thu 12/12/2019

Bonanza, Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton | reviews, news & interviews

Bonanza, Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton

Bonanza, Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton

Belgian multi-screen documentary about isolated Colorado community proves incisive

An inhabitant points out the angels descending on Bonanza

When absorbing any artistic experience we can be confounded by our own expectations. Such was the case for me with Bonanza. Rather confusingly, Berlin are a Belgian outfit majoring in cinematic, multimedia theatre so, perhaps, I was expecting an element of performance to the evening, of direct human delivery. This was not to be, although the presence of a shadowy figure stage-side, sitting at a laptop behind a rustic wooden sign saying “Bonanza Fire House”, kept me wondering if something of this nature was about to occur. It wasn’t, and once I’d settled to that fact, the evening was engaging and made a thought-provoking point.

Bonanza is a BBC Four-style documentary about a tiny community of that name in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Once a silver mining town of 40,000, it now has a population of 22, seven of whom are resident all year round. The caveat is that this 70-minute filmic event is presented on five screens, in a style redolent of LA artist Doug Aitken, or Mike Figgis’s more outré works, or even Warhol. The visuals perch under the umbrella of a miniature Bonanza townscape, such as an advanced model railway enthusiast might construct, replete with working lights in the houses.

We glimpse the mystic psychologies such isolation allows to flourish

We are introduced to the seven inhabitants via one screen while the others emphasise the ambience of the stark, snowy but beautiful environment. All but one are upwards of 50 years old. At first they seem to revel in their isolation - a priest who reads all day, a woman who enjoys the lack of timetable and mostly paints landscapes if the weather is fine, and a godly beefcake who seems to pass the endless hours chopping wood.

When we have a brief glimpse of the “summer people”, who come out from cities and towns on holidays and weekends, they seem crass by comparison, although all they’re doing is having fun riding quad bikes, children larking about, and so on. And then we glimpse the mystic psychologies such isolation allows to flourish, a woman talking deadly seriously, in a speech ripe for sampling, about visits from angels and negotiations with local elves, and another who “works on the astral plane”.

Berlin have made a series of films on other communities. Jerusalem portrays the tensions and societal clashes of a riven city. In Bonanza they slowly unearth comparable animosities among the residents, albeit on a microcosmic scale, mostly about mayoral procedure but also just petty sniping that contains a poisonous bitterness running counter to the backwoods idyll imagery. Not all of them are part of this – the godly beefcake offers a self-depreciating, phlegmatic outlook – but the ones who fuel such acrimony make you despair, if only a little, for humanity. This, of course, is Bonanza’s eventual point and it is well made.

Overleaf: Watch a trailer for Bonanza

The visuals perch under the umbrella of a miniature Bonanza townscape, such as an advanced model railway enthusiast might construct

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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