Wednesday, October 12, 2011

California Dreams: Bombay Beach

California once was the state Americans moved to in hopes of finding better opportunities. Today, Californians are voting with their feet, seeking greener economic pastures in Nevada and Texas. The Salton Sea typifies the California dream turned nightmare. Once a resort hot spot, a sharp rise in salinity turned the sea and surrounding beaches into a land of desolation. Israeli-born filmmaker Alma Har’el turns her camera on several hardy residents of the former beachfront community in Bombay Beach (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It’s been a longtime since the rat pack frolicked in Bombay Beach’s night spots. Of course, it has been a longtime since they frolicked anywhere. Many of the dilapidated neon signs still survive, begging to be restored to retro nostalgic glory. A motley assortment of desert rats lives in this surreal environment, who Har’el intends to present as an ironic commentary on American exceptionalism. In some ways, this is more reasonable than she perhaps realizes. “Red” is a case in point. A deliberately rootless eccentric, Red makes ends meet reselling cigarettes from the nearest tax-exempt reservation. A frontier spirit, Red clearly feels right at home here.

Ironically, Bombay Beach represents life and hope for one inner city teenager. After the shooting death of his cousin, CeeJay was trundled off to live there, safely away from the street crime of Los Angeles. He also now attends an academically superior school, where he believes he has a better chance to standout on the football team.

Without question, the film is most voyeuristic when looking in on the Parrishes. Benny Parrish’s parents are former gun nuts who enjoyed setting off explosives out in the boonies for fun. Bombay Beach ought to be the perfect place for them. Unfortunately, they did a stretch of time for their hobby, temporarily losing custody of Benny. When they got him back, he already had enough prescriptions to stock a kiddie pharmacy. The Parrishes are clearly a very sad family, but considering the mistakes they have made, it is hard to extrapolate wider significance from their situation.

In between scenes of quiet quirkiness, Har’el stages musical interludes featuring her subjects, who display varying degrees of competency. For some, these will no doubt heighten the atmosphere of surreal trippiness. Yet, it also emphasizes the artificiality of the film.

Yes, time and the elements have been cruel to the Bombay community. While the late Congressman Sonny Bono spearheaded Salton Sea reclamation plans, he only just got the ball rolling. Those so inclined will be able to gawk at the town’s faded promise well into the foreseeable future. Frankly, that is largely what Har’el’s film does. While there are some striking images, memorably accompanied by the music of Beirut and Bob Dylan, the film is really rather exploitative. Not particularly satisfying, Bombay Beach opens this Friday (10/14) in New York at the IFC Center.