Media Arts Program

Thursday, October 24 at 7:00 p.m.

$8 general, $6 students/seniors, $5 members

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Desolation Center

94 minutes / directed by Stuart Swezey

Starring Perry Farrell, Thurston Moore, Mike Watt, Blixa Bargeld, Lee Ranaldo, Curt & Cris Kirkwood, Steven & Jeff McDonald, Mark Pauline

Desolation Center is the previously untold story of a series of Reagan-era guerrilla music and art performance happenings in Southern California that are recognized to have paved the way for Burning Man, Lollapalooza and Coachella, collective experiences that have become crucial parts of alternative culture in the 21st century. The feature documentary splices interviews and rare performance footage of Sonic Youth, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Swans, Redd Kross, Einstürzende Neubauten, Survival Research Laboratories, Savage Republic and more, documenting a time when pushing the boundaries of music, art, and performance felt like an unspoken obligation.

Directed by Stuart Swezey, the creator and principal organizer of the events, Desolation Center demonstrates how the risky, and at times even reckless, actions of a few outsiders can unintentionally lead to seismic cultural shifts. Combining Swezey's exclusive access to never-before-seen archival video, live audio recordings, and stills woven together with new cinematically shot interviews, verité footage and animated sequences, Desolation Center captures the spirit of the turbulent times from which these events emerged. The timeless power of DIY—do-it-yourself culture—is a recurrent theme throughout the film, spotlighting the true diversity of LA's early punk scene, where alienated young people—white, Latino, black, Asian, LGBTQ—joined together against the militarized police repression of the Reagan-era LAPD that was the backdrop of the film's events. More than just the story of a series of wild and unorthodox happenings, Desolation Center holds true the spirit of freedom and possibility that Punk and its clarion call of creative deconstruction embodied.

Inspired by Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo in which the protagonist goes to Herculean lengths to build an Opera House in the Amazonian jungle, Swezey saw the series of pilgrimages to the desert as his way of getting to that ecstatic experience with the limited means at his disposal. The first of these events, Mojave Exodus, transported adventurous punk and industrial music fans in rented school buses into the far, remote reaches of the Mojave Desert for surreal performances remembered as "earth-shattering" and "life-changing" by those who were there. LA Weekly described one of the events as being "like some bizarre ritual at the end of the world." Subsequent Desolation Center shows further explored unconventional locations: Joy at Sea transformed a ferry boat into a performance space floating in the San Pedro harbor, while the Mojave Auszug and the Gila Monster Jamboree events returned to the desert's expanse, pushing the limits of what a live music experience could be. Breaking down the perennial barrier between performer and audience, the Desolation Center shows became "temporary autonomous zones" outside the rigid Reagan-era society that these young people were rebelling against. On the stark, alien landscapes of the California desert, the anarchic aggression of LA hardcore punk cross-pollinated with the uncompromising sounds of New York's No Wave and Berlin's industrial musique concrète to form the catalyst for a powerful new culture that would come to command the attention of the entire world.

Some of the characters involved in the Desolation Center shows and appearing in the film are among the most compelling and fascinating of their generation including Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave's Bad Seeds), Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets), Suzy Gardner (L7), Burning Man co-founder John Law, and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Laboratories). Beyond the tale of these unparalleled events, Desolation Center also serves as a panoramic look at the 80s underground while it was still under the radar of the mass media. As a recent Vice article explains, "the magic of the shows is that they never had a chance to become diluted by money or time: they were raw, they were real, and, most importantly, they were completely original."

The story of the guerrilla music and performance events of the Desolation Center is also inextricably bound up with my own story as a young adult in the punk and post-punk music scene of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. I am making this film to tell the story of a time when pushing the boundaries of music, art and performance felt almost like an unspoken obligation. Desolation Center will be more than just the story of a series of wild and unorthodox happenings. The film is true to the spirit of freedom and possibility that Punk and its clarion call of creative deconstruction embodied. Thus the timeless power of DIY do-it-yourself culture—which has been a through line throughout all of my creative work—will be an ongoing theme in the film.

As a young underground music promoter, I was inspired by Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo. Transporting busloads of music fans to the desert was my version of Fitzcarraldo bringing an Opera to the Amazon Rainforest—getting directly to that ecstatic experience with the limited means at my disposal. By changing the setting of where music was experienced, would it also be possible to alter the listeners' perceptions of that music in a profound way?

Taking the music that I found so inspiring and placing it into the wide open spaces of the California desert or on a boat in the industrial wasteland of LA Harbor became my personal challenge. As organizer of these events, I appear in the film, sometimes on-screen and sometimes in voice-over to help propel the narrative and also reflect on the events and personalities.

The newly discovered archival footage and the interviews with largely unheralded pioneers of underground West Coast culture in this film will hopefully begin to reclaim the anarchic and unfettered roots of these now-institutionalized symbols of hedonism, commercialization, and contemporary youth culture. As a filmmaker, I worked to create a highly textured cinematic evocation of these events highlighting the visual and auditory explorations that they represented at the time.

In the decades since I first organized these quixotic excursions of idealistic young people—bent on expanding the horizons of music, art and experience itself—a pure and compelling time in our cultural history has become somewhat obscured, taken over by mega-festivals such as Burning Man and Coachella. For better or worse these uber-hyped desert festivals trace a direct lineage back to Desolation Center.

The story of the Desolation Center events is told collectively by eyewitnesses who were participants whether as musicians, artists, organizers or attendees. Through the film, I explore an almost lost subcultural story that can also be a catalyst for future generations to question assumptions and carve out new possibiliites even if only for a fleeting moment in time.

STUART SWEZEY - Director/Producer
Stuart Swezey began his creative career organizing the Desolation Center events. He is a founder of the influential extreme information bookstore, sourcebook and publishing house Amok Books. His book Amok Fifth Dispatch: Sourcebook of Extremes of Information was nominated for the Best Nonfiction Book Title in the Firecracker Alternative Book awards. Swezey produced the acclaimed documentary Better Living Through Circuitry about rave and DJ culture and has worked as a cable television development executive (Ice Road Truckers, Black Gold), producer, and show runner.

Tyler Hubby has edited over 30 documentary films. Most notable among them are The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a picaresque biography of mentally ill artist/musician Daniel Johnston; Double Take, Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez's metaphysical essay on the cold war, the rise of television and the murder of Alfred Hitchcock by his own double; the HBO documentary A Small Act; and Participant Media's The Great Invisible, which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW 2014. He also edited and co-produced Lost Angels about the denizens of Los Angeles' Skid Row and the new punk rock documentary Bad Brains: A Band in DC. He served as an additional editor on the Oscar nominated The Garden and HBO's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Hubby's acclaimed 2016 directing debut Tony Conrad: Completely In the Present was an official selection of the Rotterdam Internation Film Festival.

One of the 2014 "Generation Next" cinematographers in ICG magazine, Sandra Valde-Hansen holds an MFA from the American Film Institute. Besides lensing political and socially conscious documentaries for Al Jazeera America (Daisy and Max), PBS (Tales of Masked Men) and MTV (House of Style), Filipina-American Valde-Hansen has over fifteen independent feature credits, including F*cking People directed by Theresa Bennett and Shotgun directed by Hannah Marks and Joey Power. Valde-Hansen lensed indie darling director Gregg Araki's last two features: Kaboom, which was an official selection at Cannes and Sundance and White Bird in a Blizzard, starring Shailene Woodley and Eva Green that also premiered at Sundance. Valde-Hansen worked her way up through the camera department and was mentored by luminaries such as Stephen Lighthill ASC and Nancy Schreiber ASC. When she is not shooting, she teaches in the cinematography department at AFI.

Jeremy Royce graduated with an MFA from USC's School of Cinematic Arts in 2013. His work has screened at festivals across the country, has been nominated for a student Academy Award and Emmy and has earned him multiple awards for directing and cinematography. Jeremy's debut feature film 20 Years of Madness premiered at the 20015 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah where it won the Jury Honorable Mention. Jeremy currently works as an LA-based freelance director/cinematographer and teaches part time at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

Mariska Leyssius began her creative career as a photographer, musician and pioneering zine publisher (Contagion) in the LA punk and industrial scene. She was involved in the original Desolation Center desert shows and was a co-founder of Amok Books. While working at Island Records, she had the honor of picking Malcolm McLaren up at the airport and chauffeuring Marianne Faithfull around Hollywood. Mariska was at ground zero of music video production and has worked with directors like Julien Temple (Neil Young, Tom Petty) and Kevin Kerslake (Nirvana). She can still be found at low-profile desert parties dancing as the sun comes up.