Reviews Short Documentary

Piconland: The Quest for the Perfect Picon Punch (2022) – 3 stars

Director: Mark Maynard

Running time:  19mins

There is a thread running through cinema history where directors and writers have explored the theme of making the perfect, transcendent alcoholic drink. In his autobiography, Luis Bunuel – perhaps the greatest of all indy filmmakers – gave the world the recipe for the perfect dry martini. Bunuel’s cocktail basically involved copious amounts of gin with ice and a trace of vermouth. Bunuel stipulated that the vermouth trace must be as ethereal and vestigial as that left when the Holy Spirit penetrated the Virgin Mary’s hymen. Don’t try this at home kids.

In the splendidly titled short documentary Piconland: The Quest for the Perfect Picon Punch, Mark Maynard tells us the story of a particular cocktail – the eponymous Picon Punch – and its place in the history and the culture of the state of Nevada in the United States of America. Maynard outlines a theme familiar to historians; the sparking of a tradition.

In a brisk, well-scripted exposition using talking heads, Maynard outlines the story. Immigrants from the Basque country of northern Spain moved to the western US to work in animal husbandry trade of eastern California and northern Nevada in the early 20th century. As the immigrants put down roots, they moved into the services sector, opening hotels and restaurants providing Basque cuisine in a Basque cultural setting. A popular drink mixer of the time was a cocktail bitter, made by a Marseilles distillery, called Picon. Basque bartenders mixed the Picon bitters with ice and brandy: a drink they named Picon Punch. The drink became popular in northern Nevada, both a symbol of local identity within the Basque migrant sub-culture and in the mainstream local culture. Tradition had been born.

Bizarrely, however, for reasons that the script does not explain, Picon bitters are not commercially available in the US. As a result, for some time, the punch has been made with alternative brands of bitter. The modern Picon Punch is arguably a bit of an imposter then; but, hey, when you are inventing a tradition, verisimilitude – the appearance of truth – is what counts. Think tartans and Scotland.

Maynard’s interviewees are almost exclusively bar owners and their customers – the exceptions being a genial cultural critic and a sometime local politician who had led a campaign to make the Picon Punch the State Drink of Nevada, whatever that may mean. What I enjoyed about this movie was the director’s obvious rapport with his subjects, and his ability to put them at ease in front of the camera – this is an underrated but essential skill in documentary filmmaking. The interview sections are well achieved, the editing is spot on, and the subjects, for the most part, come across as engaging – the interviews are relatively short sequences, but Maynard manages to give colour and tone to the characters.

The film is shot in several locations in northern Nevada, and I very much appreciated the filmmaker providing an onscreen map of their journey. On this complicated planet of ours, it is generally a Good Thing to know where you are and, as I know next to nothing of the geography of the western US, having a map was so helpful. It seems like an obvious tool for documentary makers to use but it is one that is often neglected.

Piconland was produced on a small budget and the director sensibly bought in the soundtrack from a commercial music archive. The music on display here works well. For the brief on the road sequences there is some pounding MOR rock that drives us along with some edge – to accompany the drinking scenes there is some gorgeous, mellifluous Basque choral folk music which certainly stayed with me after the viewing – a good choice.

The main problem I had with Maynard’s approach to making Piconland was that, yes this is a movie about and a celebration of a particular drink, but that it was also an attempt to situate the drink in a unique, immigrant-American sub-culture. For me, the fact that so much of the movie was shot in bars – and that almost all the talking heads were from the drinks industry – limited the filmmaker’s ability to provide the wider context for the audience.

A feature that emerges from the bar owners’ discourses is the threat to the survival of the invented tradition. One of the most famous Basque hotels has closed and the bars no longer rent out rooms to boarders. We gain the impression that a sub-culture is disappearing, sucked into the maw of consumer capitalism – but Maynard does not give us an authoritative Basque voice on the process – it is as though the filmmakers and, thereby, we the audience are complicit in the process. But the feelgood tone of the movie leaves us with the feeling that as the Picon Punch is an impostor this is not something we should lose much sleep over.

There are a few tantalising moments where we gain a glimpse of something deeper, though. One of the bar owners is of Basque descent and we hear him break into Basque for one all-too-brief moment. I was left hoping for more insights into the way Basque migrants had attempted to create their little Europe, while also trying to assimilate with mainstream America. More commentary from within the Basque community would have been helpful for this: explaining some of the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the Basque experience in the West. For instance, we are told that the original migrants were Basque shepherds – a phrase that implies expertise in sheep farming. I am no expert on the American rural economy, but sheep do not appear in the film, and do not feature in my cloudy memories of American Westerns – so a little more background on that would have been good.

More room for such exposition could have been made by cutting back on some of the many industry heads consulted for ‘expertise’ – for some of whom that really is a stretch. One odd interview, where the production values seem to go awry, sees the least sympathetic of the bar owners (and the most decidedly non-Basque) showing the camera around his bar. He notes, with a conspiratorial leer, that the place used to be a bordello. To prove his point, he gets the camera to close in on the flocked wallpaper on the wall which he has decorously had painted over with white paper – as though flocked wallpaper was evidence of moral turpitude. The scene is bizarre, tonally dissonant, and probably should have not made the final cut.

At the same time, a lot of extended footage of other people drinking, and of interviews straight to camera, may well prove a hard ask when it comes to keeping the audience’s interest, and I would have welcomed a use of voiceovers to enable a wider visual exploration of the Nevada landscape. The cinematography by Richard Bednarski is sharp but understated – in the short sequences that are not interiors of bars, but we only get a fleeting impression of the landscape of rural Nevada and the townscapes of the places the filmmakers visited.

More local detail could have helped illustrate some of the anecdotal evidence given by the talking heads, for example. One subject makes an eloquent statement as to the Picon Punch being invented as a response to the harsh and unforgiving Nevadan climactic conditions. To accompany this, we are given a single, long-distance shot of some snow-covered mountains. It could have been rewarding to have provided us with more granularity here – and a more intense feeling for a sense of place.   

According to the production notes, Maynard is a journalist and writer, and this is his first film. On the evidence of Piconland, he has also demonstrated his abilities as a documentary filmmaker and director, engaging the audience in a recondite area of the human experience, making a very watchable movie. But, for future work, he should not be afraid to dig a little deeper on a subject, or to head a little way off the most obvious path. Oh, and I would like to thank him for the map – I now know my way to Reno and Carson City, and might have to seek out the infamous Picon Punch for myself.

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