Three Deserts

Notes on Cinematic Desolation

by Alec Mapes-Frances

published October 23, 2015


For me, the desert has always been a fascinating thought-image within the Western imaginary, even if it’s exceedingly ambiguous or overdetermined. Desert seems to be the space of overdetermination itself, or at any rate, the abstract space of determination and indetermination: a void where beings emerge and disappear, where ruins are excavated and buried, where histories are inscribed and erased in the shifting sands. It’s an entity with ancient theological significance, of course, a space of traversal in Islamo-Judeo-Christian traditions, and it’s also an important entity in what might be called the modern/postmodern sublime—there are significant deserts in the works of Tanguy, de Chirico, Dalí, Borges, Bataille, and likewise in the American Western, in The Matrix, in Operation Desert Shield. Desert is sublime because it is the void; it is Zero; it is nudity; it is the blank page; it is the smooth space threatening dissolution, through which one can only keep moving. Desert is thus the ‘any-space-whatever’ of capitalist economy, of Orientalism, and of Empire, where, as Jean Baudrillard writes in America, the hallucinatory “lyrical nature of pure circulation” becomes most palpable.


Like the page and the canvas, the screen is a desert, and the desert is a screen. In the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema, the screen shows us a multiplicity of deserts: there are lawn-deserts, kitchen-deserts, factory-deserts, deserts domestic and highly managed and all the more terrifyingly blank. Teorema is about a beautiful, even divine young man, denoted only as “the Visitor,” who suddenly enters into the life of a bourgeois family and becomes a kind of lightning rod for their formerly repressed desires. The boy stays for just a few nights, and it is only when he leaves, deserting the family blessed with his presence, that the deserts of the bourgeois home and factory are fully encountered by those who inhabit them, or who are inhabited by them. At this point, it becomes a matter of situating oneself in the desert, or being-towards the desert. One might simply strip bare, give oneself over to the nothingness of desert: this is the reaction of the bourgeois, factory-owning father which closes the film. (In the volcanic desert of Mount Etna, he faces the camera. Screaming, naked. Cut to black.) The desert gestures toward such a communion, of course, a masochistic or mystical dissolution, but at the same time it points toward the possibility of a community. Sitting in a darkened movie theatre, in front of the desert-screen, we are faced with the necessity of finding each other: in the desert, through the desert, in spite of the desert, but also only because of the desert.



Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert (Il deserto rosso) contains no red desert. Rather, its visual language consists mostly of hard-edged reds (Monica Vitti’s red hair, red barrels of oil) which punctuate foggy gray deserts of gray waste and gray sea.In the film, Vitti, as the wife of a petrochemical plant owner, drifts through a decaying landscape, plagued by some form of existential neurosis. Even the shocks of vivid, piercing, lively red cannot help but suggest desert annihilation. The slats of a sea-house, bright red on one side and pallid gray on the other, are ripped deliriously from the walls and burned in a fireplace, in order to avoid freezing to death. Red is here the color of pure, meaningless drive; in his book The Cinema of Economic Miracles, film scholar Angelo Restivo reads red as the stain or the trace of what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls the Real. In this sense, red is desert, if desert is, like the Real, an incomprehensible, abject domain which occasionally irrupts into the order of things. And yet another desert in Red Desert is the window, the blank fantasy-surface of sky or sea, framed in glass (sand, one could say), across which looming, empty ships glide. The window, too, is a screen with a peculiar transparency or opacity—a desert-screen for projections, for transmissions, for shaping, refracting, and shattering the images of ourselves.


In the hegemonic globalizing imaginary, desert is the landscape of the ascetic just as much as it is the landscape of the capitalist and the oil magnate. American drones, NATO planes, and insurgent vehicles share desert-space with nomads and ‘holy men.’The entirety of Simon of the Desert, a 1965 film by the Surrealist director Luis Buñuel, occurs in this zone. In the 5th century, in a desert near Aleppo, the Syriac saint Simeon Stylites attempts to stand atop a pillar for six years, six months, and six days in order to prove his devotion to God.Simeon interacts with various spectators and with mirages apparently sent by Satan: women, children, priests bearing food, and so on. He resists, for the most part. But in the last five minutes of the film, a screaming crosses the sky: a commercial airplane from 1965.Saint Simeon is gone, his pillar empty—now he’s in New York City, in a club, among a hysterical, dancing crowd. “The ‘Radioactive Flesh.’ It’s the latest dance. The final dance.”


ALEC MAPES-FRANCES B’17 is an entity with ancient theological significance