In the film blog of the British newspaper, The Guardian, a few days ago, the weekly feature called "Clip joint" called on readers to submit movie scenes featuring the desert, to compile "a tour of the best web morsels on Sahara-like expanses." The writer declared that "I can't find the exact quote, but somebody once said of Lawrence of Arabia something like, 'The desert is the screen.' Frankly, with films, that's all I need to hear. Help me to my seat forthwith, usher: I need an extra-large tub of grandeur, and sand in my hair." (For non-UK readers, the "usher" refers to the person in a cinema or theatre who shows you to your seat, and the "tub" is is a - traditionally mediocre, but you do find Baskin Robbins these days - container of ice cream). Now geologists obviously have a unique and idiosyncratic perspective on this; I have spent long periods in movie theatres losing the plot but trying to figure out from the background geology where a scene was actually filmed. And, of course, I'm particularly interested in films which don't simply occur in a desert setting, but which the desert - and, ideally, the sand - is a critical part of the plot, if not an actual character.
So I've just spent a very enjoyable couple of hours looking through the responses in The Guardian, and checking out many of the YouTube links (I'd already added my own, which I shall come to shortly). The nominations cover a spectrum, from films in which deserts show up, through films which are largely set in an arid place, finally to films in which the desert and the sand are not just the background but a constant theme - they have roles, they provide tension. In the first category of the spectrum, one can move from Casino, Ben Hur, through Paris Texas and There Will be Blood, to Zabriskie Point which starts the next category. Ice Cold in Alex, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Clint Eastwood's forced walk through the dunes includes some great granular bits), The Flight of the Phoenix (both versions, the older one the better), Humphrey Bogart in Sahara (see my "angle of repose" post), and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia. Next, there is an obvious group which initiates the final category in the spectrum - Dune, Star Wars (the sand people and the deserts of Tatooine), The Sheltering Sky, and The English Patient (the initial scene of which, with the plane flying over the sunset-illuminated dunes, is staggeringly beautiful - I might, carried somewhat away, argue that dunes are female....).
Which brings us to the extreme sand end of the spectrum. Runner-up is The House of Sand, from which the image at the head of this post is taken. Set in the spectacular landscapes of Brazilian coastal dunes, this 2006 film by Andrucha Waddington won that year's Alfred P. Sloan prize at the Sundance Festival - well-deserved, in my view. The story follows three generations of women (two played by the extraordinary Fernanda Torres and the other by her real-life mother) stranded in the dunes as a result of male dementia. Against the backdrop of this spectacular landscape, and with the ever-shifting sands playing their role, the film follows threads of history: from the 1919 expedition to the dunes to use a solar eclipse to attempt to demonstrate the curvature of space, as predicted by Einstein, through WW II to the moon landings. When her mother asks what they found on the moon, the daughter replies "nothing but sand." Scenery, science, history, drama, stunning cinematography, sex, and great acting, this movie has it all.
But the grand prize, in my personal "best arenaceous movies of all time" list goes to Woman of the Dunes, the 1964 film of Kobo Abe's book The Woman in the Dunes. The slight difference in translation is confusing, but the book title more accurately reflects the story. Hiroshi Teshigahara's film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes festival and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Filmed among Japan's Tottori coastal dunes, this surreal movie features a lost entomologist who finds himself essentially kidnapped and marooned at the bottom of a deep hole in the dunes where a widow is kept by the bizarre local inhabitants to sweep the ever-encroaching sand from her house. If it sounds weird, it is - but it's compelling. The characters - and the viewer - lose all sense of time, which becomes measured only by the movement of sand and the daily routine of their battle against it. There are constant and meticulously observed scenes of the behaviour of granular materials (hardly a common commendation for a film, but I thought they were brilliant). Sand really is a major character - and the concept of "sand and sex" takes on a whole new meaning. The film is wonderful, but the book is well-worth reading too - one quote:
Because winds and water currents flow over the land, the formation of sand is unavoidable. As long as the winds blew, the rivers flowed, and the seas stirred, sand would be born grain by grain from the earth, and like a living being it would creep everywhere. The sands never rested. Gently but surely they invaded and destroyed the surface of the earth...... While he mused on the effects of the flowing sands, he was seized from time to time by hallucinations in which he himself began to move with the flow.
As an endnote, the theme of wind, sand, and madness is not a new one. Thanks to one of the comments in the Guardian blog, I came across scenes, evocative of Teshigahara, from the 1928 silent movie, The Wind, in which Lillian Gish (whom I have always thought extraordinary), is, in the end, saved from madness and driving sand. It was filmed, in part, in the Mojave Desert.
[to see the Guardian blog list in full, go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/apr/01/1; for a taste of The House of Sand, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BlxSR1-sErk; Woman of the Dunes, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1mpRGqkpAs; The Wind, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-Q2vDNyqXM&NR=1]