‘Desolation Center’: Film Review | IndieLisboa 2018

Stuart Swezey is both the director and one of the protagonists of ‘Desolation Center,’ a documentary about the collective that organized the first concerts in the desert, long before Coachella and Burning Man.

The common ancestor of festival extravaganzas like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Burning Man is unveiled in Desolation Center, directed by one of the story’s protagonists, Stuart Swezey. Combining scrappy archival footage, atmospheric black-and-white photos and talking-head material, both old and new, this classically manufactured non-fiction film depicts the chaotic beginnings of a series of semi-impromptu happenings in the Californian desert that combined punk rock, crazy pyrotechnics and performance art. Even for the uninitiated, this offers a fascinating glimpse at the emergence of a phenomenon that was, back then, simultaneously modest and radical, and that has now, in the era of #Beychella, become a part of mainstream culture.

Contrary to popular belief, the early 1980s were a “time of experimentation and rebellion” in Los Angeles, Swezey explains early on in a voiceover. But these eighties kids had a hard time to find proper places to express themselves, mainly due to the iron rule of the then-head of the LAPD, Daryl Gates, who sent his men to shut down basically any concert or gathering of youngsters that seemed to involve alternative music, people of color, women, drugs or all of the above.

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Rather predictably, this kind of zero-tolerance attitude resulted not in the city getting rid of the scourge of experimental youth culture but just drove it further underground. Swezey, barely 20, then started organizing concerts and gatherings with a group of people dubbed Desolation Center. Their manifesto claimed to take the money out of alternative culture, decreeing for example their events couldn’t turn a profit and wouldn’t sell alcohol (though bringing along your substance of choice was not discouraged). Their pop-up events took place at unexpected venues they hoped wouldn’t attract the attention of the police, though some inevitably did.  

It is this framework that the idea of a desert happening, far away from prying eyes, was born. In April 1983 Swezey sold a hundred or so tickets, at $12.50 a pop, for an event they dubbed Mojave Exodus, after the Mojave Desert just a few hours from Los Angeles. As one of the talking heads explains, they only started thinking about the logistics and how they could pull the whole thing off after they’d sold the tickets. The deal included a ride from downtown L.A. into the desert in rented school buses and performances from Californian post-punk bands Minutemen and Savage Republic. The happening itself was very bare bones; the buses were parked in the middle of a desert plain, mikes and instruments were installed in front of it and music was then played for the bused-in and buzzed-out crowd. The area was not closed off, there was no stage and strong winds resulted in someone sacrificing their socks to cover the microphones.

The organizers, bandmembers and attendees are all interviewed and help reconstruct a picture of the early Desolation Center days, with the job titles of some of the interviewees — ranging from “failed visionary” to “sorceress” and “future trauma psychologist” — already good for a few laughs before their occasionally very funny anecdotes even start. Besides the musicians, it is hard to keep track of which soundbite provider said what, though a pretty full picture does emerge of the transformative nature of the Mojave Exodus experience and the events that followed. They included Mojave Auszug, which featured German industrial group Einstuerzende Neubauten, Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Lab, which applied “mechanical force to art,” and noise musician Boyd Rice; Joy at Sea with Minutemen and Meat Puppets, which took place on a whale watching vessel in the industrial port of San Pedro; and Gila Monster Jamboree, which offered Sonic Youth its first West Coast gig during a full-moon, lights-out night in the desert where the 500 or so attendees all tripped out on acid.

The (occasionally hilarious) recklessness but also the crazy creativity that made these events possible all come through loud and clear and make the film an entertaining ride even for people without any interest in California’s early 1980s punk-rock scene. However, Swezey and editor Tyler Hubby have some trouble prioritizing and balancing the flow of information, with the film starting to feel drawn-out and repetitive in especially the second half.

Swezey, who has a background in audiovisual production as well but for whom this is his first feature as a director, has no innovative formal ideas, telling the story of these avant-gardists and punk-rocking rule breakers in the most classical of ways, relating everything chronologically and using archive footage and photos as well as direct-to-camera interviews. Indeed, when the visuals try to illustrate the aforementioned collective acid trip in the desert, suddenly a formally much more interesting film can be glimpsed for just a brief moment, only underlining how conventionally assembled the rest of the work is. Music plays a large role, of course, and while Swezey doesn’t contextualize or analyze the music very much Desolation Center does offer a compelling sample of the punk scene of the era, with some of the (technically decent but never exceptional) concert footage and audio probably unfamiliar even for fans.

The ending feels somewhat disconnected and rushed as Swezey briefly and incompletely sketches how these early events would go on to inspire mass happenings like Burning Man, which around 70,000 people now attend annually. What’s missing here is a sentence or two of more pointed analysis, rather than the anecdotal material that can’t offer more than a vague suggestion that today’s mass events can be traced back to a few crazy kids driving into the desert with a mic, guitar, drugs and a dream.

Production company: Mu Productions
Director: Stuart Swezey
Screenplay: Stuart Swezey, Tyler Hubby
Producer: Stuart Swezey
Directors of photography: Jeremy Royce, Sandra Valde-Hansen
Editor: Tyler Hubby
Venue: IndieLisboa (IndieMusic)

In English
No rating, 95 minutes