If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to go on a punk rock field trip, like pile into school buses with a bunch of like-minded outsiders who are into the same kind of music as you, Stuart Swezey’s new documentary Desolation Center has you covered.
In the early 1980s, deep in the heart of the Reagan era, and facing ever-intensifying scrutiny from the cops, it was getting harder and harder for the Los Angeles punk scene to stage shows. With dwindling options, an enterprising collective of intrepid spirits, including Swezey, took it up on themselves to stage a series of guerilla happenings deep in the Mojave Desert. More than just concerts, they featured music, poetry, industrial performance art, and basically anything anyone else wanted to bring to the table. A brief blip on the radar, these events had and continue to have a lasting influence. They became legendary in certain circles and were the precursors to later cultural milestones like Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Burning Man.
Desolation Center focuses more on the LA art-punk scene than the hardcore world explored in Decline of Western Civilization. Instead of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, there’s archival footage of the Minutemen, the Screamers, Redd Kross, Sonic Youth, Swans, and other luminaries in that scene. Talking head interviews with band members, artists, scenesters, and other involved parties provide context and texture.
This film delivers an intimate glimpse at a largely forgotten, overlooked moment. It captures the wild energy, over-the-top enthusiasm, and anarchic sense of freedom. No one involved had any idea what the hell they were doing, they simply had an idea and barreled ahead with reckless abandon and gleeful naivety, and the result became mythic. It was a wild moment in time that could only have happened by thanks to the perfect confluence of people and timing, and that couldn’t be duplicated. They teetered on the brink of chaos—at one point Mark Pauline his machine performance art group, Survival Research Laboratories, attempted to blow up an entire mountain without much consideration for the potential disastrous consequences—but it was also a celebration of autonomy, youth, and being alive that only come with an edge of danger.
Desolation Center is certainly a bit idealized and over-reverent, and the more personal connection you have to this scene and these bands, the more traction you’ll get. But it offers a beguiling peek at a slice of hidden history and documents a specific, definitive moment in time, one whose influence still resonates today, even if the film itself is, at best, ambivalent to the event’s legacy. An epilogue touching on the corporatization and homogenization of branches that sprung from the original happenings has the definite tone of a disappointed parent. [Grade: B]