The courage necessary to forge down the artistic path has rarely been more passionately explored in documentary film than in Todd Robinson’s elegiac “Amargosa.” By any measure, it’s the definitive film portrait of dancer-choreographer-painter Marta Becket, whose escape from New York art scene hubbub to ultra-remote Death Valley Junction in the 1960s has become a living chapter in California’s rich cultural lore.

The courage necessary to forge down the artistic path has rarely been more passionately explored in documentary film than in Todd Robinson’s elegiac “Amargosa.” By any measure, it’s the definitive film portrait of dancer-choreographer-painter Marta Becket, whose escape from New York art scene hubbub to ultra-remote Death Valley Junction in the 1960s has become a living chapter in California’s rich cultural lore. Perhaps due to the sheer distance of Becket’s Amargosa Opera House from any real burg, myth as much as fact has surrounded her, but Robinson’s supremely crafted and textured account places her achievement in proper context as the great adventure of an artist who has remained true to her muse. One of a dozen Oscar docu finalists (though not among the final five), pic will inspire buyers and auds alike, with curtain calls most likely in cable and video.

One of the work’s most crucial contributions is to disprove the popular notion that septuagenerian Becket is a desert kook who long ago retreated from the mainstream to practice her primitive art. Limned with finely observed biographical detail, story underlines Becket’s roots in the vibrant New York performance scene, educated in all of the arts and skilled at an astonishing number of them. Robinson structures his film in a series of time shifts from Becket’s present world in Death Valley to a past that seems to have happened on a different planet, emphasized by astonishing aerial and ground footage of the harshly beautiful desert environment surrounding the opera house.

Art isn’t associated in U.S. culture with such a setting, but with “Amargosa” arriving at the same time as the acclaimed docu “Burning Man,” about the wild, pagan-like festival in the Nevada desert, old perspectives seem overdue for revision. Certainly, this is the right place for Becket, who found that her life in New York didn’t allow her the freedom to pursue her dreams as a dancer and artist, and that a vacant auditorium in Death Valley provided her with a blank canvas to create her own brand of dance theater.

Pic wisely presents its subject’s frustrations in small doses; a lump-sum description of her struggles would have had a depressing effect. Only near the end, for instance, does the viewer experience the full emotional impact of Becket’s inability to free herself from caring for her loving but extremely dependent mother, for whom she put her career on hold for more than a decade of her prime dancing years.

Key to Becket’s transcendence of her situation is her skill at translating life experiences into dance, and her years with Mom are shown here in a piece, “The Good Daughter,” which becomes as tragic as a terpsichorean solo can be. Besides preserving many of Becket’s perfs, pic situates them within a life whose art is itself the overcoming of obstacles, thereby placing “Amargosa” among prime examples of inspiring cinema about artists and art-making.

Not dwelling on the most famous aspect of Becket’s fashioning of her opera house — the wall and ceiling murals that create a marvelous trompe l’oeil effect of an aud watching Becket perform with partner Tom Willet, previously glimpsed in Christian Blackwood’s 1989 docu “Motel” — film instead details the sacrifice she put into the project: namely, how her then-husband lost patience during the mural’s time-consuming creation, and left her for another woman.

Becket, who owns the dusty hamlet surrounding the opera house and adjacent haunted motel, seems to have fed off her environs, involving herself in local attempts to rescue wild horses and giving the area a kind of one-woman civic boost, while immersing herself in Death Valley lore including all those ghosts bumping around. Even this bit of eccentricity is given the utmost respect by Robinson, who employs it as part of the underlying theme that Becket, at 75, is reaching the winter of her life. Locals worry that the town will vanish along with her, which is an even higher compliment than admirer Ray Bradbury’s: “She represents the spirit of the individual, of creativity.”

Mary McDonnell’s well-spoken narration is perhaps too weighty, but it is spare, and soundtrack is embellished with a moody Randy Miller score. Print is fine 16-to-35 blowup, with outstanding tech work in every department.

Amargosa

Production

A Triple Play Pictures presentation. Produced by Sidney Sherman, Kenneth A. Carlson. Executive producer, Traci Robinson. Directed, written by Todd Robinson.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, CFI prints), Curt Apduhan; editor, Clarinda Wong; music, Randy Miller; sound (Dolby), Ken King, Roland N. Thai; supervising sound editor, Thai; second unit camera, Doug Holgate. Reviewed at Westside Pavilion Cinemas, L.A., March 29, 2000. (In Slamdance, L.A. Independent film festivals.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Narrator: Mary McDonnell.
With: Marta Becket, Tom Willet, Ray Bradbury, Paul Lyday.

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