Oscar Jelley explores the cinematic portrayal of the desert as a symbol of ambivalent promise and looming desolation.
The desert is a blank canvas. Its vistas are taciturn and unyielding. Its emptiness offers little to the casual observer to account for its history, but its sheer presence exerts such a powerful hold that it seems to take on the character of the inevitable. It is a symbol of the emptiness that lurks behind all things, the unformed state to which all civilisation must one day revert. No ordinary people can hope to emerge from this desolate space; only those figures who have lost themselves to nothingness, who have given themselves up to quests that transcend them, or drives that swallow them whole. This barren terrain has proven fertile soil over the years for filmmakers looking to explore the fundamental disjunction between the magnitude of human potential and the insignificance of human action – a perfect metaphor for a capacious world in which success and failure so often blend into a single, indefinite horizon.
No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Paris, Texas are three films that exploit the desert’s dialectic of plenitude and nothingness to powerful effect. All were shot, at least in part, in the Chihuahuan desert, a blighted prospect located mostly in West Texas, where it almost never rains and great, craggy outcrops form obscure shapes against the sky. The multivalent symbol of this desert sits at the heart of these films: sometimes as a site of rebirth, sometimes a chaos beyond law or reason, which spews forth figures driven only by the insatiate motor of their own internal rules. Against these human dramas, the desert itself remains a thing apart, subsuming them into its ambiguous, ageless silence, questioning the very fundament upon which they rest.
Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas is a tale of a man trying to do right by the people he has wronged. This man is Travis, who emerges from the desert in the first scene after four years spent AWOL; no-one knows where he has been, and by the end of the film, even the viewer is none the wiser. Travis is less a person than a shade, a wandering spirit whose unbending aim is to settle his accounts so he might finally be at peace with himself and his past. It is fitting, then, that he should first appear in an environment so wholly opposed to anything but riddling ambiguity; decontextualised by his surroundings, he becomes practically mythic, unmoored entirely from his old life and the sins for which he is nevertheless seeking to atone. Before long, the film moves away from this landscape, but it lingers figuratively throughout, a motif of absence and expanse, in shots of vast parking lots, open highways, and elevated vantage points. The dual possibility of the wide-open space reflects that of America: a country offering the promise of constant rebirth, but not without the attendant melancholia of such a promise – because, it seems to say, we are only reborn to escape the mistakes we find too terrible to live with.
In There Will Be Blood, the desert is the site of a very different kind of genesis. The film’s main character, Daniel Plainview, begins as a silver prospector toiling in the bowels of the earth. He utters not a word: we hear his grunts, and the chink of his pickaxe against the rock of the mineshaft. Shrouded in darkness, he is a man with no identity, groping towards the construction of a domineering personality perfectly suited to his own barefaced greed. The shadowy figure soon metamorphoses into a loquacious oil baron, but underneath this guise, the man in the mineshaft persists – a man indistinguishable from his own insatiate desire for wealth, a hollowness at the heart of the showmanship of the pioneer. It is hard to imagine Daniel thriving anywhere but the desert; the frontier imbues his activities, however repugnant, with an almost biblical sense of significance.
No Country For Old Men is an apotheosis of the desert’s warning, a terrifying glimpse into the threat of anarchy that constitutes its hollow heart. The film opens with a lament for the incomprehensible atrocities of the modern world, compared with the black-and-white justice of a bygone age. The monologue accompanies a series of unpopulated desert landscapes: the sombre, uncomprehending face of nature’s utter dispassion. This is an overture for the bulk of the film, which deals with the actions of ruthless mercenary Anton Chigurh: a doer of violent deeds, who lives his life according to arbitrary principles. In the face of such a man, “civilisation” seems a laughable irony, a precarious arrangement prone to rupture when challenged by a malignant body. The vast wastes of sand, rock and provisionally erected barbed wire start to seem unavoidable.
Beneath all attempts to shut out its startling nothingness, the desert lingers on the border of the conscious mind; a symbol, ultimately, of radical, terrifying openness. There, you can always redeem yourself, reshape yourself to suit whatever purpose you might choose: but in the end, what does it matter anyway?