Film Scouts Reviews

"Desert Blue"

by Karen Jaehne

Poets believe in the "spirit of place" - which finds its capitalist equivalent in the real estate mantra: "location, location, location.." Morgan Freeman has made a film about both - that is, about what happens when the spirit of a place is shattered in order to sell it as a location. It is a common theme in movies about identity, whether in Scotland's "Local Hero" or Antonioni's "Red Desert." It goes like this: the character(s) seems lost, a stranger in a strange land, and only upon discovering the mystical spirit of the strange land, does the hero(ine) take on an identity and bridge the alienation. That's the kernel of the corn from which many modern masterpieces derive.

"Desert Blue" follows this archetypal pattern in part, exploring as it does, the wasteland of a Nevada town called Baxter, poised between the turquoise skies and the turquoise treasure still trapped underground. The desert has been defiled: the mining has been replaced by atomic fallout, and the water supply is drained off toward southern California. It seems to be under a curse, and notwithstanding the melodrama of the characters, that's what the film is really about: can love conquer toxic waste?

The film's first false note is in its attempt to say it's set in an "off-beat" California town, perhaps because Nevada sounded too exotic, or too "Vegas," although the location used is the actual old mining town of Goldfield, Nevada, which is part ghost-town, part life's last ditch effort to justify itself. (I know this because my father was born in a ghost-town up the river.)

Against this backdrop, the characters of Blue (Brendan Sexton III) and Skye (Kate Hudson) meet, and it has been turned into one of those "meet cute" scenes - which strikes the film's second false note. These two kids have nothing in common: she is an ambitious ingenue from Hollywood with an agent, and he's a bright kid stuck in a trailer park with nothing (which is almost like having an agent).

Anyway, Blue's buddies are all quirky characters who lead typical teenage lives, despite the wasteland called home. Here again, the film hits a false note: the characters are balanced out, so that each of them has a romantic interest, permitting little subplots of boy gets girl, because they are too honest to judge by appearances. The fat kid also gets laid.

Clearly, it's been a while since Morgan Freeman was a teenager, and I'm reluctant to blame these formulaic errors on him entirely. It is probably the inevitable result of "developing" a script with a lot of professionals trained to look for a specific kind of script putting in their two-cents, to make sure it adheres to somebody's idea of success. Unfortunately, if that idea is already out there and being taught, it is already a cliche. And what makes for true success? Originality. Thus, Freeman didn't defend his idea from the development babes. (They're called D-Girls in the studios.)

Freeman has tried to find out what happens to kids stuck in nowheresville outside the realm of teenage fashion and fads, but it doesn't feel like it derives from the point-of-view of its subjects, who are implicitly provincial and lost in the armpit of the world. The message of the movie is that this open desert with its peculiar kind of liberation lends you the status of "outsider with insight" into the superficial world of celebrity and politics. That is presumably why our nifty little chick with a booming acting career gets into a relationship with the desert boy (remember "Nowhere Man" - that's what this guy will be as an adult!) specializing in home-made bombs and destruction. In light of the recent news, this is not cool.

And it's not art, because it doesn't show exactly why kids want to blow things up. Compared to similar kinds of couple-in-the-desert films - a favorite scenario of David Lynch, several German films and a constant of Antonioni's oeuvre - Freeman's Blue Desert adeptly features an over-lit cinematography that captures the arid emptiness of the place. He has even created the kind of quirky characters who are shaped by this landscape. Indeed, Freeman created all the characters for these actors, because it helps him, he explains in the pressbook, make the characters more "real." And his goal was to show how this place forces people to be real, because they're cut off from any ready-to-wear identities in California.

The good news is that Freeman's intention is clear. He just got stock while working out the plot ("Story is hard! - Dashiell Hammett) and some all-too-conventional responses to this Salvador Dali world risks pushing the characters overboard into the shifting sands of cliches.

The bad news then is that Freeman needed to find actions for his characters that are as unique as the characters. The real people that inhabit our bodies are seldom liberated; it's just too big a risk for the movies.

Which is why we have "indies." Sorry, but Desert Blue got fenced in.

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