Las Vegas and Reno and headlines with cliffhangers during the midterm elections – that’s more or less the sum of what many Americans know about Nevada. In The Great BasinNew York-based filmmaker Chivas DeVinck (the poets) targets some of the state’s vast rural areas and a few of the hardy locals. With their connection to the land and their never-ending battle with the elements, these are people who are often romanticized as emblems of the salt of the earth and, at least as often, excluded from the larger social conversation.
Anyone who’s driven Nevada’s so-called Loneliest Road in America or any other tried-and-true stretch of tarmac through the unincorporated West has probably seen an isolated house or two in the wide, sweeping landscape and wondered who lives there. The Great Basin offers an intimate glimpse of those lives — more than an overarching argument, DeVinck’s film is a collection of vivid postcards. In collaboration with cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa, the director captures the setting with penetrating simplicity: elegant yet unvarnished vistas of the mountain landscape and grasslands of White Pine County, the film’s first evocative image of this world from a slow-moving freight train.
The Great Basin
It comes down to
Thoughtful and never preaching.
Publication date: Monday 14 November
Director: Chivas DeVinck
1 hour 32 minutes
The events on the screen take place in early 2020. People are starting to talk about COVID, there are one or two passing references to the upcoming presidential election and petite women plays at the Central in Ely, a single-screen theater with a vintage Motigraph projector whose receipts probably matter little to box office forecasters. (As I write this, the theater is on view Black Panther: Wakanda Forever).
The area’s ghost towns, of which there are many, are not part of DeVinck’s mosaic; though he touches the historical record, he is concerned about the people who carry it in the here and now. They include a farmer and his Peruvian shepherds, barflies at the McGill Club, vintage cars blasting at the wind outside the post office, workers and one of the customers at the Stardust Ranch Saloon & Brothel, hospital workers, a grocery butcher who sells his wares, and a few practitioners of a New Age philosophy called the School of the Natural Order.
He begins with a small-town version of the Wiseman-esque municipal procedure, as the five county commissioners, who hold their regular public meeting at the library, hear a resident’s tearful testimony about dying elm trees and discuss whether a dog license requirement should be raised. enforced. A commissioner questions the need for such a dog register and calls it ‘a freedom/freedom perspective’, and his only female colleague is snorting.
But most of the politics that The Great Basin transcend party-line orthodoxies and hostilities. Hank Vogler, the low-key sheep farmer who is one of the doc’s central figures and who quietly explains why he cherishes the Second Amendment, is a vocal member of a coalition that includes fellow farmers, indigenous people and environmentalists. Together they have fought the Southern Nevada Water Authority designs and developers coveting the region’s resources. A proposed pipeline from their region to Las Vegas would provide a water supply for densely populated Clark County and, protesters warn, ultimately leave the rest of the state high and dry.
As she traces the history of the region while looking at a map, Delaine Spilsbury, an elder of the Western Shoshone tribe and another key member of that anti-pipeline coalition, shares the family story of how her grandmother was orphaned as a child when all elders in her village were massacred by white settlers. The Mormons who adopted the orphaned children made them housekeepers before sending them to the so-called Indian schools that aimed to strip them of their language and culture.
It is a varied and rich rural portrait that the film paints, although a few pieces, especially towards the end, could have used more time and attention. Moving from jazz-inflected riffs to ethereal pieces, Félicia Atkinson’s score is an essential part, helping to tie together seemingly disparate fragments with a haunting sensibility. The documentary’s most eloquent motif consists of several sequences looking through the windshield of a car as it drives uninterruptedly through traffic-free corporate streets and mountain roads while local radio announcers do their thing.
DeVinck starts The Great Basin in the darkness of a cave and ending with a view of the starry sky – poetic leaps that may not grip the moment, but that ask deliberate questions about how we see the world. Like the shaggy dog story it contains, told by a McGill Club patron and provokes no reaction from his friends, not all in doc land, at least not immediately. But by paying attention and not rushing, the helmer and his editors, Matthieu Laclau and Yann-Shan Tsai, are honoring the place they portray—a place where the seasons are long and can be unforgiving. They invite us along the highway and ask us to listen.