lives to true to his beliefs, and doesn’t try to shove them down your throat.

Maybe he’s right, and we’ll all be living like him someday anyway, when the consumption collapses the system. Maybe he’s wrong. Regardless, it’s a fresh perspective and fun way to ponder the future of the human race. At least he knows how to handle a world besieged by economic calamity; build from the junk, create from the destruction. Makes sense to me.

Well, the self-sufficiency of the land and re-use of materials makes sense. The whole “understand the language of the howler monkey” is still a little iffy to my brain…

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