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Desert Movies Are There! Part Two

"Deserts are places that have exhausted their future so that we begin to see things happen there stripped of their worldly context." Chaos-Rampant, 2010.

Desert Movies Are There- Part Two.

It is quite perplexing that Americans find European take on American life 'negative and condescending' and almost ban Baudrillard's book just for trying to understand what happened to Europe in America. Early US Americans where none other than European.
However, let us stick to this idea of European intrusions into elements of American popular culture as it proves the eligibility of desert movies to stand out as a genre of its own. Of course it is not the only deciding factor in this matter, but some of the most interesting desert movies were actually made by prominent European filmmakers. Midnight Cowboy is one good example at least in the opening scenes. I believe Wim Wenders was influenced most visibly by this 1969 movie by British filmmaker John Schlesinger in his 2005 movie "Don't Come Knocking", a great movie in its own right. Other memorable desert movies include British made 'Lawrence of Arabia' 1962 by David Lean, 'Fata Morgana' 1971 by Werner Herzog, 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' 1966 by Sergio Leone, 'Zabriskie Point' 1970 by Michelangelo Antonioni etc. But as you can see, these are not American movies.

An image from Zabriskie Point

There is a huge list of American desert movies. There ought to be. Desert in America has a huge metaphoric presence, apart from it huge physical presence. But what do we mean by desert in the context of cinema?
It is definitely not the climatic territory we are after. Within this climate lies what was unconquered by man. The magic and mystery of the vast expanses and the immediate recall of senses that happens when we approach it or find ourselves in it. This sharp call for sharpening the senses stills our abstract mind and we begin to think more in a matter-of-fact way. I imagine if ever I was forced to live in the desert, then I would enjoy my senses better and to a fuller extent.
There are lots of American desert movies but only few of them are listed as great ones. In fact the list for the best 10 desert movies include no US production! But listing seldom has an authority over its subject. Remember 'Vera Cruz' 1954 by Robert Aldrich. 'The Hired Hand' 1971 by Peter Fonda. 'Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia' 1974, by Sam Peckinpah. 'Ice Cold in Alex' 1958, by J. Lee Thompson. 'Badlands' 1973, by Terrence Malick. 'The Shooting' 1966, by Monte Hellman. 'No Country for Old Men' 2007, by the Coen brothers. 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada' 2005, by Tommy Lee Jones. One cannot have an exhaustive list of American desert movies.

On the international scene, there are remarkable desert movies, indeed. Again, the list cannot be inclusive. Take almost all the Sergio Leone movies! Then, there are: 'Greed' 1924, by Erich von Stroheim. 'Simon of The Desert' 1965, by Luis Bunuel. 'Gerry' 2002, by Gus van Sant. 'Walkabout' 1971 by Nicholas Roeg. 'Ashes of Time' 1994 by Chinese Kar Wai Wong, 'Daratt' 2006, by Chadian Mohamed Saleh Haron. 'Woman of the Dunes' 1964, by Hiroshi Teshigahara. 'Genisis' 1997, by Oumar Sissoko of Mali.

Daratt/Chadian movie 2006

Narrowing down to the middle east, we have, not only a history of the magic of the desert which extends from the mu'allaqat (odes) to the social origins of Islam and on to the birth of oil-rich emirates and kingdoms. The desert is not a place for the abstract. You have to have your senses wide awake. Just in case you get a call from the heavens! And this is how all that concerns the Arabs came to exist. The recent move of Arab film and videomakers into the desert has been duly observed by critics and researchers. In her valuable essay on 'the cinema of the desert', Laura U. Marks describes the Arab film and videomakers as ' nomadic thinkers in that their practice stays close to the material and conceptual reality of life in the Arab world'. Marks believes that the desert movie, which we are trying to set as a genre of its own, is part of the road movie! She believes that the new cinema of the desert is set on the asphalt, just before stepping into and 'striating' or disturbing the desert. This is because nomads, actually, do not live in the high of the desert, but move through it.

Marks goes on to examine some examples of the 'new desert movies'. She sites Youssef Chahine's 'The Emigrant' which is a retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph in which the narrative is built around the importance of water to the nomads. The researcher goes on to say that "The Egyptian 'Arak al-balah' (Date wine) 1998, by Radwan El-Kashef, the Algerian 'Desert Rose' 1989, by Mohamed Rachid Benhadj, and the Sudanese short 'Insan' (Human Being) 1988, by Ibrahim Shaddad, all suggest that modernity means leaving the desert and the village. Men leave, emigrating to work; women and children stay behind. To do otherwise, like the bewitched settlers in Nacir Khémir’s 'The Wanderers of the Desert' 1986, is to plunge backwards into history. Marks lays down a remarkable description of how the desert is seen today by people in the Arab world. "Now the desert is seen.., in the occasional love story and video clip, with a romantic view similar to that of the European colonials. A place to be simple again, to get lost, to revert to a fantasy life, on the weekends. Travel to the desert is time travel."
The term 'asphalt nomadism' employed by the essay writer becomes comprehensible as she sites the noteworthy example of the Lebanese movie 'Baalbeck' 2001, in which little of the desert is shown but a lot of driving and driving and getting nowhere appears to be the aim of the movie. The film is interesting in that it was shared by three filmmakers who divided the movie into three chronologically equal parts. Each one tells his own story but their aim was one, that is to get to Baalbeck to attend and cover a music concert. They never get to Baalbeck as a result of distractions!

A movie theater discovered lately in Sinai
Similarly, another movie, 'Baghdad On/Off'  is sited as a 'roadblock movie' in which the filmmaker is unable to reach Baghdad to see his ailing mother because of delays, wrong turns, dead ends and roadblocks. Apart from having a plot of failure, the movie was not received well by either the Arabs or France where the filmmaker resides!
Both movies, 'Baghdad On/Off' and 'Baalbeck' obviously refer to Arab failure which lead to later turmoils and transformations (the Arab Spring) which also seem to take the Arabs to roadblocks and possibly u-turns. Watch the full movie 'Baghdad On/Off' below.
It is needless to remind the reader that it is very difficult to make a movie in Iraq without having it listed as a desert movie. But of course, while I try to accumulate evidences to the eligibility of  desert movies to stand as a rich genre, research blurs the borders between genres instead of solidifying them.
It is worth mentioning that the first part of this article relied on information from the book 'Images of Postmodern Society' by Norman K. Denzin.


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