If I have a reservation about Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry,” (discussed elsewhere on this blog) it’s that he, or his cinematographer, makes the desert look a little too picturesque. Of course, I’m not going to deny that the desert is visually beautiful, that’s what first attracted me to it, and of course I love a broad stretch of unspoiled, pristine desert as much as the next man, and I’m very glad indeed that Death Valley or Joshua Tree survive as preserved patches of territory that are as close to “virgin” as we’re ever likely to see, and of course they are meticulously “managed.”. But the fact is, I also love a spoiled, less than pristine stretch of desert.
And when it comes to on-screen depictions of the desert I’m drawn to Werner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana,” his early “documentary” that traces an inscrutable journey down through the Sahara desert. Certainly the film does have some gorgeous desert imagery, including this shot of a little boy walking his fennec fox on a leash across the sand dunes.
But “Fata Morgana” also shows the desolate edges, the areas scarred by human activity, not least military and industrial. Herzog is smart enough not to simply revel in the beauty of ugliness, and I think he’s not indulging in the pleasure of ruins either, but he does show us that the wrecked and the damaged may be every bit as compelling as the pristine.
My own attitudes have changed over time. When I first started visiting deserts I wanted them clean and empty and devoid of human presence (well, any human presence except mine, naturally). And of course I still like those grand vistas of Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and I regularly go and walk in them, but on the way there I know I’ll pass through some scrubby, frayed bits of desert, the outskirts of towns like Barstow, Boron or Baker, and I’ll be drawn to deserted motels, abandoned houses, evidence of human presence as well as absence.
This has been on my mind a lot recently. I’ve been reading a book titled Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, a couple of British poets who go wandering around what the subtitle calls “England’s true wilderness,” the non-spaces that fail to appear either on topographical or mental maps: sewage works, parking lots, airports, scrap yards, and so on.
They write, “Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully managed wilderness and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists … complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.”
This is great stuff and certainly it doesn’t apply only to England. And I don’t the guys are just being perverse, like going to the Sistine chapel and admiring the floor. One of the most basic functions of writing is to point out things that otherwise might have been missed, and these guys do it royally.
The book also it made me realize that I have spent large chunks of my life walking in and admiring edgelands. For instance I love great Victorian railway architecture, the stations, the bridges, the engine sheds, but I’m actually more at home wandering along disused railway lines admiring those strange little shacks and huts that grow up alongside them.
And one of the things I’ve realized is that not all edgelands are at the edge. Sometimes there can be junk spaces right in the middle of things. My favorite non-space in that sense is shown in the picture above, an alley right in the heart of Hollywood, that runs off Las Palmas Avenue, just below Hollywood Boulevard. It may have a name but I can’t find it on any of the maps I’ve got. It goes down the side of Miceli’s Italian restaurant, but as the sign indicates, it belongs to somebody else “Supply Sergeant” which is an army surplus store nearby. And of course the absolute joy of it is the precision with which somebody has measured, recorded, and sign-painted the dimensions of this otherwise thoroughly nondescript space.