Pick of the week: By the shores of California’s dead sea

Pick of the week: Docu-musical hybrid "Bombay Beach" captures life on the bottom rung of the American dream

Topics: Documentaries, Movies, Bombay Beach, California, Salton Sea,

Pick of the week: By the shores of California's dead sea

Anybody that’s ever seen the Salton Sea understands why writers, artists and filmmakers of a certain disposition are drawn to the place. A landlocked, increasingly saline inland sea in the Southern California desert, three hours or so east of Los Angeles, the Salton was created by accident early in the 20th century, when the Colorado River burst its canal gates. It’s one of the world’s largest inland seas located at one of the lowest points on the planet (more than 200 feet below sea level), and while it enjoyed a brief development boom in the years after World War II, today it presents a vision of almost unparalleled decrepitude and isolation, a post-apocalyptic landscape worthy of the late science-fiction pioneer J.G. Ballard. (By pure coincidence, reporter Evelyn Nieves visited the Salton Sea’s shores for a Salon cover story published earlier this week.)

“Bombay Beach,” the filmmaking debut of Israeli-born photographer and video artist Alma Har’el, was shot in that extraordinary and desolate place, but it isn’t the wry, sad documentary you might expect, about the historical rise and fall of the Salton Sea. (That movie exists, narrated by John Waters! It’s worth seeing: “Plagues & Pleasures of the Salton Sea.”) Har’el is after something much more difficult to quantify, a poetic blend of documentary and experimental film that will delight some viewers and drive others completely bats. In exploring the lives of three unconnected male Americans she finds living by the Salton Sea, in conditions of near-desperation, Har’el suggests that there’s a fundamental mystery and dignity to these people we will never otherwise know or notice.

It’s tempting to describe these three guys’ heartbreaking case histories with grand metaphor: three generations of the California dream, washed up on the shores of a dying lake! Youngest of them is Benny Parrish, a hyperactive 7-year-old whose parents are locally notorious ex-convicts, famous for their stockpiles of military hardware and explosives. While the Parrish household may leave something to be desired in terms of order, cleanliness, mealtimes, bedtimes and virtually every other aspect of civilized behavior, Benny’s parents unquestionably adore him and are doing what they can. Like zillions of other American kids, Benny has behavioral problems (and possibly a serious mental disorder) that is controlled with powerful pharmaceuticals that leave him tranked-out and drooling. He’s a cheerful and imaginative little buzzhead who’s had several of the most screwed-up things about our country land on him at once: crappy parenting plus crappy healthcare plus mind-altering drugs being handed out like Halloween candy plus the bizarre birth-lottery result of living in Bombay freakin’ Beach.

Har’el’s next subject is an African-American teenager named CeeJay, a relentlessly upbeat character who moved from South Central L.A. to his father’s house in Bombay Beach after his cousin was killed in a gang dispute. Living in the middle of nowhere is part of CeeJay’s master plan, which involves getting a football scholarship out of his nowheresville high school and then moving on to NFL stardom. It doesn’t much matter that the last chapter of that scenario is very unlikely, because CeeJay is a hard worker and a people-pleaser who should do fine. He’s dating his best friend’s sister — and fending off her manipulative ex-boyfriend’s sexting blackmail attempts — trying to push up his grades, talking to scouts from small colleges.

Last of all comes Red, a grouchy but seemingly indestructible octogenarian who lives in Slab City, the trailer-park encampment also found in Evelyn Nieves’ story for Salon. Red survives a stroke and gets back to his daily routine of bourbon and cigarettes. He makes extra money by reselling bootleg smokes from the Indian reservation to his trailer park neighbors, and even he admits that’s a little sad. Red has the racist views common to his generation — he wouldn’t approve of CeeJay and his white girlfriend, if he knew them — and doesn’t entirely seem to regret the fact that he’s got children he hasn’t seen in 50-odd years, and quite likely grandchildren and great-grandchildren he’ll never meet. He’s a genuine John Wayne and/or John Steinbeck American, bereft of introspection or sentimentality, pushing straight ahead into what’s left of his life with a terrible Zen implacability.

It takes a while for these portraits to emerge out of an 80-minute movie that follows no obvious linear track but unfolds in impressionistic and often achingly beautiful fragments, with a soundtrack that includes two Bob Dylan songs and several by Zach Condon of the band Beirut. You could certainly argue that Har’el drafts these three guys to star unpaid in a non-narrative video essay that may carry a certain resonance of authenticity among the culture consumers of New York and L.A., but really has no meaning for them. I don’t actually agree with that; even at its most choreographed and expressionistic — when Har’el has children dancing in the streets of Bombay Beach, a seaside hamlet of 300 people, or poses CeeJay and his girlfriend in white plastic Carnival masks — “Bombay Beach” feels infused with tremendous compassion, and paints a half-accidental portrait of life near the very bottom of the recessionary pyramid.

But here’s the thing: People may well read reviews like this one and decide that “Bombay Beach” sounds too weird and depressing and not go see it. But if Har’el had made a strict, rigorous cinéma-vérité documentary about the people unfortunate enough to live by the Salton Sea, nobody’d go see that either. So there we are: You either like this kind of ambitious, brave, borderless experiment or you don’t, and I think it’s absolutely magical and tragic. Maybe it took a foreign-born Jewish filmmaker to make a movie that seems so positively biblical — and even Christian, in an old-school, Sea of Galilee, sermons-in-the-desert sense of that word — about the current condition of America.

“Bombay Beach” is now playing at the IFC Center in New York, and opens Oct. 21 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles, with more cities and dates to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>