PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

'Darwin': We All Have Our Past

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


Darwin

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)
Website
Trailer
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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.