Rarely does a documentary come more beautiful and gloriously silver-lined as Alma Har’el’s sensational film Bombay Beach that came exploding into our cinemas last week. Everyone’s going on about the soundtrack (Bob Dylan, Beirut – I know) but that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as Har’el’s delicately inquisitive film takes us into the broken promise of one very particular American Dream.
Years ago in post-war Southern California, a town called Salton Sea was a thriving holiday resort. Built on the green banks of a fresh blue lake, the location swore decades of sunshine, a sun-trap for tourists from around the world.
Bombay Beach opens with 1950s stock footage of this utopian bay – people jumping off piers, mouths chomping on ice creams, pin-up style girls with gleaming teeth reflecting the sun etc. etc. After a minute or so, the sunshine is cut short, and Har’el’s own footage of a present day, and barely recognisable Salton Sea is revealed.
For the next 80 minutes we are dragged around the dead dog-strewn wasteland, following the very different and poignant lives of Benny, Ceejay and Red – three men, all at incredibly different but equally key points in their lives. Visually we are thrown into a barren, difficult wilderness – children poke dead birds and take an alarming amount of ritalin; teenagers bump and grind so seriously you feel like a third wheel; wizened and trailer-dwelling old people drop like flies in piles of counterfeit cigarettes.
With those images in mind, what Har’el has managed to do is pull out every single dream-droplet of happiness and love in this deserted place and display it in front of us like a picnic. By spending four trust-gaining months with these people, she has managed to show them to us through her eyes, revealing Benny’s loving family, Ceejay’s dreams of a future elsewhere, and Red’s utter happiness with a life that could be incredibly easy to complain about.
Even though we are wholly being presented with truth, it is clear to see that Alma was not afraid to step in and use artistic direction on scenes to emphasise something she felt was worth highlighting. Ultimately, this gave the film a reassuring feeling of control, and a warm, nostalgic style reminiscent of her previous and very well respected music videos.
It would be a shame not to mention the soundtrack to Bombay Beach, I am sure I was not the only person lassoed in by the promise of a film set to music by Bob Dylan and Beirut. While the wistful brass tones of Beirut still remind me more of Europe than southern California – Zach Condon’s voice cannot fail to crank up the level emotional content of any moving image – it is Bob Dylan’s Series of Dreams that is a perfect accompaniment to the typically American-dream images flashing before us.
A perfect combination of Alma’s true talent at film making and with Dylan’s lyrics doing the narrating: “Thinking of a series of dreams, Where the time and the tempo fly, And there’s no exit in any direction,’Cept the one that you can’t see with your eyes…”
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