Sadism in the Desert
I was looking up something on French Extreme Cinema recently when I stumbled upon this 2004 article from Artforum. After reading the piece, I decided, even though the article pretty much says these movies suck, that I wanted to watch some of them. I’ve seen a couple – Fat Girl and Irreversible – but not many, and I’m always interested in seeing movies that people hate. I decided on Twentynine Palms (2004) by Bruno Dumont because I liked the idea of the French Extreme meeting the American desert landscape.
Set in Twentynine Palms, California, (home of the world’s largest US Marine Corps Base) and the surrounding Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms follows a couple – David the American filmmaker and his French speaking Russian girlfriend Katia – as they scout a movie location in the desert. Until the startling end of the film, Twentynine Palms is of that genre of films that I always find so compelling to watch – Movies In Which Nothing Happens. I like Movies In Which Nothing Happens because they force interpretation. They give the audience no narrative solidity, nothing to hold onto, and as such they force the audience think more deeply about what the film means and to write their own narrative (interpretation) onto the nothing that is presented on film. Because everything is nothing, everything becomes a symbol, an allegory, something other than what it is. Windmills are the infinite circulation of the minutiae and banal repetition of life. The desert becomes the arid terrain of human relationships and the hostile landscape of American masculinity.
Up until the last ten minutes of Twentynine Palms, the entire film consists of watching David and Katia drive, eat, fuck, fight, and then drive, eat, fuck and fight some more. They spend their days driving through the desert in a big red shiny Hummer, and they spend their nights in a tawdry motel in the town of Twentynine Palms. They are petulant and spoiled, clueless and insulated. Nothing about these two characters is remotely sympathetic or likeable. Watching them is like watching flies buzz at a light bulb; we are hypnotized by their motion but have little pity for them when they ram their bodies into the burning bulb. David and Katia’s lives circulating on the screen are as repetitious and predictable as the windmills that line the horizon. Sure the monotony is punctuated by a series of animalistic fucks, but basically Katia and David are little more than specimens under Dumont’s unfiltered cinematic microscope. He presents them like animals in some kind of savage nature documentary. The whole movie plays like a National Geographic special in which we watch the violent mating rituals and predatory opportunism in the animal/human kingdom. In fact, one of the most egregious crimes of Katia and David is their kind of underlying “above it all” demeanor in which they somehow feel elevated and insulated from the rest of the species. They are insulated from the landscape and the people that occupy it by their cultural privilege, and they turn everything into a “scene” to be laughed at or viewed with cultural amusement and detachment. Twentynine Palms is a kind of dissection and critique of the “human animal” that ultimately becomes cannibalized by the very animal nature it attempts to deny. I always say that it is our attempts to deny our animal nature through the artificial construction of corrupt power systems and commodity culture (western imperialism and global capitalism?) that will bring us to our end. Ultimately the things we create to distance us from our animal core become a new kind of species that will bring us down.
Dumont delivers Katia and David as if they are a curious animal species presented for observation. The unfiltered photography offers a clinical view of the landscape and environment which Katia and David occupy like organisms being studied under a microscope. The landscape is what the landscape is – desert, car, hotel, restaurant – without embellishment. Like any wildlife documentary, the camera seems particularly intent on filming the species during mating, so there is no shortage of sex scenes. The subjects mate in the pool, on the rocks, on the bed, and against the wall. But none of it is erotic sex. It is simply animal mating. During the pool sex scene, the swimming pool is like a petri dish where we observe the organisms fuck. We witness how the male dominates the female while the white plastic lawn chairs watch from the sidelines. David blows bubbles like a fish, and then moves in for the “kill.” He’s not even human. He is like some kind of single cell amoeba whose entire life force is consolidated in his cock. Katia, the submissive female asks, “Do you love me?” David, the dominating male says, “Touch my cock.” This is how these mating scenes are conducted. During the rock sex scene, David and Katia fuck on the rocks like some kind of insects. Their white bodies writhe on the rocks like larvae. We may as well be watching beetles copulate. During the predatory mating rituals, Katia and David grunt, howl and whimper like animals. Even during the shocking violent rape scene, the men descend on Katia and David like a pack of hyenas emerging from the brush. As David lies with his bloody head smashed into the dirt and the man (hyena) sodomizes him from behind, David’s like some kind of fresh kill lying victim to his predator.
Under Dumont’s lens, Katia and David are reduced to the grossest of stereotypes and as such garner none of our sympathy. David is the total primal cock-centered male. His sole universe resides in his cock which is his affirmation of power. His straggling hair constantly hangs over his eyes underscoring his blindness. His vision is obscured because he can’t see past his penis and his desire to dominate – his woman, the landscape, culture. If he were a dog, he’d lick his balls all day. He constantly fondles his cock, pushes it in Katia’s body and into her mouth so forcefully he almost drowns her. In fact, David’s cock is his gun. For David, sex is violence, and violence is sex. There is no separation though he is blind to his complicity in a violent culture. The relationship between sex and violence in the male animal is implicit in the final scene when David stabs Katia as if he is fucking her. David fucks like he kills, and he kills like he fucks. Certainly the movie is commenting on the connection between sex and violence in American culture as it follows David, this primal male, further and further into the inhospitable landscape of American male sexuality – barren, rocky, rugged, devoid of life. When David finally goes too far and crosses the line into unforgiving dangerous territory, his inner male brutalizes himself. Yes, David is literally fucked over by the destructive force of his own masculinity. He is literally fucked in the ass by the monster that he is, and he becomes feminized by the severity of his own masculinity.
As the man pumps David’s bare ass, we, the audience, are left aghast not just at the literal horror of the scene, but by our reaction to it. Because David is such a gross and unsympathetic exaggeration, we cannot help but feel that he deserves what he gets. The movie sets us up to be complicit in the crime, and then we find ourselves mortified by our own complicity. Our role in David’s violation is further exacerbated by how the scene is set up. When the men descend upon Katia and David, we expect them to rape her, the weak female. When David is the one who is raped, we actually experience a kind of relief and then quizzical horror over how the tables have turned. Katia watches in desperate terror as David’s controlling masculinity gets fucked by itself and is subsequently violently reduced to a whimpering woman. The real horror is Katia seeing herself reflected in David’s raped ass. The scene is excruciatingly real but also exceptionally disorienting. Because the movie is so minimalistic and everything is reduced to allegory and symbol, we can’t trust the scene. Is David being raped by a psycho Marine? Or is he being raped by himself/his psychic doppelganger? Or is Katia unconsciously exacting some kind of psychic revenge? We can write our readings onto this scene infinitely, and that is one of the pleasures and frustrations of this kind of movie, the fact that it’s so wide open to interpretation.
Katia is no more sympathetic than David. While David fondles his cock and drinks bottles of beer, Katia paints her toenails and blow dries her hair. She is a flaccid, somnambulistic, passive, ineffective, pouting girl. She is completely infantilized as she sleeps in the back seat, wanders around in bare feet, blubbers like a baby, locks herself in bathrooms, or makes whining declarations about being hungry. David has to teach her everything – how to drive, open a hotel room door with a key, or suck his dick. When she is given control of the phallus (the Hummer) she is incapable of commanding it, drives it into bushes, scratches its surface, then laughs like a girl. Katia sees the world through her ignorant girl-colored glasses. The scene with the three-legged dog glares with Katia’s stupidity. She’s so busy indulging her cute dog fantasy that she fails to see that she is putting the dog in danger. Of course when David hits the deformed dog, he may as well be hitting Katia since he treats her and fucks her like a dog.
Katia and David are both egregious stereotypes, not only of their gender, but of their privilege. They see the whole world as a fiction, a scene in a movie, a big entertainment for their amusement. They drive around in the insulated Hummer watching the world go by, and they are oblivious to the reality of their circumstances. Their cultural ignorance and spoiled self-centered insulated view of the world is evident in what few human interactions they have. They quietly mock the Chinese food and people in the restaurant, the Marine eating ice cream at Foster’s Freeze, and the “crazy” men in trucks (who ultimately come back to haunt them). They have no sense of their own vulnerability or potential for danger (like when they go up to the house with the dogs without any sense of a potential threat). The endless scenes in the Hummer serve as the literalization of David and Katia’s insulation. They occupy its pristine interior as if they are riding inside a commercial. They are as little connected to the origins of the vehicle they occupy (designed by the military for combat) as they are to the landscape they occupy (which contains the Marines Corps facility). The Hummer serves as a kind of material evidence of the distancing effect and alienation that media and consumerism promotes. As with the rape scene, Dumont also forces us to be complicit in the fetishization of the “product.” The camera forces us to take the backseat of the Hummer and drive along with Katia and David in the vehicle, so we find ourselves sitting with them and participating in their view through the camera’s eye. Whether we like to admit it or not, Dumont makes us enjoy a moment of voyeuristic fetishism. (So this is what the inside of a Hummer looks like? And this is what it feels like to ride in one?) As the movie progresses, the Hummer gets scratched, dirt soils the dashboard, and reality begins to seep in. The violent reality of the interior and exterior landscape finally ruptures through, and in the end we see the gutted Hummer sitting in the middle of the desert with David’s dead body lying face down.
Speaking of landscape, the minimalism of the interior and exterior shots comprises a cinematography of the barren that underscores the barren interior landscape of Katia and David. The scenes are intentionally framed with blandness and washed out color – motel nightstands littered with fast food soda cups, the blurry black box of a television, a lifeless washed out still life painting. Dumont’s aesthetics are delivered through a de-aestheticization of every scene. The flat emptiness and static view becomes a solid menace. We experience the town through the mundane banal sounds of cars passing on the highway, tinny music being piped in from loud speakers, a Chevron gas station, the static poles of palm trees, empty store fronts, and rows of nondescript houses. This is what these places look and feel like, but there is a tension between knowing the place is real but also knowing that this is a highly stylized view of this place that is stylized by its very absence of style. The “still life” portrait is periodically interrupted by a tinge of violence lurking below the surface – red necks shouting from a red truck, a police siren zooming by, a dark car stalking the streets at night, or one piece of red fabric dangling in the corner of the screen. The exterior landscape is just as barren with its infinite supply of rocks and dirt, periodic sprinkle of buildings, streetlights, a ripped to shit plastic garbage can, or passing freight train. And of course the ultimate barren landscape is the one between Katia and David. They are as alienated from each other as they are from the world outside their windows. All their communications are stilted and void of connection and content. Just like their sex is ultimately an empty animal act, their communications consist of a verbal terrain as impenetrable and rocky as the desert. The fact that they lapse in and out of French and English doesn’t help. Neither we nor they are ever sure of what they are saying.
I love the kind of minimalist landscape offered in Twentynine Palms. It’s like an ode to Antonioni, Wes Craven, John Ford, and Sam Peckinpah all in one. Given to us with no filters and no special effects, the great emptiness itself provokes a sense of quiet terror, and the landscape becomes a threatening presence in its vastness. And it should be menacing because, like in Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, these hills also contain a menace – the horrors of United States imperialism, its military forces and the abominations and monsters of masculinity that it creates. Hidden behind the movie and the rocks and dirt of the landscape is the largest United States Marines combat training center. Given that the movie was made in 2004, this is also an Iraq War movie, and it was made when thousands of Marines were being shipped off to the war from Twentynine Palms and returning as damaged goods. Dumont keeps the war and the military quietly tucked away, but its presence haunts the film in glimpses – the Hummer itself, an American flag blowing on the sidewalk, and the back of a solider dressed in desert camouflage eating an ice cream cone at Foster’s Freeze. Though not explicit, it is clear that part of what Twentyine Palms is doing is removing the veneer of insulation that has kept us safe from the real “horrors” of the war and how its enterprise has cannibalized young men; how United States imperialism has forced a violent predatory masculinity on its men; and how those men are victims of their own image and training. As the man with the shaved head rapes David at the end of the movie, and he howls and cries, it is as if he is bellowing the sodomization of the American male in general and the deep wound at the core of the American male psyche. Maybe he is a soldier who returned from the war as a psycho. Maybe he’s not. But he and David are both sides of the same coin — the American male being fucked by a system that has made him into an abomination and a monster who ends up fucking himself for what he has become. It should come as no surprise that David shaves his head like the Marine he mocks earlier in the film before he stabs (fucks) Katia to death. He is forced to see that there is no separation between him and the Marines he mocks. They are all cut from the same mold.
Yes, besides being a road movie and a study in naturalism, Twentynine Palms is a war movie, even if the war is not part of its overt narrative. There is no shortage of references to Vietnam War era movies which were about the war in the subtext though not about the war in the overt narrative. The hostile landscape of the west, the corruption of law and power, and the violence that it breeds reference Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The rape scene and the idea of a mutilated masculinity at the heart of American heroics reference Deliverance. The monotonous repetitious driving through the desert of masculinity references Vanishing Point, and the sex in the desert and the overall apocalyptic sense of the barren landscape references Zabriskie Point. Twentynine Palms, like all these movies, points to an underlying diseased environment spawned by American military activity without overtly proseltyizing its politics. In a way, these kind of coded, minimal narratives are more effective because they do make us dig deeper and think about more complex meaning rather than spoon feeding us their message. We are forced to make connections and understand at a deeper level.
In the end, the movie is distilled to such minimal symbolism that it’s hard to say exactly what Dumont’s political intentions are. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, the movie is an exercise in cinematic sadism in which Dumont manipulates the audience into participating in the crimes being committed. But to what end? Is Dumont pointing the finger at media and movies for allowing us to be so insulated from the real crimes and horrors of the world? Is he engaging in American bashing and pointing the finger at Hollywood and the US military for raping the world? Or is he turning the camera on himself and critiquing his own position as an independent filmmaker (like David) exploiting the American landscape for his own masturbatory vision? In other words, is this movie just an example of Dumont stroking his cinematic cock and forcing it down our throats, or is it art? Wait a minute, or is all art masturbation? Whatever the movie is, it provides infinite food for thought and I like it.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.