You are duly warned: Occasionally (and a second warning: the word "occasionally" is defined at my not-so-humble discretion), the titles of some of these Clubs will descend to the achingly obvious, the terminally precious. But I cannot resist, so I won't.
The movies for this week are not simply set in the desert, or feature deserts prominently. Films that merely sift through the sand belong in other weeks: "Big" (Lawrence of Arabia) or "Snakes on a Plain" (Tremors--and I know Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward battle worms, but such are the hazards of the frequently occasional groaner) or even "A Boy and His Dog/Horse/Robot/Etc." (Hidalgo). Heck, if all we need this week is sand then we can visit Mars--with Robinson Crusoe on Mars (unfortunately not available on DVD) or Mission to Mars or maybe best of all Red Planet.
But this week let's consider versions of the notion that the sand gets into everything, including individual psyches, as the desert insinuates itself to the core, redirecting one's perceptions, providing new and shifting foundations for one's fundamental ability to make judgments. In each of the following, the desert not only determines the arc of the narrative, but grates and grinds itself into every crevice, replacing whatever came before with its heedless grit and hard-baked finalities. In short, consider a basic truth of desert travel: Once you make it far enough, you'll die if you turn back; so you go on, and give the desert what it wants.
Monday Sahara (1943)
Zoltan Korda (Revolt in the Desert/1937, Elephant Boy/1937, The Four Feathers/1939, The Thief of Bagdad/1940, Jungle Book/1942) was no stranger to arid climes and outre situations by the time he plunked into the official Desert of Deserts tank commander Bogart and crew--with hitchhikers of all stripes, including British soldiers, a Frenchman and a Sudanese soldier with an Italian prisoner, even eventually a Nazi. The film provides an extreme setting for its cultural cross-section, in which disparate individuals have to make choices about who they are and whom they are willing to trust. While Korda's camera is not nimble enough to spend much time inside the tank, we get enough to realize we're looking at a super-heated box in the larger heat of the desert; and that combined the two exert a constant force on those inside (and riding atop it) to move not only forward, out of the desert, but toward the proper allegiances--and, given the desert's bland unconcern for the people foolish enough to tool along its waiting surface, that force, and the choices made in its wake, are literal life-and-death. The desert is always an arena, and the players better be serious in their efforts, or it will heat-freeze them in no time.
Tuesday Three Kings (1999)
As the Internet Movie Database tells us, "At the beginning of the film there's a disclaimer explaining that the strange look [and vibrant color] of the film ... is due to the fact that they used 'Ektachrome' slide transparency film instead of standard film stock, and the 'bleach bypass' process actually gave the prints a much deeper black. The silver halide is completely opaque, thus a 'true' black." Short version: We finally get a visual technique and style that serves as the best analogue for heat, a thermal imagery that helps explain why so many mistakes were made in this desert, and why we're still sweating under that sun's lidless eye. And the only respite for our parched throats is literally spilled milk (in the exploding tanker scene) and, for Mark Wahlberg's Troy ("Are we shooting people or what?") Barlow, oil, poured down his throat, Mission Accomplished-turned-torture. Blinded by the light, so to speak, the three are no wise men, but, driven by "what is most necessary to them at any given moment," merely reactive agents, sparking the last thing they need in the desert: more fire, black smoke rising like an early warning we refused to heed.
Wednesday The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
This thrilled me when I first saw it--and it is difficult to use such an expression with a straight face, but it's true: In its insistence that we simply could not depend on the movie to telegraph its punches, to let us know who would make it--if any--this was, if memory serves, the first movie (after The Birds) that made me no promises. It is, then, true to the desert, in that the only promise it makes is that it will remain, to flake their skin and dry up all hope. Well, almost all. And that is the beautiful thing about this movie, the way it succumbs to the desert, only to further give in to our desire for flight, higher and higher--and yes, closer to the sun, but also toward the horizon, finally removed. At the core of the great desert movie is the act of leaving it, and this movie gives us that moment with deep satisfaction. I can still feel the sudden cool of the breeze as the Phoenix rises.
Thursday Gerry (2002)
Sometimes, though, the act of leaving the desert is the only movement, and Gus Van Sant bludgeons us with it, as we walk and walk and walk with the two Gerrys (Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) in a desert that always threatens to become exactly what it is: a dull expanse, fatal to forward progress. Desert movies are fond of discussing the problem of walking in a straight line: You can't, instead eventually describing a circle, because you naturally move toward your dominant side, left or right. It would seem, then, that the best chance of survival involves a pair walking, one left-handed, one right, canceling out each others' tendencies to double back. Van Sant's film demolishes this possibility, as the two Gerrys wander--whether circuitously or serpentine it is impossible to discern--but again with the threat of fatal boredom. And yes, the audience is included, making Gerry perhaps the most grueling of desert films--you know: It's not the heat, it's the--I'm really trying to avoid writing "stupidity," because I like the Gerrys, and I've watched this film more than once. But, like the aimless wandering of those lost for good, many viewers find Gerry maddening. And that is, in part, why this movie succeeds. The regularity of the clock, the certitude of geography, eventually the rules of interpersonal engagement, prove as useless as a dirt mattress, assembled with minimal expertise and less concern, simply something to do until you're claimed by the desert, all plans Gerried for sure.
Friday Suna no onna/Woman in the Dunes (1964)
... and once claimed, does your life sift like sand? Does foolish you become a living clod in the dune's deeper crevice? Hiroshi Teshigahara, by way of the always-intriguing Kobo Abe, takes us not merely to the desert but beneath it, in a completely original landscape of sand-dwellers who keep one foot in this world, another in a fable, as fraught with anxiety of all kinds--personal, sexual, social--as any modern urban desert; but of course with the stark beauty of ... well, I'll admit it: not the desert, but dunes at the seaside--in particular, a pit in the sand, where a woman lives, and the young entomologist slips, and joins her, while the sand keeps sliding down, and they dig themselves out--only to dig themselves further in. It is an allegory both obvious and ingenious, and Teshigahara handles the material so matter-of-factly that neither its obvious nor ingenious qualities distract us from the creeping ease with which this unlikely situation becomes daily life, encased in sand, another entomological specimen pinned on the screen.
Saturday The King Is Alive (2000)
Or, as it is known by the cognoscenti--and that's us!--Dogme #4. According to the Dogme 95 website, 195 films--sorry, 195 efforts to "counter the film of illusion by the presentation of an indisputable set of rules known as THE VOW OF CHASTITY"--have been made. The first "institution" of the digital age, Dogme 95, whose Vow was originally signed by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, seeks to minimize the distance between the director and the actors, between the actors and the action--and hopefully between the film and the audience. Is the result merely videoed stage-pieces? Not always. Is it neo-auteurism, in which the director is given the burden of creativity, using minimal accoutrements and technology--makeup, artificial lighting, non-diegetic music, and so on--to make the film interesting? Sometimes. Above all it aims for austerity--but also the avant-garde, in that the individual is subsumed; as the Vow thunders in its climax, "I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a 'work,' as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations." And how: The King Is Alive sometimes comes close to becoming an actual movie, but too often hoists itself by its own petard--I know: not a line from King Lear, a production of which the desert-stranded tourists of the film attempt to mount, but still Shakespearean in its irony. This is the (often exciting) fault-line along which Dogme 95 runs: In trying to eliminate the ultra-controlling auteur and/or blockbuster-izer--Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Kubrick, Spielberg (along with most of the New Wave)--Dogme 95 paradoxically places huge responsibilities on the director's shoulder. As stated in the FAQs section of the site, "These unusual production circumstances, gives [sic] both restriction and freedom to the director, who is forced to be creative. You eliminate the possibility to 'save' a horrible, not functioning scene with underlying music or voice-over. You have to come up with creative solutions." In some ways, it's simply Cassavetes hard at work with his actors, the cinema as an improv organism. And Cassavetes would be the first to admit the challenges of such chastity--as does The King Is Alive, which takes full advantage of its ghost-outpost-in-the-desert setting to force its actors to move with varying levels of certainty through the sand-lined rooms and along the mile-high drifts that surround them. Alternately mesmerizing and ludicrous, this is a movie that provides a glimpse into the deteriorating minds of not only the characters in a desert movie, but the actors and director who go into the desert to make such a movie. At times, even the viewer feels the aimless despair of such a situation, slowly dying on a diet of canned carrots and condensation, a blasted heath on which all heads are singed by "thought-executing fires" and "all germains [are spilled] at once." So it goes for "ingrateful man"--and the pig-headed Vows that send us into the desert in the first place, stubborn in our decision to divide the kingdom and lose everything in the process.
Sunday Holes (2003)
In its own way as bizarre as Woman in the Dunes, this movie takes advantage of the surreal isolation of a desert milieu to set its delinquent youth on a Sisyphus-ean quest, digging one hole after another--putting me in mind of Sidney Lumet's The Hill (1965), about a British military prison in the Libyan desert where prisoners are forced to climb a hill over and over. But in Holes Something is hidden in the sand, a treasure and a secret. This is real desert work up close, sweaty and seemingly pointless. But Holes is also a "young teen" movie, with enough cathartic authority-bashing to keep the target audience interested and the plot moving, until the demographic blurs and you dig along with the teen inmates, partly out of sympathy, but mostly in curiosity, as the McGuffin is upended at last from the sand--a bit obtuse in its origins, but satisfying in its--here it comes--just desserts.
As good a note as any on which to end the week. And don't forget to pour a cold one and keep your hat handy: that sun gets hot.