Town That Was, The (DVD Review)7 May, 2009 By: Billy Gil
Although it covers an interesting subject, it’s tough to find a main point proven by The Town That Was, a documentary by Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland on the subterranean coal fire that vacated the town of Centralia, Penn.
Centralia was an anthracite coal-mining town that was ruined years after a controlled garbage fire started in 1962 connected to coal deposits in the region. By 1983 the fire broke through barriers and devastated the town, causing roads to buckle and carbon monoxide and other noxious gases to flow through the ground.
The film spends a lot of time with John Lotkis, the youngest of 11 remaining residents of Centralia at the time the film was made. Lotkis is knowledgeable about the fire and the city, so it makes sense to capture his insight about the town of 3,000 that stood before the fire started and what happened thereafter.
The best parts of the film happen when Lotkis is allowed to reminisce in detail about his former neighbors and his lost town. It’s at these moments that the film develops a voice. I was reminded of Werner Hertzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, which uncovered the personalities of those who work and reside in inhospitable Antarctica. Lotkis’ quiet resignation about the Centralia fire and the empty space around him speaks much louder than the film’s research.
Old footage and new interviews with former residents and authors who have covered the subject are helpful, but they add more facts than color.
Those who are intrigued by the story of Centralia should find the film informative, and The Town That Was should resonate with those who enjoy stories of forgotten Americana.