Tuesday 31 January 2012

Far out: "Bombay Beach"

Archive footage at the top of the new documentary Bombay Beach shows this neighborhood, in the desert region of California known as the Salton Sea, to have once been a thriving leisure resort - perhaps something of what Atlantic City was to America's eastern seaboard. Today, however, Bombay Beach is mostly depopulated and largely rundown, a dead-end of trailer parks populated by ardent fans of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. (Some indication of how low-rent the Salton Sea has generally become: it lent its name to a straight-to-video crime thriller toplined by Val Kilmer.) The director Alma Har'el has here gone about observing those left behind - and it wouldn't be an understatement to say they're an odd bunch, perhaps as would have to be to stick around in this especially unpromising environment: junkies, impoverished families, cranky old racists seeing out their final days, kids who aren't old enough to know any better. Though certain sequences are artfully edited - an evocation of a kids' birthday party, and a dance montage that unites the community's residents in movement, momentarily transforming them into music video stars - for the most part the film remains hands-off, reticent, and you sense it drifting between two very different, semi-fictional models. Is it the idealised look and feel of David Gordon Green's early work (George Washington, All the Real Girls) Har'el is going for, as suggested by recurring scenes of the neighborhood kids kicking shit around, trying to figure out what to do and who to be? Or - less felicitously - is she trying to recreate the dustblown town of Harmony Korine's Gummo, where the directorial imperative was to say "look at these freaks! Aren't they freakish!" (One blank-faced, shaven-headed, heavily sedated young boy, framed against a battered Stars and Stripes, becomes as emblematic as Jacob Reynolds in the earlier film.) The whiff of exploitation is heaviest in those scenes concerning a family who had the social workers brought in when it became apparent they were raising their young on what was effectively a live ammo dump: I began to wonder whether Har'el hadn't just come here to poke a camera around the doorways in their cramped quarters and see how the other half now live, though the footage the director has brought back does show the parents doing their best to make their current, imperfect living arrangements work. In strict documentary terms, Bombay Beach's closest equivalent may be the Ross brothers' 2009 curio 45365, a portrait of the postcode the filmmakers grew up within - but then this was an aspirational small-town community, one which had sports teams, jobs, things for people to do. Har'el, for her part, provides a memorable tour of an intriguing location, but her film proves (either weirdly, or aptly) isolated, continually catching and diverting the eye without ever quite revealing what it's about, or - indeed - quite what its maker is up to. Bombay Beach opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment