'Darwin': We All Have Our Past

As Darwin shows again and again, not talking can be its own form of storytelling.


Director: Nick Brandestini
Cast: Monty Brannigan, Nancy Brannigan, Ryal Steele, Hank Jones, Connie Jones, Penny Hagan, Susan Pimentel
Rated: NR
Studio: Independent
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-08-12 (Limited release)
It seemed to be the perfect place for a documentary because it offered a wide range of interesting elements, such as a wild history, a shady reputation, a critical water situation and a close proximity to one of the most secret military bases in the country.

-- Nick Brandestini

"As the postmaster, I know many things about…" Susan Pimentel begins, then pauses. "I know more about people than I want to know," she says. She arrived in Darwin, California, in 1998, so she and her husband could take care of his mother. Now, she says, "Wild horses couldn’t drag me out of Darwin."

Pimentel's affection for the place isn't unusual. Or rather, it's shared by her fellow Darwinians, who number 34. Their reasons are as various as their experiences, and as you come to see in Nick Brandestini's wonderful documentary, Darwin, the town isn't quite what it looks like. Screening for DocuWeeks -- 12 August through 18 at the IFC Center in New York City and 19 August through 25 in Los Angeles -- the film attends to surfaces that reveal depths. Long shots of dry plains, dilapidated house trailers, and rusting pickup trucks, indicate that the town is impoverished. But, as Pimentel suggests, life in Darwin is dynamic and complex too. And she means to keep on. On her second week of not smoking when the film was shot, she smiles: "In the meantime, I'm a postal worker and I haven’t killed anyone."

Pimentel's sense of humor is of a piece with her sense of perspective. You guess that she's had a difficult life, if only gauging by her weathered face and the fact that she's here, in this rough town. As the film notes, the history of Darwin is a lot like that of other western desert towns. Named for the physician, poet, and prospector, Dr. Erasmus Darwin French, it was more or less thriving during the California Gold Rush. The population peaked in 1877, at 3,500: old photos show rudimentary wooden buildings, men in bowler hats, grim women, and wiry miners.

Now, the town's "only neighbor" is the China Lake Naval Weapons Station, but mostly it seems isolated, without traffic or industry. Abandoned and revived more than once during the 20th century, Darwin developed a bad reputation, as former mechanic Hank Jones puts it, "of hookers and booze and gunfights and miners going berserk and problems with law enforcement."

With an eye to changing that, Hank and his wife Connie offer bus tours. As he explains that Darwin "has settled down to a normal everyday town now," the camera shows another broken-down truck. Monty Brannigan remembers what it was like to be a miner, and a hard drinker. His first wife Lucky once shot off the end of her finger. The bullet's still lodged in the ceiling of their old house, as noted by Myriam LeMarchand (described in a caption as a "bon vivant"), who lives there now. Monty misses the old days. "The miners are completely different people," he says. "Everybody lives their own life and I thought it was pretty damn good myself." In 1977, the mine shut down for good, he remembers: "We all lost our jobs and I had to retire. And when I retired, I didn’t really like it. I didn’t know what to do with myself."

Now, he and his second wife Nancy live in a trailer with a set of Buddhas outside ("Why do I like Buddha?" he asks, "Because he was a philosopher, he was not a religious man"). When he's not leading the film crew through town -- essentially, the post office and store -- Monty sits back in a wide armchair, the sleeves cut off of his yellow t-shirt, which commemorates a "Wild Wild West Marathon." His face framed by glasses and a large white mustache, he doesn’t quite explain how or what he's survived, but does note that Darwin was a rough place to raise children. "It's one thing we don't talk about much," he says. He hasn't seen his son in 18 years: "He became a dope-head and I couldn’t stand still for it. My daughter, she's got her own ways of life and I don’t like 'em."

For Hank and Connie Jones, tolerance for different ways of life is what drew them to Darwin. "What I like about the people in Darwin is they accept you for who you are today, not what you used to be, not what you might be, but they accept you for what you are today." As Hank speaks, Connie nods and sometimes completes his thought. Hank has found a respite from his past ("I had what you'd call a pretty shady past, I used to be a very violent person") and Connie a new commitment.

Her son Ryal lives nearby with his girlfriend Penny, for now ("There's nothing out here for us," he notes, as the camera shows a literally empty expanse). But the stay in Darwin has helped him transition: Ryal is a transgendered female to male who came from San Francisco (where, he says, "I was fired because of who I am"). "Ryal is my stepson, quote 'daughter,'" says Hank. "He prefers to be called 'him.' He gets very upset if you say 'she.'"

At the same time, Hank -- who, with Connie, happens "to believe that Odin is our universal god" -- doesn’t hide his own confusion regarding Ryal's new identification. "With me," he offers, "A man's work is, you get outside, you work on the cars, you work on the house, you do most of the heavy lifting and the heavy toting. Ryal's not into that." By the same token, Ryal observes changes in himself since he's been on hormone therapy: "Emotionally, I'm far more impatient than I used to be." But now that he's spent time in Darwin. "I'm happier than I've ever been."

Indeed, most of the interviewees in Darwin talk about feeling accepted here, as well as safe. Kathy Goss is a writer who moved from San Francisco after a roommate was murdered (while Goss was away). Horrified that her downstairs neighbors "had hear it happen and had never called the police," she now conducts a summer music camp for adults in Darwin. "My neighbors here would notice if somebody was getting murdered in my house, I would hope," she says.

Stories of violence, loss, and disappointment come up more than once in Darwin. And so do silences. "Most people have a dark side," says Hank. "I did prison time. I'm not proud of it, don’t like to talk about it." As the film shows again and again, not talking can be its own form of storytelling.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.