Though a little rough around the edges, this Santa Barbara-brewed documentary is far better than any other one-stop source for understanding the Channel Islands while soaking in their majesty. And better, West of the West is, as advertised, a human history.
The title is only invoked once, in reference to the film’s most lavishly strange sequence, a piece about the Legendary King of San Miguel Island, a story that has been milked by lots of writers, including T. C. Boyle. But there is a sense of enduring ironies and pleasures during most every segment. The mystical sense of Chumash myth — Santa Cruz as the birthplace of humankind or the forlorn Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island — all are portrayed with painstaking detail. But the obsessive power the islands have had over gringo settlers is manifest, too, with folk as diverse as rocker Joe Walsh and the would-be emperor Herbert Lester.
The film is a conglomeration of chapters rather than a sweeping narrative, and it could stand a bit of trimming; the whole section on the San Diego-sponsored re-creation of a Spanish galleon feels tangential to the story we want to see. It could use a little amplifying, too. Where is Margaret Holden Eaton, the Sea Captain’s wife, and what’s the deal with the military’s role in San Miguel or San Nicolas?
But these are small faults, and the film’s scope and spirit are something to celebrate, whether it ends up in classrooms or on educational television. The history of Catalina is a model of succinct information told with feeling, and it manages to capture the coolness of the casino as well as the island’s water problems. The final sequence tracing the Dark Water runs, where descendants of Chumash islanders cross the channel in latter-day tomols (canoes), feels like a stunt and then turns into a triumph. The filmmakers catch the depth of feeling young navigators attain crossing treacherous waters to stand on beaches that belonged to the most ancient people on this coast, their own people. Maybe it isn’t paradise lost, but certainly they reclaim for rich moments their beautiful home.