Bonanza—A Documentary for Five Screens by Berlin is five films side by side underneath a miniature replica of the town Bonanza. The model includes the five houses of the seven permanent inhabitants, the line of mailboxes in the center of the town and the old fire house now used for monthly town meetings. The topographical ground is metal, reflecting the stage lights that shift with the seasons. It’s metallic nature is not merely a lovely reflective, changing surface, it is also metaphor: Bonanza was once a silver mining town.
The citizens of Bonanza keep to themselves. They all seem to be there to be alone and despite being able to see each other’s houses from their own windows, rarely interact face to face. Indeed, this is an oft tossed about complaint – the new neighbors on the hill (the snobs on the knob) never tried to get to know us, the doesn’t-live-here town mayor never stopped by to introduce herself. It is a tiny town and everyone collects their mail in the same place but they do not cross paths. Indeed, in a rather amazing moment the recently widowed Mary asks the unseen filmmaker to thank her next door neighbor for his note of condolence upon the death of her Roger. She wants him to know that it really meant a great deal to her.
With moments like this, I wonder if Berlin got to know the residents better than they do themselves. And I wonder how much things changed because the filmmakers were there. And I wonder more about the subjects; it’s interesting that on the whole these self-made hermits seem uncommonly open and forthright, willing to talk and comfortable being filmed, but so unwilling to talk to each other.
They have quirks, quirks that are cultivated into something larger and more defining by isolation and time. They are disproportionately religious, artistic, and engaged with energy work. But these shared affiliations do not bind them. Indeed, as one resident suggests, they apparently function on different energetic frequencies.
I want to go back to the metallic topography used in the recreation of Bonanza. The film gives the feeling that nobody is really able to sink their roots down in the land there. All but one of the seven residents settled in Bonanza at some later point in life. There are no children and there will be no homegrown future. The mayor of the town who is, controversially, not from town, might have a longer history to that land and area than any of the inhabitants. And the inhabitants, they’re there, but not always willingly; Mary claims she wouldn’t live there if she had known what it would be. And they’re there, but not necessarily permanently. Mark is shown as most integrated with the land, we see him outside chopping wood, walking through the forest, sifting through abandoned junk, sitting on the top of mountain surrounded by shale and memory, but he will only stay as long as god wants him to be, and might leave as soon as tomorrow.
Berlin asks and tries to answer the question “why would you live here?” It’s a question creates a uncomfortable otherizing that continues over the course of this work. Their answer seems to be “you gotta be crazy” and they slowly destablize our view of the inhabitants, showing them to be progressively dysfunctional, extreme and self-righteous.
The piece is a story of failed community in some ways. But maybe not appropriately. The residents of Bonanza don’t drink the water, the land is so poisoned it can’t be. They don’t dig in deep, but there is nothing down there anyway. So maybe they aren’t there to share in the bounty of the land – a bounty that if it existed was exhausted long ago. Maybe they aren’t looking for paradise or even community. Maybe they are really there to be alone, to get by, to pass the days the ways they choose. Perhaps it is not so different from living in a city and the anonymity of urban life. Why wouldn’t having the social space to be yourself and to isolate yourself be as appealing in the Rockies as it is in New York?
(From Monica, of Mad King Thomas)
This past October, Antonya Nelson wrote the essay Living in a Ghost Town for the New York Times. Wikipedia purports the unnamed town in it is actually Bonanza.