11 February 2012

BOMBAY BEACH (Dir. Alma Har'el, 2011, US)


The poetic mode seems to have the edge at the moment. Documentaries such as Pina, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Senna and now Bombay Beach, reject the overly politicised approach. Instead they substitute the participatory, reflexive and interactive styles for a poetic approach, which was first popularised in the 1930s by the British documentary movement with filmmakers including Jennings. Riefenstahl is another pioneer, developing the poetic mode with both Triumph of the Will and more strikingly with Olympia. One of the major differences with documentaries today is that the language in which they speak to us can be imitative of Hollywood fictional cinema. A case in point is Man on Wire, which uses dramatic reconstruction's, genre conventions, a charismatic central character and satisfying narrative development. What makes Man on Wire poetic is the use of montage. Much of the drama in Man on Wire comes from the careful juxtaposition of archive footage to the emotive soundtrack made up of music from Michael Nyman’s back catalogue, creating a delicate rhythm and above all a tone of transcendence. If the poetic mode creates mood, tone and rhythm through the editing of material then it usually means a voice over or interviews will be used to anchor and reinforce a certain ideological point of view. Bombay Beach is a documentary that captures a community of haphazard residents who live on the California coast line. Bombay beach is a tiny community made up of around 300 people, many of whom are living in poverty. The triptych narrative involves three stories; Benny Parrish (a young boy suffering from bipolar disorder and alienated from mainstream school life), CeeJay Thompson (a black teenager who has escaped the violence of the ghetto so he can concentrate on his potential life as a American football player) and Red (a lonely old man with outdated values). Newcomer Alma Har’el filters her observations and interests with the community of Bombay Beach through performance especially dance, which strangely enough unites all three stories. It is with dance, and moments of staged performance for the camera, juxtaposed to a folksy soundtrack by Beirut and Bob Dylan that Har’el creates a melancholic rhythm. Thematically, the melancholic rhythm works to underline the way in which dreams of the past and of the future are a social necessity but attainment of such hopes is fundamentally flawed by both wider and more personal equivocations. By avoiding the trap of historical ruminations, this is a documentary that captures the spirit of a time and place in the world which appears out of synch with the accelerated and instantaneous narratives of contemporary society. The poetic style is no bettered illustrated than in the final montage as little Benny is seen riding through the town on a fire engine dressed as a fireman - it is a dream which Benny will he probably never achieve but by giving him the cinematic opportunity to act out such a wish, the documentary edges closer in its explorations of the inherently escapist nature of mainstream cinema. Har’el lets her three protagonists use the documentary form as a space for realising such dreams, and as false as they are, the space is rendered poetic by the scale of tones. Har’el resorts to staging her action on many occasions and although some would argue such intervention of reality is in essence a violation of the rules of observational filmmaking, like the work of Nick Broomfield in which truth is such a trickery concept, it is only by interacting with the subject on a personal level can any notion of the truth be uncovered, explored and questioned.  

1 comment:

  1. At first I thought this was about the beach of Mumbai... it sounds very interesting. Poetic films are often my favorite ones, because I think that poetry is the finest art of all. Jean Cocteau made some very poetic films, too.

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