Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Darwin or Bust

While most of us long to live in a place that truly accepts us just as we are with no questions asked, few of us would like that place to be anywhere in the vicinity of Death Valley. Long considered one of the most inhospitable places on earth, Death Valley has nonetheless been called "home" for 150 years by the varied residents of tiny Darwin, California.

Nick Brandestini's illuminating new expose of the locale — appropriately titled Darwin — is now playing as part of the 15th annual DocuWeeks in New York and Los Angeles (showtimes and more information may be found at the film's official website). The town is currently inhabited by 35 generally eccentric men and women, a mere 1% of Darwin's population of 3,500 at its peak in 1877. They proudly boast in the film of having no government, no church, no children and no jobs, save one. "I got the best job," says local postmaster Susan, "because it's the only job." Virtually everyone else lives on Social Security or disability benefits alone, and everyone has a past.

Darwin's other residents include Monty, an originally very handsome man with artistic longings who moved there in the 1950's to work as a lead miner, and his wife; Hank and Connie, who have embraced paganism after abandoning their formerly conservative Christian lives; and Hank and Connie's transgender son Ryal, who was born a girl but found in Darwin a tolerant community that supported his transition to male. Ryal and his partner, Penny, have since moved away from Darwin, hoping to find similar acceptance in the world beyond Death Valley.


As if Darwin's position on the map wasn't enough to discourage habitation, it is also located near a Naval Weapons Station established in 1943. The residents' only apparent, enduring fear aside from their water supply potentially being cut off is of one day having a nuclear bomb "accidentally" dropped on their community. Interestingly, the town's most prominent, longtime inhabitant is Michael Laemmle, grandson of the great Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Pictures and supervised many westerns and other movies shot in the vicinity of Darwin during the 1930's-50's.

As someone is quoted during the film, "There sure is a lot of wasted talent in Darwin." The real-life characters depicted, though, more often than not credit their isolated home with bringing true peace and fulfillment to their previously troubled lives. They clearly have no regrets. Darwin is not only revealing but also quite funny due to things the residents say. To its credit, the documentary never leads viewers to laugh at the subjects' expense.

The Swiss-born Brandestini (who last made an acclaimed film about artist H.R. Giger) writes in the film's press notes of how he became fascinated with America's "living ghost towns" such as Darwin. He not only directed and produced the result of his interest, but personally shot the doc in vivid, hi-def style that captures the landscape's natural drama and edited it as well. While I haven't personally visited Darwin, I won't soon forget it thanks to Brandestini's haunting travelogue.

Reverend's Rating: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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