By Thomas Puhr.

Los Angeles probably isn’t the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of American punk rock, but Stuart Swezey’s Desolation Center (2018) successfully shines a light on one of the genre’s lesser-known cultural hubs. The titular organization, founded by Swezey himself, held a series of concerts in the early ‘80s that featured then-emerging bands like Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth. Though hampered somewhat by the director’s obvious bias, the documentary’s insightful interviews and rare archival footage should fascinate casual listeners and diehard fans alike.

The film opens on a sadly prescient note, as several interviewees cite how police brutality and public paranoia only exacerbated the violence associated, often falsely, with the L.A. punk scene. Consider a concertgoer’s recollection of the violence that broke out after a Black Flag performance: “The cops always created the riot. They were definitely the instigators of it. I was there, and I could tell you there was no way that anybody in the place did anything to provoke that level of tactical violence.” In response, Swezey explored alternative venue locations and decided to hold a pseudo-festival in, of all places, the Mojave Desert.

The first such venture, 1983’s “Mojave Exodus,” featured Savage Republic and Minutemen, who performed between two school buses and covered their microphones with socks (to limit air and sand interference). What sounds like an unmitigated disaster (there was no stage, and many attendees, apparently unconcerned that they were traveling to a remote desert, didn’t think to bring water) initiated a series of now-legendary concerts that embody punk’s defiant, DIY attitude at its best.

These sequences, in which musicians, performance artists, planners, and audience members reminisce about the ensuing festivals, are the film’s strongest. Some of their stories illustrate just how unbridled the outings became. For example, performance artist Mark Pauline’s failed attempt to explode a mountain cave caused a metal plate to rocket over audience members’ heads. “We were gonna stop the show if somebody got cut in half, obviously,” Pauline reassures us in an interview. Despite these antics, figures like Pauline are not mere provocateurs but genuine artists; a quick Google search will yield awe-inspiring footage of his collective’s churning, fire-spewing robots (no, you didn’t misread that).

And, of course, there’s the music. Standouts include Berlin-based Collapsing New Buildings. In video footage that resembles a shamanistic ritual (or outtakes from Mad Max: Fury Road) more than a concert, the experimental group turns grinding electrical saws and rocks smashing against steel into hypnotic compositions. Compared to this unexpectedly beautiful assault on the senses, Sonic Youth’s abrasive performance from the festival’s fourth (and final) desert outing sounds downright radio-friendly. Later, Meat Puppets are shown (or rather, heard) playing in nearly pitch dark, illuminated only by the moon. It’s no wonder many audience members likened the event to a mystical experience (their admission that many, both listening and performing, were on LSD may have had something to do with those transcendent feelings, too).

Of the many colorful stories populating its brief history, Desolation Center’s third iteration, “Joy at Sea,” is perhaps the strangest. Having successfully conquered the desert, Swezey orchestrated a “water show” on a moving boat. In a stunt that would surely never come to fruition today (at least, not without some arrests), he and his crew built a stage on a rented boat so bands like Minutemen could perform as they sailed through an industrial harbor. Such experiments speak to the founder’s fascination with selecting strange venues to complement the acts, a tactic that would be copied (and commodified) by future music festivals like Coachella and Burning Man.

The initial idea’s inevitable commercialization drives the closing scenes. It’s admirable that Desolation Center disbanded at its peak, before it could commit the cardinal punk sin of selling out, but the film’s analysis of contemporary fests is transparently biased. While it takes aim at Coachella’s exorbitant prices (well above $500) and Burning Man’s mainstream makeover, it doesn’t cast a critical eye to Lollapalooza; this seems odd, until we realize its founder, Perry Farrell (Psi Com, Jane’s Addiction), is close friends with the director and features prominently among the commentators. Additionally, Swezey’s odd presence in the film (you wouldn’t know he is the director, since he presents himself as just another interviewee) doesn’t help. As a result, the end product sometimes feels more like a self-aggrandizing reunion than an honest documentary.

But even these shortcomings can’t spoil the simple pleasure of watching Sonic Youth, right on the cusp of immense fame, playing to an LSD-infused audience in the Mojave. Or of mohawked concertgoers hopping out of a yellow school bus for some McDonald’s before continuing their “field trip” to the desert. Punks have to eat, too, you know.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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