The Great Basin Movie Review: A documentary filmmaker’s intimate portrait of rural Nevada
Chivas DeVinck’s second documentary lands on high ground to spend time with the locals, some of whom are struggling to preserve their way of life.
Las Vegas and Reno and the midterm election suspense headlines — that’s pretty much the sum of what most Americans know about Nevada. In The Great Basin, New York-based director Chivas DeVinck (The Poets) focuses on a section of the state’s vast rural expanses and some of the hardy locals. With their connection to the earth and their never-ending struggle with the elements, these are people who are often idealized as emblems of the salt of the earth and, at least as often, excluded from the larger social conversation.
Anyone who has driven the so-called Loneliest Road in America from Nevada or some other soul-crushing stretch of asphalt through the unincorporated West has probably seen an isolated house or two in the broad, vast landscape and wondered who lives there. The Great Basin offers intimate glimpses into those lives: more than an overarching plot, DeVinck’s film is a collection of vivid postcards.
Working with cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa, the director captures the setting with heartwarming simplicity: graceful yet unadorned panoramas of the mountainous terrain and grasslands of White Pine County, the film’s first evocative vision of this world from a commuter train. The on-screen events unfold in early 2020.
People start talking about COVID, there’s a hint or two about the upcoming Presidential ticket, and Little Women performs at Central in Ely, a single-screen theater with a projector. whose revenue likely counts for little in box office forecasts. (As I write this, the theater is showing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.)
The area’s ghost towns, of which there are many, are not part of DeVinck’s patchwork; though he touches the historical record, he cares about the people who bring him to the here and now. They include a farmer and his Peruvian Shepherds, barflis at the McGill Club, veterans pulling a breeze outside the Post Office, clerks and one of the customers at Stardust Ranch Saloon & Burthel, hospital workers, a supermarket butcher chopping and packing his wares, and a pair of practitioners of a New Age philosophy called the Natural Order School.
It opens with a citywide version of Wiseman-style municipal procedure, as the five county commissioners, holding their regular public meeting at the library, hear a resident’s tearful testimony about dying elms and debate whether to enforce a requirement for a state’s license. dog. Questioning the need for such a dog search, one commissioner cites “a freedom/freedom perspective” and his one-time colleague Bristle.
But most of the politics that emerge in The Great Basin transcend the orthodoxies and animosities of party lines. Hank Vogler, the low-key sheep rancher who is one of the document’s central figures, quietly explaining why he cares about the Second Amendment, is a vocal member of a coalition that includes other farmers, Indians, and environmentalists.
Together they fought the plans of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the developers who covet the region’s resources. A proposed pipeline from their region to Las Vegas would secure water supplies for populous Clark County and, protesters warn, ultimately leave the rest of the state dry.
Tracing the history of the region by looking at a map, Delaine Spilsbury, a Western Shoshone tribal elder who is another key member of that anti-pipeline coalition, shares the family story of how her grandmother was orphaned as a child when all the elders of their village were massacred by white settlers. Mormons who adopted orphaned children housed them before sending them to so-called Indian schools that aimed to strip them of their language and culture.
It’s a rich and varied rural portrait that the film paints, even if some bits, particularly towards the end, could have needed more time and attention. Shifting from jazz-influenced riffs to ethereal strokes, Félicia Atkinson’s score is an essential component that helps tie together seemingly disparate fragments with an eerie sensibility.
The documentary’s most telling motif consists of several sequences looking through the windshield of a car that moves seamlessly along traffic-free commercial streets and mountain roads as local radio hosts go about their business.
DeVinck begins The Great Basin in the darkness of a cave and ends with a view of the starry night sky—poetic leaps that may not be exciting at the moment, but raise thoughtful questions about how we see the world. Like the story of the shaggy dog that includes, told by a McGill Club patron and unanswered by his friends, not all in the lands of the record, at least not instantly. But by paying attention and not rushing things, the director and his editors, Matthieu Laclau and Yann-Shan Tsai, honor the place they represent, a place where the seasons are long and can be unforgiving. They invite us astray and ask us to listen.
The Great Basin
THE BOTTOM LINE
Thoughtful and never preachy.
Release date: Monday, Nov. 14
Director: Chivas DeVinck
1 hour 32 minutes