At first glance, Bombay Beach’s documentary depiction of a remote and impoverished community in the desert of southern California seems to fit squarely into a tradition in American art that aestheticizes small-town poverty.
From the photography of Larry Clark and Diane Arbus to Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) or David Gordon Greene’s George Washington (2000), works in this tradition don’t deny the limits or difficulties that such communities face—but they do tend to emphasize the beauty and eccentricity of the behavior, gestures and environment much more than the underlying social and political issues framing them.
With its sensuous photography and visual preoccupations with rust, dereliction and sunsets, Bombay Beach seems to fit the bill; however, it also introduces some interesting complications to this aesthetic approach.
Crucially, director Alma Har’el grounds her visual fascination with Bombay Beach in sensitive character studies. The film has three principal figures—an aging cigarette bootlegger living in a trailer; a teenage exile from South Central L.A. with dreams of becoming a professional athlete; and most centrally, Benny Parrish, a young, over-medicated child with behavioral problems. Each is treated with an intimacy and insight that was clearly earned with great patience. (Har’el spent four months living and filming in the area.)
But perhaps most uniquely, Har’el, an experienced director of commercials and music videos, intersperses the narrative of Bombay Beach with full-blown musical sequences, choreographed to Bob Dylan songs and original pieces by Zach Condon (of the band Beirut), each of which emerges seamlessly from what, moments before, had appeared to be purely observational scenes of everyday life. Theatricality is also prominent in Bombay Beach’s precursors: Korine and Greene allow their characters to dress up and play-act too, suggesting the power of their subjects to reconstruct and re-imagine their environments, albeit on a small level. Har’el takes this a step further, directly linking this theatricality to the film musical tradition, with its practice of using song and dance to express intensities of feelings that cannot be expressed through conventional means. (In this regard, the miniature “dance” that the old man performs with one of his cigarettes is particularly touching in its power and simplicity.)
If there is a weakness to Bombay Beach, it lies in Har’el’s roots as a music video director. Shot on digital video in the extremely shallow-focus style that has become de rigueur for promos and low-budget films alike, and cutting at a pace that too often denies its characters room to breathe, the film would have benefited from a style more comfortable with holding a steady gaze. This also makes one wonder if the film’s musical component might not ultimately mask the more troubling aspects of the film’s world.
One final staged sequence set to music sees Benny dressed as a fireman apparently commandeering an actual fire truck and taking it to the scene of an absurdly small fire in the middle of the road. On a visual level, the scene is a charming enough image of dream Americana. As a set-up within a documentary, we can also recognize the significance this could have for Benny: it’s a role play of power and purpose for a boy at the mercy of a culture whose only response to his eccentric nature is to medicate him. Embracing the ability of film to intervene rather than simply record, Har’el gives her subjects a space of expression their social context doesn’t supply. Valuable and touching though this may be, it also risks downplaying the profound obstacles that Benny and his friends and family will continue to encounter after she leaves.
In the press for the film, Bombay Beach is described as questioning whether these people “are a product of their world or if their world is a construct of their imaginations.” In her departures from documentary form, Har’el seems to suggest at least the possibility of imaginative reconstruction—but it’s worth remembering that the problems faced by the people of Bombay Beach are going to require a lot more than song-and-dance numbers to solve.