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Barstow, California

A desert-dry meditation on freedom, captivity, and memory.

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BARSTOW, CALIFORNIA is the third film in Rainer Komers’ eponymous series of documentaries on the American West, after NOME ROAD SYSTEM and MILLTOWN, MONTANA. It’s also the first of the three to include any spoken words whatsoever, though it frequently defaults to long, still shots of train yards and desert landscapes between interviews and narration.

The film’s de facto narrator is Stanley “Spoon” Jackson, whose disembodied voice reads from his memoir about growing up in Barstow. Jackson serves as the film’s narrator and chorus, tying together the disparate stories told by various interviewees. His presence in the film is a voiceover by necessity: since 1977, Jackson has been serving a life sentence in various California prisons, currently at New Folsom. Jackson’s meditative text plays off Komers’ static shots of the city, and his physical absence is offset by the detail of his child’s-eye memories of growing up in the desert with his parents and 14 (yes, 14) brothers. The passages describing his childhood are idyllic but grounded, and even the more harrowing sections about his early experiences with violence maintain a sense of tranquility, or at least detachment:

When I stepped out of our house on Crook Street, the purple-and-red-clay mountains that surrounded me seemed to hold the whole world. I thought up must be the only way out, so I had a habit of walking with my head held back, my eyes looking upward.

Between these meditations, Komers interviews various townspeople – the owner of a motel on the old Route 66, a geologist leading a student field trip through the hills, a group of aging bar patrons, soldiers stationed at the nearby base – including, in several longer scenes, two of Spoon Jackson’s brothers. These vignettes help create a clearer picture of the region, and, particularly in the case of the Jackson brothers, give a sense of what it is like to live one’s whole life in a small desert city, years passing by in an empty patch of the most populous state. Behind many of the stories is a sense of loss, of time overtaking the older world like sand dunes advancing across roads and structures.

The film’s sound design is one of the film’s greatest strengths: with no music to speak of, it instead makes use of ambient sounds from its own shots, highlighting the clacky roar of a freight train or the hiss of desert sand in a windstorm. This organic soundtrack gives a vast, expansive counterpoint to the film’s many quiet stretches, and brings an extra dimension of emotion and depth to the story. With a photographer’s eye for landscapes, and a seeming knack for putting people at ease and letting them tell their own stories, Komers is the perfect filmmaker to tell the story of an unexotic desert city. BARSTOW, CALIFORNIA is a beautiful desert tone poem, both minimal and expansive.

John Peck (Cinematic Berlin)

Credits

Deutschland 2018, 76 min
Language: German
Genre: Documentary
Director: Rainer Komers
Author: Rainer Komers
Distributor: JIP
Release: 03.10.2019

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