In my senior year of college, I felt wildly untethered by the ambiguous path ahead of my graduation. I knew this to be a common experience of most of my peers as well as plenty of students who graduated before me. I expected that, eventually, some things would fall into place. Although, at the time, nothing felt as certain as it had when I first began my studies four years ago. I wanted to feel like the opposite I felt at that moment; I wanted to feel useful and purposeful. So, I threw myself into the research for my undergraduate capstone project exploring the genre of magical realism in comparison to documentary film. 

I descended into an intimately personal hall of mirrors. Here, voices of the past cried out from the thumbed pages of beguiling novels only to strike upon the lucid mirages of history evoked as a window into the present. I devoured the ever-crumbling murmurs of Comala, the dulcet cackling of Dewi Ayu’s many daughters, and the incandescent roses strewn through Tita’s kitchen. I also watched and rewatched documentary films where murderers dressed up in elaborate costumes and wigs to kill again, soldiers described photographs of themselves as strangers, and in particular, a boy reimaginined himself and his small town again and again and again. This last documentary film, Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach, wrested my concentration from its perch and led me to a growing flame of wonder, anticipation, and desire.

After I first watched Bombay Beach, a restlessness came over me. The film takes place in the tiny settlement of the same name located on the shore of the Salton Sea in the deserts of southern California. The Salton Sea is a manmade accident of colossal proportions; an enormous salt water lake sprung from cuts in the construction of an irrigation canal fed from the Colorado River. In the 1950s, the Salton Sea welcomed thousands of tourists to its beachside resorts. But, as the salinity devoured everything in its reach, the revelers left the sea behind. Once, Bombay Beach competed with desert resort towns like Palm Springs, but now, occupying the lowest position in the United States at less than one square mile across, the town remains as a relic of the American Dream. Bombay Beach is a tryptic documentary film following the lives of three residents of Bombay Beach, California: Red, an old man who resells cigarettes for a living and aims to live an easy, happy life; Ceejay, a high school student determined to become an N.F.L. player and escape the dead ends of the town; and Benny, a boy negotiating his bipolar disorder and hyperactivity while trying to fit in with his family and friends. Each of the film’s subjects reflect on their community, their own hopes and dreams, and what love means to them in their own way. The documentary also interweaves poetic dramatizations imaginatively conjured by its subjects to emphasize and build upon their words and experiences. As opposed to the sea it borders, this community and the film that represents it is full of radiant, vivid life.

Benny and his mother walk hand-in-hand through the town of Bombay Beach.

As I read more about the town, I realized that the Salton Sea was just a few hours drive from my university. I thought, if I don’t go to Bombay Beach—if I don’t feel the heat of the desert on my skin, if I don’t smell the salt and walk the dusty roads of the town—then I won’t know what to do with this faint buzzing that hovers just on the inside of my palms. This vibrating feeling that tells me that if I can touch this ephemeral substance, then I will be able to name every other desire I’ve ever had and every single desire that appears from that point onward. I texted a friend who I knew would take me up on this spontaneous adventure and who would most clearly understand the rise of this need within me. The following Saturday morning we set off in her car towards the shimmering wasteland of the Salton Sea.

We listened to Moses Sumney croon about love and loneliness as we glided along the highway. Eventually, I saw iridescent blues peek through the fronds of the date trees. But before driving the rest of the way to the town, we turned into the first Salton Sea recreational entrance point. As soon as I opened the passenger side door of the car, the smell of rotting fish encrusted in salt slammed into me face first. We slowly walked toward the shore, crunching remnants of tiny skeletons under our sneakers. Across the enormous lake, mountains spread over the horizon like they were made of shadowy ink used in a Japanese woodblock print. The water slightly rippled from the breeze, illuminated in a hue of the clearest blue. This crystalline oasis instantly transformed into a calcified wasteland upon meeting its shore. Mounds seemingly consisting of salt more than sand barred us from getting near the water, although we didn’t really wish to approach much closer. Shallow puddles surrounding the white mounds gurgled strangely familiar shapes as if sifting debris from underneath wide tongues. It struck me that this was my first sighting of the Salton Sea. I remembered that near the beginning of the film, Benny and his mother walk to the beach so that Benny can frolic amongst the waves. Dead fish littered over the sand peer at them with bulging eyes. Later, his mother asked him, “What kind of fish would you be if you could be a fish?” Benny replies, “A happy fish.” The Salton Sea that I expected to see was the film’s expression of life in ebbing, colorfully saturated movement, not this view of still water from an unfamiliar past. I thought to myself, the beauty that I expected to witness in this impenetrable sea has now shown me a differently grotesque place, yet somehow still a place exquisite in its transformed design. Could it be that I simply didn’t know a name for the estranging allure of this setting? 

My first impression of the Salton Sea.

I considered how similarly this question appeared in my capstone project’s research on the genre of magical realism. I found that many literary scholars face issues in attempting to analyze the literature of magical realism because of a lack of a singular definition of the genre. These scholars argue amongst themselves: is magical realism a depiction of a world otherwise identical to our reality in which the characters accept magical occurrences as a part of this same reality? Or, is magical realism a kind of literature in which magic continues to undermine the real world? Throughout these debates, a particular tenet of magical realism stood out to me from the rest, drawn from the style’s pictorial roots in the New Objectivity movement that arose in 1920s Germany. These paintings strived to represent the most detailed depiction of a person, event, or narrative so much so that they might reveal an underlying knowledge otherwise unseen by realistic illustrations. In this sense, a sort of ‘magic’ would unveil itself when the painting showed all the parts which mundane reality usually obscured from the common eye. As my gaze followed the mottled edge of the sea toward its twin reflection in the sky above, there seemed to be no proper words to describe how I felt, or what I was looking at, but only that it had shown itself to me in a way that I could have never anticipated. Har’el’s film, too, seemed to embark upon a project of uncovering the details that make a place seem like more than its initial experience. I did not understand how these details appeared to me when I first arrived in Bombay Beach, and it wasn’t until I had spent most of the day walking through the handful of streets that made up the town that I realized where these details rested.

Ceejay and his family go fishing at the Salton Sea.

Before the trip, I had read online about the small size of Bombay Beach, but it seemed even smaller when I saw it in person. Although a forceful gale whipped my hair around my face, the unpaved streets were languidly quiet. We climbed into the concrete ribcages of abandoned homes elaborately inscribed with graffiti and pop art paste-ups. Inside those buildings, all I could think about was a vignette from Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles where kids break into martian homes to kick around the decayed skeletons of their perished residents. I kept looking for something familiar, something I could recognize directly from the documentary. Soon enough, I spotted the gazebo in which Ceejay and Jessie, his girlfriend, perform a dance near the end of the film. Ceejay begins by explaining that Jessie’s ex-boyfriend had been stalking the couple and texting Ceejay a slew of racial slurs. He shrugs off the ex’s words and meets Jessie at a gazebo adorned with twinkling lights. He shows her white masks that he wants to wear with his friends while dancing and says that they seem “exotic” to him—that by wearing them, “everybody’s face is the same.” She tells him she understands the effect, but that she likes seeing his face in all of its expressions. Together, they put the masks on and begin to dance. They drift their hands tenderly over each other’s masks, then throw them off entirely and breaking out into a leaping, sentimental courtship. In the end, they lay down on the ground and pull each other close, surrounded by an encroaching line of identical, white masks. Although this image glows with a faint uncertainty of the future, it also emphasizes the naively tender bond the couple shares against the people and circumstances that aim to break them apart. I was burning inside when I saw that gazebo in person; it was as if seeing it brought a part of myself with the space of the documentary. There it is, I thought. There it happened. Now I am here; now I have happened here, too. But, it never was and never would be that simple. 

I tore the images from that documentary and fit them into my own world: I imagined them saturated with an unreal truth to my existence. It’s like how documentary filmmaker Errol Morris wrote in Believing Is Seeing: “We imagine that photographs provide a magic path to the truth…images [are] torn free from the world, snatched from the fabric of reality, and enshrined as separate entities. They became more like dreams.” I wanted so badly to reach out to Bombay Beach and grasp it in my palms, but the Bombay Beach that exists on the edge of the Salton Sea is not the Bombay Beach that exists in Har’el’s documentary. What I really wanted was to touch the Bombay Beach of her film, but it will always remain locked within those images. The part of me that ached to hold on to those images in any real sense is the part of me that sought out another world to lay my fears about my boundless, uncertain future to rest.

Bombay Beach’s Ski Inn, which Ceejay and one of his friends also visit in Har’el’s film.
Inside the Ski Inn.

Once the sun felt unbearably close to the nape of our necks, my friend and I stepped inside Bombay Beach’s only restaurant and bar, the Ski Inn. Dollar bills plastered every inch of walls, ceiling, and even the counter. On the left side of the space, there was a long table and a bar counter that a thin, older man mopped with a dish towel. On the right side of the room, a couple of white, plastic tables still remained set up even after a party from the day before had long dissipated into the next day. A sign hung over the tables that read: “Happy 90th Birthday, Wendel!” My friend and I sat at the main table alongside a smattering of local residents; a group of women who spoke in an ambiguously Western European language and produced their change from fanny packs fastened to their hips; and a trio of older men who later told us that they always stopped at the Ski Inn on their annual bike trips across the desert. We ordered a couple of beers and the bikers told us that they used to water ski on the Salton Sea back in its heyday. In those days, they said, the beaches were packed with twenty-somethings looking for a good time. Back then, Bombay Beach was an unmissable spot for every traveler. After my friend and I finished our beers and walked up to the bar to pay, the bartender looked us squarely in the eyes and with the utmost conviction said, “But that would mean you’d have to leave us.” Before we even had the chance to check the corner of our eyes to see if the bikers had already donned masks and pulled out chainsaws, the bartender burst out in a ringing guffaw and rung the bell of the cash register. We were still giggling nervously as we ambled out the door of the Ski Inn and up to the seashore. Here, although not far from the recreational area we had stopped at earlier, the breeze wafted a much milder scent like the memory of an ocean. I looked out at the glittering water and realized that I wasn’t able to find answers about my fraught future or change the nature of my restlessness because the story of this town would never be my own. But, visiting Bombay Beach allowed me to confront the gratifications I was seeking as ways to transfigure the ether of my own day-to-day experience into something more tangible. It’s just as Alma Har’el says about her documentary in an interview with film critic Anya Jaremko-Greenwold:

“When you visit a place, you don’t have a narrator standing next to you and explaining every second of everything, telling you how it all started. You just experience things. And that’s what I wanted to do, just experience Bombay Beach through a camera.”

A billboard alongside the first road entering Bombay Beach.

Inherently, the experience of watching Bombay Beach is about seeing specific personal histories come to life on film, but also about recognizing a sense of yourself in them. Although I left Bombay Beach the same way I had arrived, I nevertheless gained a chance to confront myself outside of my own circumstances. Another magic revealed itself to me, a personal poetry that is mine to hold and nurture. I watched the sea gently lap against the sand and thought of the end of Bombay Beach, when Red says, “I never say ‘good-bye’…Good-bye is very definite. I don’t believe in things that definite, about something you don’t know.”

Looking back at the town of Bombay Beach from the shore of the Salton Sea.

Nowadays, Har’el has journeyed away from documentary film and into her narrative feature directorial debut with the new film, Honey Boy. I’m excited to watch her venture towards fictional storytelling and the lyricism she will surely bring to Shia LeBeouf’s semi-autobiographical script. In its own ways, fiction, like documentary, also provides an expansive backdrop for imagining different kinds of realities and methods for coming to terms with personal narratives. In particular, I’m curious if Honey Boy, although not a documentary, will bring up the same questions for me about how I access my own truths, communal memories, and the magic of images to grant me access to some kind of otherworldly, fully-saturated reality. I don’t know what to expect from the future, but I hope it involves creating something altogether unique from the sieved and exposed details of my lived experiences.

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