Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s 2004 documentary Plagues & Pleasures On The Salton Sea covers the strange history of the manmade body of water in southern California, and how it sustained a vibrant tourist industry in the 1950s until excessive salinity made the region hostile to wildlife. Alma Har’el’s documentary Bombay Beach doesn’t bother establishing much context for its study of one run-down town on the shores of the Salton Sea; it’s more impressionistic, splicing together images of extreme poverty and decay while peeking in at the lives of three Bombay Beach residents. Har’el spent a year, off and on, following Red, an elderly drifter who sells bootleg cigarettes to a community of wayfarers and drug addicts; CeeJay, a high-school football star who moved to Bombay Beach from Los Angeles because he knew he’d get more attention there; and Benny, a high-strung elementary-schooler whose complicated mix of neurological and mental disorders are putting stress on the marriage of his survivalist parents. Har’el shoots vérité scenes of Bombay Beachers imbibing intoxicants and roaming through landscapes littered with dead fish and spent bullets, then intercuts them with staged sequences of ordinary people dancing, while the music of Beirut and Bob Dylan plays.
Har’el is best known as a music-video director, and Bombay Beach has a music-video look at times, using forced perspectives and unusual light-sources to find the beauty in a wasteland. But this aestheticizing of troubled lives proves problematic over the long haul. Bombay Beach is full of memorable scenes and images: Benny’s parents staying up late doing shots with their temperamental friends, Benny slugging through the first day of school while on a fog of medications, Red saying he’s opposed to race-mixing because the children don’t know what they’re “supposed” to be, CeeJay and his buddies playing with fireworks and condoms, CeeJay’s girlfriend being threatened by her ex, who says he’ll release pictures of them having sex if she doesn’t get back together with him, and so on. But because Har’el avoids fitting her striking shots and emotional moments into a larger story, Bombay Beach has voyeuristic overtones that undercut any attempts at pathos. Har’el clearly got to know and love her subjects, but the movie she made about their lives still feels exploitative, as though she chose to film them solely because of their oddity.