The New American Old West: Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms
This essay was originally published at Senses of Cinema.
– – –
“Since its beginnings, many hundreds of thousands of Marines have prepared for war here, practicing their war-fighting skills in the challenging terrain and climate of the Mojave Desert. In the early days it was primarily seen as a place for artillery units to unmask devastating firepower in training. Subsequently, it has been home to numerous tenant commands, earning a reputation as the premier combined-arms training facility in the Marine Corps.”
– History of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms (1)
“The H1 and H2 were created to handle deep water, nasty side slopes, inclines and harrowing vertical ledges. So, that’s just what the AM General Test Track in South Bend, Indiana serves up. On the same course where the U.S. Army and Allied Forces have trained drivers, you’ll face twisted, muddy terrain and also learn recovery techniques. Unfortunately, after the training is over, you will in fact, [sic] have to return to civilization.”
– The Hummer Driving Academy (2)
Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003) begins amid the traffic of a congested Los Angeles freeway. David (David Wissak) is driving; Katia (Katia Golubeva), his girlfriend, rests in the back seat. They are leaving the city, headed east, deep into the Joshua Tree National Park, where David plans to scout locations for a film project. Once there, they settle quickly into routine: their days begin with a long trek into the desert, followed by a few hours of exploration and then the long drive back to Twentynine Palms, the small town where their motel is located. There they swim, have sex, shower, watch television, eat dinner, fight, and make up, in roughly that order. As in his previous films, La Vie de Jésus (1997) and L’Humanité (1999), here Dumont is interested in the mundane details of human experience. His camera lingers patiently on David and Katia’s bodies with a naturalist’s curiosity, capturing something of their boredom, their desire, their frustration, their jealousy, and their confused affection. (David, an American, and Katia, a Russian, converse in a mix of half-understood English and French.) Even in the final minutes of the film, when the Edenic isolation of the desert is ruptured by outside forces, Dumont refuses to quicken his pace. Audiences are forced to observe everything – the ordinary and the terrifying – unloosed from the safe comfort of quick cutting, manipulative sound design, or stylised photography. Dumont has once again given us “large and startling” figures and has left us to sort through the consequences (3).
While Dumont’s “humanity under glass” approach to characters has carried through each of his films – Freddy and Marie, Pharaon and Domino, David and Katia are all similarly flayed under the director’s scalpel – his latest film marks something of a departure, as his move from the small French town, Bailleul, to the American southwest necessitates a new palette of cinematic iconography and, more significantly, a new socio-political context. Reviewers of Twentynine Palms have, almost without exception, called attention to the former, citing Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970) and Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972) as a few of the film’s most obvious forebears (4). But while appropriating “American film imagery”, as Dumont admits to deliberately doing, he also comments on that imagery, deconstructing the culturally-coded messages that each image carries. “I can’t understand half of what you’re saying”, David tells Katia, but he could as easily be speaking to Hitchcock’s motel room, John Ford’s desert mountains, and the heart of Boorman’s darkness. Hollywood’s visions of violence, cowboy masculinity, and the never-ending battle between good and evil have long been mythological tropes of America’s political identity (and they have obviously gained currency in the 21st century); in Twentynine Palms, Dumont calls attention to the artificiality of those tropes and to the dehumanising effects they mask. The end result is a film equal parts high-minded allegory and kick-in-the-guts sensation. Dumont, perhaps more than any living filmmaker, deliberately challenges audiences to reconcile those tensions, or, if not reconcile, to at least experience, in all its fullness and complexity, the sudden disorientation such tensions inevitably inspire.
When all is said and done – after the endless driving, the pain-faced orgasms, the countless miscommunications, and the brutal, brutal violence – Twentynine Palms is, I think, really a film about a red truck. Specifically, it’s about David’s red H2, a sports utility vehicle modelled after the US Army’s High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (pronounced Humvee). Loaded with high-end comforts, including a nine-speaker sound system, DVD navigation, and standard leather seating, the “Hummer” is capable of producing 325 horsepower and 365 pounds of torque. Its welded steel frame, ten inch ground clearance, and 40 degree approach angle give it the appearance of being one of the toughest, most agile off-road vehicles on the market. “In a world where SUVs have begun to look like their owners, complete with love handles and mushy seats,” Hummer’s website announces, “the H2 proves that there is still one out there that can drop and give you 20.” But the H2, despite its rugged appearance, is little more than a new face on an old idea – a significantly modified version of General Motors’ oldest line of SUVs, the Chevy Suburban (a name thick with allegoric potential). The H2′s base price is just over US$50,000.
There is a danger, of course, in pushing this metaphor too far. A truck driven more often through upscale neighbourhoods than over rocky terrain, a truck with an American military pedigree and a soccer dad clientele, a truck whose name was inspired by a euphemism for fellatio – the Hummer is ripe for juvenile Freudian analysis and for simplistic pronouncements about the ethical problems of the postmodern simulacrum. Had Dumont been less patient with his material, had he treated it with too little grace or honesty, Twentynine Palms would likely have collapsed under the weight of such a symbol, becoming not a study of, in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, the banality of evil, but a banality itself. Dumont avoids that trap (for the most part) by calling little attention to the Hummer as symbol, with only a few notable exceptions. For instance, during their drives through the desert, David often stops to allow Katia to take the wheel. On one such drive, she scrapes paint from the side of the truck, then infantilises David by laughing at his anger. The brief conflict mirrors the gendered struggle that defines so much of their relationship, and it would not require too great a stretch to read David’s meticulous waxing of the Hummer as an attempt to reconstruct his masculine authority. (Welcome to Psychology 101, where “waxing a Hummer” is never just waxing a Hummer.)
It’s the nature of that masculine authority, however, and the particularly American myths that determine it that seem of greatest import in the film. In the same California desert where novelist Frank Norris’s McTeague dies as a result of his greed and jealousy, where John Wayne eternally rides horses and fights “savages”, where the US Marines “unmask devastating firepower in training”, David adopts the appropriate pose, driving his army-like truck and fucking his beautiful girlfriend with a near-bestial desperation. “We can fuck and fuck, but we can’t merge”, Dumont says (somewhat disingenuously, I think) on the Blaq Out DVD release (R2), reducing David and Katia’s troubling relationship to a universal platitude. But David and Katia are not Adam and Eve, or Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina, or Freddy and Marie; they are characters trapped at the nexus of conflicted American types, old and new: rugged individuals and conspicuous consumers, democratic liberals and unilateral militarists, Western gunslingers and West Coast hipsters. Is it any wonder they’re both a touch schizophrenic?
Unlike, say, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), with its satiric commingling of images of American military power, “Old West” masculinity and myths of redemptive violence, Twentynine Palms consigns many of its targets to spaces just beyond the edge of the screen. The most striking example is the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, which is alluded to only in the title of the film and in one key sequence. While eating ice cream, David notices Katia admiring a Marine in uniform. “You wouldn’t want me to shave my head like them?” he asks. She laughs, then tells him, “If you do, I’ll leave you”, but her answer offers David little comfort. Katia admits to finding Marines “really handsome”, and her laughter – to David, at least – is patronising. He sulks, then launches into a tirade about their conversations lacking a “logical progress”, before she interrupts him with the words, “I love you”. Tellingly, he responds, “I want you”. (The film’s dialogue, though cliched at times, does work a bit better on screen than when transcribed.)
David’s thin frame, shag haircut, and fashionably-dishevelled wardrobe put him in stark contrast to the “proud, fighting men of the US Marines” who surround the periphery of Twentynine Palms. Alone with Katia, however, he (over)compensates for any apparent lack. Dumont’s cinematographic style is never more clinical and his worldview more deterministic than in his stagings of sex. Not only do David and Katia never truly “merge”, but each appears barely cognisant of the other’s presence. Bodies become entangled; orgasms are loud, primal. Sex, for Dumont, is an act of self-gratifying violence predicated on domination. “The poor thing”, Katia says after David describes an episode of The Jerry Springer Show in which a father admits to sexually abusing his daughter. David’s casual response – “Who?” – is perhaps the film’s most chilling moment, for it portends something more base and destructive than the “desensitising effects of the media” against which cultural critics on both the left and the right rage (though that is certainly one element of Dumont’s critique). David’s nihilism puts him closer in line with the morally ambiguous heroes of Hollywood’s Old West: Ethan Edwards (John Ford’s The Searchers, 1956) and Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, 1992), for example – men who kill because they can. In David’s case – and, again, at the risk of slipping headlong into bad Freud – sex and murder have become indistinguishable; the symbolic Colt revolver has been replaced quite literally by the signified, and David, to borrow from Bill Munny, has always been “lucky in the order”.
Lucky, that is, until the final minutes of the film. Twentynine Palms ends with two acts of outrageous violence that, even upon first viewing, feel both genuinely shocking and strangely inevitable. During their final drive through the desert, David and Katia are chased and brought to a stop by three men who pull them from their truck, beat them, and sodomise David. After a three-minute, agonising shot of Katia crawling naked toward David, Dumont cuts to the motel room, where they have returned, alive but badly injured. David refuses to call the police, presumably because of his shame, and sends Katia to fetch dinner. When she returns, he emerges suddenly from the bathroom, pins her to the bed, and repeatedly stabs her. The final image is a long, high-angle shot of the desert. David is naked, facedown in the sand, dead, the Hummer parked beside him. A police officer wanders near the body, and we hear his voice as he calls for an ambulance.
Were the film to end ten minutes earlier, with David and Katia still driving, still miscommunicating, still struggling to capture a glimpse of some impossible communion, Twentynine Palms would be another in a line of cinematic meditations on modern alienation, more L’avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960) or Vive l’amour (Tsai Ming-liang, 1994) than Psycho. The seemingly random brutality of the violence, however, and the symbolically-charged manner in which it is staged, shift the film much closer to the realm of socio-political allegory. In that sense, the “attack” sequence is key. As in a classic Old West ambush, the savages appear from nowhere. Aside from a few early glimpses, David and Katia are unaware of their menacing white truck until it rear-ends them and forces them to a stop. The sequence might be boiled down to three shots. The first is a low-angle image of David’s face. He’s looking back over his right shoulder, screaming, helpless to stop the attackers’ truck from pushing their own. The look on David’s face is familiar to us by now, having already seen it on several occasions during his sexual climaxes. The second is a long shot of the two trucks coming to rest. Dumont films it from behind and to one side such that the perspective becomes slightly distorted. David’s H2 – the militaryish SUV designed to “handle deep water, nasty side slopes, inclines and harrowing vertical ledges” – suddenly resembles a toy beside the attackers’ massive pickup truck. The third is the image of David being raped, his bloodied face buried in the sand. Dumont positions the two men beside the back of the Hummer, which, metaphorically speaking, has also been sodomised. Not coincidentally, the attacker is also shot from a low-angle, and his face also contorts with a scream when he ejaculates.
At a moment when depictions of American violence, both real and imagined, tend to be commodified (as in the Hummer) or hyperstylised (as in The Matrix [Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999]) or sanitised for our protection (as in television coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), Dumont’s treatment is relatively unfiltered and uncompromising. Audiences are subjected to long takes of “real” brutality; the director only subtly imposes his editorial voice to guide the viewing. In a film that plays so self-consciously with America’s mythologies, that experience is genuinely disconcerting, for it deconstructs those myths by accosting viewers with unfiltered sensation, the best remedy, Dumont implies, for intellectual distance and moral apathy. Twentynine Palms fits comfortably into the “art film” genre, and, as such, it will likely be appreciated by those most willing to rationally dissect its network of symbols and allusions. The textbook psychosexual connotations of the attack sequence, for example, are just too overt to be ignored. And yet, watching a Bruno Dumont film is, first and foremost, a visceral experience. We are forced to sit uncomfortably and observe the beating and rape of two people, fighting all the while the learned urge to avert our eyes. Thus, when David springs from the bathroom and savagely murders Katia, we might, in a somewhat detached manner, explain it away with allusions to Lacan and the dissolution of the fictional unity of David’s masculine subjectivity (and his failed attempt to reconstruct it through violence and the shaving of his head); but the more immediate sensation is horror – horror at the spectre of violence, horror at the depravity of its nihilism, horror at the sudden realisation that so many of America’s defining tropes have made of such violence a point of pride and national unity. In that sense, Twentynine Palms is timely and urgent in a way that Dumont’s earlier (and, in my opinion, better) films are not. His appeal to transcendence is now grounded in history, at a moment when America’s myths are being written on the world.
- See MCAGCC/MAGTFTC History and Unit Information, accessed July 2004.
- See my article, “Bruno Dumont’s Bodies”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 19, March–April 2002.
- I would add the “Dawn of Man” section of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) as well. Notice how David crouches ape-like in the desert, his knees above his waist, and how Dumont films the murder, the knife rising and falling like the bone in Kubrick’s film.