Keeler is where the postbox is.
Darwin’s over the hill and down the next valley.
And the valley after that is the one called Death.
This is the landscape of the last reel.
Owens Valley. Death Valley. The Panamints
Keeler is where the crew shot the posse gathering.
That was back before the lake was drained. Back when there was a lake that a town could front, or a ferry could cross. Back when there were active mining lodes and a nascent time industry that needed silver for their celluloid. Back when there was an end of a train line that a fugitive could disembark from. Keeler was the end of many lines: train, ferry, fault, water, time. A continental super drain.
Later, lower, two valleys to the east, there were Marcus, McTeague, the Mule and the Canary. There was what they carried. A sack of gold, guilt, greed, a grudge. The carry bag men.
There was camping gear and camera gear, hauled in seven army trucks, and a caravan of cars flying red and white flags. There were forty-something men, a harmonium player and a violinist for “mood,” and there was one Ms. Eve Bessette, script clerk. There were no paved roads, no gas stations, no running water.
Goldwyn refused to insure, citing a list of hazards like a depraved travel brochure.
- temperature from 120 to 150 degrees, not a tree in the valley
- water holes poisoned with arsenic; one drink brings instant death
- air pockets of death-dealing gas and poison fumes
- poisonous reptiles and snakes
- treacherous quick sands
- long marches in blinding light, breathing alkali dust that brings on nausea
- trackless wastes in which hundreds of parties have been lost
Six weeks in the summer of 1923 with the tanned game hunter, tired of “cinematographic chocolate éclairs.” Uncompromising, delusional, possessed, to distraction, to blindness, to sight.
Some places demand conviction.
The seizure of vision.
The one who insists.
I thought allegiance to a distinct telling was what forged the bend. But forces are also external, a bending from and towards. Towards reality. Towards melodrama. Towards site: a mine shaft, a rooming house, a dog hospital, a dentist’s office, a junk shop, a saloon, a scorched valley—that bleached nadir surrounded by starched mud heaves and shifting dunes and sulfuric vents gassing atop colliding continental plates.
I think of César Aira’s landscape painter, bolted by lightning on the pampas, of Fitzcarraldo’s steamship hoisted up the mountain muck, or Aguirre’s feral raft.
Here’s to small figures dwarfed by landscapes. McTeague and Marcus, black smudges on the white alkali expanse. Like Loden’s Wanda, their descendent in negative, crossing the coal fields in curlers.
The place receives the drifter. The hunted. The lost. The native.
The place is always before.
And long after.
I spend a lot of time in this place now—the landscape of Greed’s last reels. The mighty drinking straw of Los Angeles stretches down the Sierra’s eastern flank. A checkerboard of mitigation ponds, sprinklers, grasses and berms dot the lakebed, engineered efforts to quell the endless dust storms that are the legacy of Mulholland and the LADWP’s diversionary coup.
Despite the in-your-face folly of the missing lake, I’m magnetized and humbled by this place of extremes where the highest and lowest points of the contiguous US sit just 85 miles apart and 5,000-year old bristlecone pines dust the dolomitic mountain ridges.
Pliable bodies, we are utterly diminished. Stubborn to the point of madness, drawn into a zone beyond the dampness complex. It is insufficient. Or too much.
Dear Erich von Stroheim,
This piece was originally written for Cartas como películas / Letters as Films, a publication of Punto de Vista Festival edited by Garbiñe Ortega.