The film opens with darkness and the sounds of seagulls, of waves breaking on sand. It fades in on a young woman lying on her side, dressed in a red sequin gown. Her back to the camera, you can just barely see her breathe. I see piping for electrical wiring that snakes up towards a wall-mounted light fixture—you can’t see it in this shot, but it’s there. I remember it. She breathes in and out, and the waves keep crashing.
This isn’t someone’s home, someone’s bedroom. It’s a motel room. I believe that this fact might be apparent to anyone, that the details of this stage set are enough combined to make the specificity of this place obvious, even if I hadn’t personally spent a month on my own in this exact room, studying the cracks and smudges on these same walls. But I don’t know that, just like I can’t un-know what it felt like to be lying alone on that same bed, listening to the weak hum of the air conditioner, looking outside at the harsh, hot sunlight that kept me inside in the dark.
At the heart of the short film Calipatria is an ever-present sense of malice that hangs over the landscape and surrounds this young woman on her own in an ominous desert town. I try to account for this malice, to guess where it comes from. It occurs to me that there isn’t anything in the plot, in the script, to account for its dark atmosphere, save for the specific place the film is set in. Flashes seen throughout the film—shots of ruined abandoned houses and empty streets in a small town at midday—are counted on to set this tone of dread, of danger, of violence.
This is a real place. The real town of Niland sits at the edge of the stinking and polluted Salton Sea, in the middle of the Colorado Desert, at the godforsaken southeastern corner of California. I lived in this room at the Niland Inn for one month. Months after leaving, I watch the woman in the film breathe deeply on the same motel bed I slept on. I watch her explore an empty and troubling landscape, all alone. I feel as if I am watching myself. I sense her dread, her fear, and I remember my own. To know this place is to know this fear. It comes from all around, from the land itself.
Let me tell a little about how it was for me at the Niland Inn. On this particular night, the humidity of the past few days has finally broken in a smothering thunderstorm, surrounding the town with impenetrable black clouds to the south and north. The temperature has dipped into the low 90s for the first time since my arrival, so I sit outside at the white plastic table in front of the motel. The lights of Salton City—usually visible far across the Salton Sea—are black tonight. A swarm of hundreds of brown shiny-bodied crickets sluggishly hop about in the floodlight hanging over the Buckshot Diner across the lawn. Their chirping takes on a frantic tone. The cooler, drier air brings the other residents out, but rather than relief, we all seem to be afflicted with a kind of hysteria in the air that manifests in raised voices and arguments.
The motel is a classic example of old roadside Americana. Two flat, single level strips of rooms meet at a right angle behind an impressively green lawn. The building is painted a cheerful yellow and a sign advertises to the highway, simply, MOTEL, in letters glowing crimson in the night. Inside, a quick cheap bed to break up a long drive. The majority of the guests are permanent residents, families with children who play together in the dirt driveway in front of their rooms. I’ve met a couple of them, children of a couple that live a few doors down. The girl is two years old, the boy a protective older brother a few years her senior. Their mother is young, dark-skinned, and hugely pregnant. Tonight, she kneels with her children in front of their door.
“I can’t believe you’d lock me out, you fucker,” she quietly pleads to someone inside. “With our kids with me and everything.” She’s silent for a moment, then the door opens and someone lets her in.
At a mere 19 minutes long, Calipatria doesn’t rush its plot, which is spare. Heika Burnison, the writer, director, and co-producer for the film, conceived it as a modern western, an exploration of the real wild spaces of the contemporary west. The synopsis from the promotional website for the film spells it out: Celia and John are a young couple in love driving through the American southwest. But when John disappears during a pit stop in a strange small town, Celia is stranded without answers. She searches the desolate place for her companion, but finds only an odd local townie named Steven who takes an immediate liking to her. After circling Celia for two days, Steven invites Celia to his house, where a strange and dangerous game takes place.
Burnison grew up in Los Angeles, a short drive to the desert glamour of Palm Springs, only slightly further south than the starkly decaying ghost towns along the Salton Sea and the bleached and sleepy Niland. She filmed a documentary about the Salton Sea in 2009 and wrote the script for Calipatria in February 2013. The film was shot with a crew of 16 over just eight days in June, 2013.
“I was really interested in the sea and the community that surrounded it,” she told me. “Places like Bombay Beach, where in the 50s there was a thriving vacation community for suburban families. Then the ecology of the place made it deteriorate. Yet, there are still people who live out there, and make a living, and raise families, in the aftermath or aftershock of this place. I found the landscape and the aura of the place incredibly beautiful, very haunting and interesting because of this decaying, sick beauty.”
The landscape itself acts as a character in Calipatria. Even with a short running time, Burnison takes the time to show this place in still exterior shots. I’ve been visiting the Imperial Valley for more than ten years and I recognize everything on the screen. There’s the abandoned house in Bombay Beach, the yellow-green box with a busted old TV in front. I’ve been here before. A tag adorns a wooden panel on this house, one word that sums up the feeling of this partially inhabited ghost town wiped out by the fluctuations of an accidental sea in the desert. In black spray paint it reads, simply, CAN’T. I recognize the modest skyline of Bombay Beach. The view towards the sunset over the fields of Niland with the sky a mix of pastel rose and gold. It’s the view I had from the patio table at the Niland Inn, evenings when the air would cool and I would look out over the fields to catch a glimpse of the blue of the Sea.
The image of the Imperial Valley shown in Calipatria matches the Valley as I know it. It’s a landscape that possesses a strange and dangerous beauty, a land that’s wide-open and free. It is what is left of the old idea of the frontier—it is a place where you can be alone with dark secrets, a place where the law doesn’t always reach.
Niland has a few businesses open on its main drag along 111: two grocery stores, a gas station, two taco shops, the Buckshot Diner, a post office, and the motel. For all that, it’s quiet to the point of eeriness. The old downtown is a few blocks off the highway, aligning itself instead along the railroad running behind the town. In this former commercial district are the ruins of an elegant old bank building, empty lots, abandoned houses in bad shape. There used to be a hotel here, restaurants, people. Now, nothing moves in the middle of a hot day and you hear the low rumble of air conditioning humming inside prefabricated houses. Life here is lived in an uneasy stasis, drawn inward behind locked doors, turned away from the desert heat. I walked around the back streets of this silent town wondering what secrets were being kept behind those doors.
I asked Leon, the owner of the motel, about the town. He was born and raised here. Back when he was a boy there were several bars and four or five good restaurants to choose from. Things used to happen back then. Leon left in 1965 when he turned 19, when the long decline of the town was underway. He went to Los Angeles for better opportunity. His peers left too.
“Almost all of the successful ones left. The ones that hung around, they didn’t get very far in life. There was nothing here for them.” Leon paints a bleak picture of what the town now has to offer. He bought the motel a year ago from a criminal, a man he says was trafficking in human beings. Niland Inn was what is known as a “drop house,” a stopping point for “Coyotes”—smugglers who guide immigrants across the border with Mexico and past Border Patrol. I had heard about drop houses before, about what the Coyotes do to their charges. I read that obedience is enforced with violence and intimidation, that rape is the standard practice for women and girls traveling with the smugglers, that immigrants are held hostage until payment is received from relatives living nearby.
“This was really a hot motel for that,” Leon tells me casually, almost boasting. He got a good deal on the motel because the previous owner was feeling the heat from Homeland Security. “They would bring 30 to 40 of them here. They were making tons of money.”
I try to picture what might have gone on in my room just one year ago, and I am not alright with what I imagine, with the violence that might have happened right where I slept. What might have happened to another young woman stranded in this terrible desert as she tried to make her way through to someplace better.
“It’s about the idea that you can be safe one minute and not the next,” Burnison says. “Steven represents this for the film, this kind of alluring, sexy danger that the entire location offers.”
Celia meets Steven at the Buckshot Diner, the restaurant next door to the Niland Inn. She is alone doing a crossword when he sits across from her, rubbing the sweat off his face and offering to help her with the puzzle. He has shoulder-length hair, shiny tan skin, and a friendly but vaguely threatening expression.
“Look, my boyfriend’s gonna be back soon and he’s not going to like you here,” Celia tells him.
He sighs, crosses his arms. “I can’t sit here? It’s not a free country?” He looks around. “I really don’t think anybody’s coming around any time soon. Are you scared of me?”
“You think I’m scared of you? Should I be scared of you?”
“It seems like you’re scared. Those little scared, doll eyes. Those glass eyes.”
When I was in Niland I was scared. Almost everyone I met was warm, friendly. Just a week into my stay, I recognized acquaintances around town, friends to say hello to at the grocery store. No one seemed threatening when I spoke to them one-on-one, but strangely and almost without exception the people I met warned me to be careful who I spoke to. They’re a bunch of murderers, pedophiles, and rapists, said one. I checked the sex offender registry for Niland—an unsettlingly long list for such a small town. Sinister-looking mug shots. Descriptions of crimes. Continuous sexual abuse of a child. Lewd or lascivious acts with a child. Procurement of a minor under 16 years of age for lewd or lascivious acts.
One night in my last week there, I ran into one of my acquaintances from town on my way home from the grocery store. He seemed to come out of nowhere from the dark. He told me about a concert happening the next evening, said I should go with him. I was standing with both arms at my side, heavy with groceries and water jugs. I felt the plastic handles cutting into my fingers. He hadn’t seen me around lately, he said, but he knew I was here. He saw my car, he knew it by its license plate. He pointed down the street at the motel, at my room with my car parked out front. I’ve seen you, he said. He forced me into an embrace, forced a kiss while my arms were weighed down, and whispered in my ear. Maybe we could go out tomorrow, and then we could…You know. You know. I slept uneasily that night, eyes on the door to my room, a canister of pepper spray on the nightstand within reach.
Leon told me about Calipatria when I first checked into the motel. He said he was putting me in his nicest room, where just a few weeks back a big crew out of Hollywood did some shooting. He summarized the plot, as well as he knew it: a couple is driving through the desert. They stop in a small desert town. Somebody dies. He thought they might have filmed a death scene in my room. They hadn’t, but it haunted me just the same.
Leon made sure I had clean towels, clean bedding, plenty of pillows. There were bottles of cherry blossom scented lotion and cherry blossom scented bubble bath left out for me on the bathroom sink. I had a microwave oven and a mini-fridge that had a half-eaten package of sliced roast beef in it when I arrived. I had a television set with digital cable. I watched shows like Treehouse Masters and Ghost Adventures for hours on end when it was too hot to go outside. And I would lie alone on my bed unable to sleep. Over the hum of my air conditioner, I could hear my neighbors fighting, I could make out the sounds of freight trains moving through the night. The deadbolt on my door didn’t work, and I knew the chain wouldn’t be enough if someone wanted in. I jumped at every sound.
There was a gap between the wall and the air conditioner, and crickets would come right in. I found them burrowed in the bedclothes, in the shower, under newspapers on the floor. I couldn’t stand the crunch of their hard bodies, so instead of killing them I would gather them up and throw them back out to the night. One night a cricket lodged himself where I couldn’t reach him, behind my mini-fridge. For three days, starting at around 1 a.m., he chirped loudly through the night. After the third day, when the chirping stopped, I presumed he was dead.
Nights like these, I would think about the film made here, about the couple who stopped in this motel. Picture a setting for someone to die in, the perfect location for a cinematic death, I would think. It’s this town, this motel, this exact room.