A Desert

A Desert (2024)

A Desert had its world première at Tribeca, 7 June 2024

A Desert opens in a cinema – not just the one in which perhaps you are watching it if you have not opted for home video or streaming, but in a closed-down, mothballed picture house whose plastic-wrapped interiors the professional photographer Alex Clark (Kai Lennox) is exploring, like a speleologist or archaeologist excavating a buried past (the hands-free lamp attached to his head completes the picture). Finally he will find and take his shot: a blank screen in an empty auditorium, onto which any fantasy can be projected.   

In other words, Joshua Erkman’s feature debut, co-written with Bosi Barker, is both metacinematic and elegiac. Forty-something Alex is traveling through Yucca Valley in California’s Mojave Desert, in search of images that capture America’s decline: tattered flags, abandoned buildings, sterile spaces. He is also retracing his own receding personal history, trying to recreate the conditions (“no cellphone, no GPS”) from when he published his first photobook Death of the New West some 20 years earlier, back when he could still make a living from his art. 

“We’ve gotta change with the times,” says the clerk (William Bookston) of the electronic key cards that have replaced actual keys at the budget motel he runs. Times are indeed changing. Where Alex’s older book had included a shot of the blank screen at an abandoned drive-in, now it is a more upmarket movie theatre whose desertion he is documenting – and documenting on a large format 8pm x10-inch camera which is itself an ungainly, outmoded antique from a bygone, strictly pre-digital era. A Desert offers, among other things, a history of the image and image-making, where photographs link their subjects to strangers, preserve past memories, and inspire the imagination with longing and desire. This is, of course, also what films – like this one – do.

Alex himself is changing. Aware that he has become a dinosaur in the world of commercial photography, and that there is little market left for his hauntological approach to landscapes, he is taking his first tentative steps into human portraiture – and so it is that he meets the younger couple staying in the adjacent motel room, and agrees to let them into his room and his life. Alex just wants to photograph them, but manic, Manson-like Renny (Zachary Ray Sherman) and sexy seductive Susie Q (Ashley B. Smith) are looking to party, and ply their strait-laced, ‘city boy’ host with hard liquor and soft flesh. So begins a collision of middle age with youth, of ‘fucking tourist’ with local, of civilisation with desert, of innocence with experience, as Alex, “just driving around to purposefully get lost”, chances upon the lost America that he is looking for, and becomes more than a mere observer in someone else’s shoot.

Back home in Los Angeles, Sam (Sarah Lind), increasingly worried by her husband’s absence, hires grizzled detective Harold Palladino (David Yow) to retrace Alex’s steps. Dogged and worldly wise, Harold comes armed not just with a shotgun, but with his own digital camera, knowing that it occasionally captures what his eyes miss. Soon Sam herself is also on the trail, as everyone here is in pursuit of what they have lost. In this alluring yet harsh and dangerous landscape – full of exploitation and ruin – able to accommodate any kind of fantasy, an underground operation panders to every errant desire.

Looking at Alex’s first photography book, Renny comments that it is just “a bunch of pictures of poor old busted up places.” Alex responds by suggesting that each photo is “a moment captured where nature – the unforgiving power of nature – is gradually reclaiming its topography from what man has built on it.” The same might be said of A Desert itself, a film whose locations are inscribed not just with the violent scarrings of geological activity, but with the darker workings of human nature. It is a peculiar neo-noir of crossing paths and layered coincidences, as contrived and nasty as a drive-in movie, and as obscure and enigmatic as an arthouse flick. Here the desert, out at humanity’s extreme edge, conceals as much as it reveals – for even as it converts a nation’s lost soul to campfire story and cinematic spectacle, the bittersweet passing of what once was can only be viewed from the sidelines, obscuring the bigger picture or at least leaving it to the imagination, as truth slips through the cracks or hides in the shadows. This is a real diamond in the rough, a UFO that comes out of nowhere heralding Erkman’s mysterious, miraculous arrival in the movie-making landscape.

strap: Joshua Erkman’s metacinematic feature debut is an elegiac neo-noir located where photography, pornography and geology cross paths

© Anton Bitel