Title: Desert Rose
Narration: Suzanne Parke
Camera/Producer/Edit: Cordelia Swann/Marek Budzynski
Sound Design: Stuart Jones
Format: digital transfer from 16mm
Production date: 1996
Production country: USA / UK
Distribution: LUX, London
Desert Rose’ is a highly personal vision of 1950’s Las Vegas where casinos, hotels and the nuclear test site of the desert reveal the seamy underside of American culture. This nightmarish reality, which is more sinister and tragic than mere glitter, vice or gambling is seen through the eyes of a film-maker whose rich visual language is expansive in its scope. The iconic value of the American landscape is strong – the minimalism of Ansel Adams, the interiors of Walker Evans, the texture and colour of Georgia O’Keefe and the lyrical freedom of Stan Brakhage are living references in a work which remains personal yet hauntingly powerful.
“For part of my childhood, to recuperate from tuberculosis, I was taken to live in the idyllic mountains of northern Nevada, where the occasional nuclear cloud drifted north from the Test Site, sixty miles from the city of Las Vegas.” – Cordelia Swann
“While filming OUT WEST we paused briefly to film the Blue Angel motel in Las Vegas. Two years later, while filming Las Vegas and the surrounding desert, the reverberations of the fall-out left by the nuclear tests of the 50s became chillingly evident – especially as I then realised that as a child I had in all probability been a Down Winder myself.” – Cordelia Swann
In DESERT ROSE we are taken from the cottonwoods, and deserts of southern Nevada to a contemporary and 1950s vision of the casinos, hotels and wedding chapels of Las Vegas, where a seamy underside is revealed, far more sinister and tragic than mere glitter, vice or gambling.
“Cordelia Swann’s ‘Desert Rose’, 1996, is a film about Las Vegas. It opens with familiar travelogue footage of the city – glittering casinos, hotels and neons. It is beautiful in the subjective, sensual tradition of independent film. But gradually the increasingly abstract patterns of light take on a more sinister aspect as a voice-over describes the hidden secrets of the town: nuclear tests in the 50s caused widespread damage to land, livestock, and individuals – including John Wayne who happened to be filming in the desert. The integration of image and narrative was a slow and measured process and as my preconceived readings of the glitter and glitz of the city dissolved, I realised that my own father had been a military observer of the Nevada nuclear teats and that, like Cordelia Swann, my own life may have been touched by the fall-out.” – Katherine Elwes ‘Videoscan: Video History- Who needs it?’ (Art Monthly, May 1996.)
Light and dark are central to Desert Rose (1996), shot in black and white.
A voice-over relates the stories of people dying from radiation built up through the use of the desert as a nuclear test site in the 1950s, when the whole place became a tourist attraction, with people being bussed in to gamble in the casinos and look at the explosions. Children would shake the ‘grey snow’ of the nuclear dust off the oleander blooms and the lights of Vegas would shimmer and sparkle. The film interweaves the evocative, ancient desert landscape and its bleaker, modern realities with the myth-invoking kitsch and spectacle of Las Vegas to create what Swann calls an ’emotional architecture’ of the epic and the personal.
The film-maker’s insistence, especially in her later work, to accentuate place and context, is a constant reminder that events ‘and other narrative triggers’ have a grounding in specific contexts and what may be conveniently called ‘the real’. However, it is the potential of the ‘ordinary’ to become ‘extraordinary’ through a combination of existing narratives and subjective investment which constantly informs Swann’s practice and exemplified at its best in Desert Rose.