AMARGOSA (Todd Robinson, 1999)

Enchanting. Except for a silly passage purporting to show photographic evidence of ghosts, this documentary set in Death Valley Junction, a ghost town in California with a population of ten (mortals—presumably there are many more ghosts), is lovely. It revolves around an authentic American “character” (as in “a real character”). Ichabod Crane, Pudd’nhead Wilson—these characters are fictional; Marta Becket, though, is real—and as I write, at 83, still with us.
     What a character! A born New Yorker, Marta became a member of Radio City Music Hall’s Corps de Ballet; from there, she became a much-applauded performer, a dancer-singer-actress in her own touring one-woman show. (Marta was also a fashion model.) At 43, with her husband, Tom Williams, Marta moved to Amargosa, the Spanish name for Death Valley Junction, and refurbished a dilapidated theater. It took her six years to paint the Michelangelonian mural inside the refurbished Armagosa Opera House, during which time her husband left her, feeling abandoned himself by his wife’s concentration on her work—work, she had hoped, they both shared. (Tom was her manager; it had been at his insistence that Marta pursued her dream in Death Valley.)
     Throughout the years, people (including author Ray Bradbury) have come to see Marta perform. (Bradbury is among those interviewed.) The occasion for Todd Robinson’s Amargosa, which has won a slew of best documentary prizes, is her final performance of the twentieth century; it is eerily bewitching to see Marta dance, her knees kaput, at age 73. Marta: “What right do I have to call myself a dancer if I can’t do 32 fouettés anymore? . . . the audiences kept coming . . . I discovered they didn’t come to see 32 fouettés [or] entrechat sept. They came to see what I created out of what I had.”

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