It begins with a landscape. The cinematic depictions of the Sonoran desert in El Mar La Mar (2017) and A Shape of Things to Come (2020), both co-directed by J.P. Sniadecki with Joshua Bonnetta and Lisa Malloy respectively, are prefaced by disorienting views. The former opens with the blurred optics from the camera’s fleeting perspective of the southwestern US border wall, the cumulative flutter of oxidised metal sheaths appearing less material than spectral. The latter features a thermal surveillance drone shot that sweeps predatorily across desert scrubland, presumably somewhere in southwest Arizona, revealing a terrain of profoundly inhospitable conditions. Implicit in both scenarios is a land that is intractable, forbidding, and potentially haunted. A land, in the words of author and anthropologist Jason De León, of open graves.1
Where El Mar La Mar obliquely mapped this ecology as an iteration of “prevention through deterrence” (according to US Border Patrol policy),2 which effectively weaponised the harsh desert landscape against collective migration, A Shape of Things to Come by contrast locates a model of singular sustenance, and possible resistance, amid such scarcity of resources. That it should manifest in the form of a desert-dwelling, gun-toting, homesteading herbalist known only as Sundog is part of the film’s abiding mystery, fleshed out with a rather elastic notion of cinematic form and a sensuous deployment of both camera and sound recording. Seen together, the two films evoke a political dimension of anonymity in alternately tragic and triumphant terms.
The grizzled Sundog featured peripherally in El Mar La Mar, primarily as a voice within its tacit oral narrative of migration stories, and the encounter compelled Sniadecki to further explore this enigmatic figure, primarily as an embodiment and index of desert habitude. The concept of the peripheral extends to the work as a whole; it limns marginalised spaces and bodies counterposed against a landscape of nearly unfathomable vastness and perceived freedom. Likewise the methodology of both films eschews any real centre of thematic gravity; as works of sensory ethnography, they are not so much about something as of it. More observational than peremptory, they operate as immersive and intertextual propositions – perhaps to the detriment of a more categorically oriented audience but much to the delight of cineastes seeking new visual grammar to accommodate the precarious world we live in.
As such, the pair of films – which exist independently but operate companionably – are predicated on De León’s invocation, from his ongoing Undocumented Migration Project, to “imagine a desert, 102°. You find an object, and there is a story.”3 That most of these stories are speculative by nature, and speak to unknowable fates, renders the classification of found objects an exercise in heartbreaking futility, useful only as typology in archeological inquiry. The filmmakers dedicate an objective eye to such material elements, while also enlisting a particular mythos of the desert – derived from cinema as well as folklore – toward an impressionistic ethnography of the Sonoran desert. Non-fiction is here purposed for a physical as well as metaphysical consideration of place. The character of Sundog, a US citizen living off the land and off the grid, may cut a less obviously polarising figure within the geopolitical rhetoric of the border – he is, after all, where he “belongs”. But A Shape of Things To Come operates in a heuristic manner to question the extent to which anything or anyone is ultimately severable.
If El Mar La Mar resembled a contemplative horror film more than a journalistic dispatch (to invoke critic Jordan Cronk’s telling description),4 then its successor plays like a version of a frontier Western imagined by a subset of the avant-garde. It is as invested in dappled light and biota as it is the perpetual noise of an industrial-military complex. Cotton-burst cumuli get equal billing with forlorn prayer cards of the Virgin of Guadalupe, brittled from the harsh sun. Within this non-hierarchical vision of the desert, Sundog is one organism among many, and the camera attends to him accordingly. First glimpsed lying in the windswept fieldgrass, his silver beard appearing like the chaparral itself, Sundog then proceeds to pluck cactus blossoms in a sparse cemetery before hunting down a javelina that will become the evening meal for him and his companion pet cats. His acumen with a rifle and subsequent evisceration of the animal suggests this is merely routine, while the camera’s parsing of the animal autopsy alerts the viewer to the very act of watching (shades of Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes ).
Where more agenda-driven modes of documentary practice might attempt some explanation of Sundog’s hermetic lifestyle, and accentuate his apparent eccentricity, A Shape of Things to Come proceeds by way of sustained contrasts to reveal his core ambiguity and ultimately cryptic nature. Rather than demythologise him, the film in effect remythologises him as a means of questioning the very identifying features by which movies seek to “establish” character. No sooner has he tossed the boar bones and plucked the gristle from his teeth that he’s seen in the confines of his trailer relaxing to a radio broadcast under soft lamplight, the soothing sounds of composer Miklós Rózsa absorbed by the dark of night as the filmmakers peer in voyeuristically. Seemingly savage and civil behaviours are held in a dialectical embrace, of which Sundog is the uncannily embodied synthesis. Just what to make of him is something the film conceptually brandishes before the viewer.
As neither fictional construct nor empirical object, the film bristles with the ontological enigma – by now either a novelty or foregone conclusion – of a Bazinian conception of the image5 (indeed the film’s provocative turning point might be said to invert the “factual hallucination” into an hallucinatory fact). But more importantly the film revels in its status as fundamentally a work of intermediation, including a rather ambiguous distinction between analogue and digital modes. Performatively, Sundog appears both solicitous of and impervious to the camera, and the film is in a sense an extemporaneous record of the tension that arises from this modality. So too does it concede to the illusion born of the inevitable staging that documentary entails, recruiting Sundog as a co-creative agent of his own making, who shapes representation and thus the narrative at large. As mutually exclusive tendencies of the medium, fact and fable are here mulched together to beguiling effect, prompting the possibility of how imaginaria might be folded into the fabric of non-fiction.
Sundog seen in his trailer, shitting in a bucket does not necessarily shout utter primitive lifestyle so much as simply reminding us of a base commonality, and a sign of how seldom cinema invests in such spaces otherwise exploited as shorthand insight into character. His ritual squat is also consistent with a certain pragmatic view of nature. The cycle of life is tedious but, looked upon intimately or with protracted attention, becomes a source of deeper fascination, of both utter terror and deep enchantment. The suggestion is put forth that, while inimitably presided over, Sundog’s habitat is not exactly his, but rather one of which he is merely a part, portrayed in all its fecundity. Caterpillars and crickets mate, a black sow nurses her piglets, a colony of ants overtakes a spent avocado, citrus fruit rots in a tadpole pond, a coyote appears among the clotheslines and sunflowers, and a snake slithers throughout with unerring vigilance. The chore of hunting that begets feeding (and ultimately excrement) does not portend quite as expected; the apparent vigour with which Sundog sharpens his knives is deceptively in the service of feeding his felines Yoda and Sprinkles (the display of affection brings an unexpected element of humour).
As for the rare depiction of extracting toad’s venom for use in the induction of psychedelic ritual, it must be seen to be believed. An equally audacious transmutation – albeit one that, once seen, defies belief – involves the sabotage of a federal surveillance tower by the long range fire of a thirty-aught-six. Whether as fact or fantasy, this act of eco-subversion focuses much of its protagonist’s primary anxiety, until now only hinted at in a few selectively overheard phone calls (yes, Sundog has wireless service). The two seemingly disconnected acts of subterfuge are related by their shared sense of elevated awareness (or the radical absence thereof); making a case for re-imagining the habitual as a factor of poetic and political consequence. While not without precedent, yet still ambitiously singular, the filmmaking style itself is implicated in such a revision of purpose.
Intervention is Sundog’s chosen tactic of resistance. An ideological holdout from the monkey wrench gang, he’s resentful of the encroachments upon his desert solitaire: “In this lifetime I’ve found useful ways to spend my time, become food, create an ecosystem. Underneath it all, I’m just here, enjoying life on planet earth,” he confides. “The life that’s coming to being here on earth in the last four billion years is really unique. When I see something coming in and screwing that up that really bothers me. Any way I can think of to slow that down, fumble it up, stop it in its tracks, I’m all about it.” Suffice to say, he has a rather developed sense of “land ethic” as defined by Aldo Leopold and elaborated in eco-philosopher Derrick Jensen’s Deep Green Resistance.6
The desert has historically nurtured romantic visions of an unperturbed expanse, just as it has attracted speculators looking to exploit this expansive feature. The presence of militarised air space, border patrol, and land-movers all raise the ire of an otherwise pacific Sundog, who ekes out a living by mortar and pestle; gathering, sifting, and crushing desert flora for medicinal tonics. Intimated here is an incubation of contempt that so often attends fantasies of preservation and self-determination, which has been mined to particularly daunting effect by filmmaker James Benning, in his meditation on Walden-cum-Kaczynski in Stemple Pass (2012). But A Shape of Things to Come, tapping a similarly disconcerting nerve, moves with more immediacy and remains ambiguous about Sundog’s destiny. His past and future are unknown. Woefully out of touch or presciently in tune: man yelling at clouds knows something, at the least, about the oncoming storm.
This deliberate absence of a known arc forces a reckoning with the material at hand. A rather salient disclosure is captured in an offhand moment when Sundog, shucking corn and harvesting squash, confesses to a history of aiding in the smuggling of migrants. “Outwitting the US government, helping people I have a real affinity for, it’s all a win,” he cackles earnestly. There are no cutaways to this alleged side hustle, only a fairly ironic episode of him hiding in plain sight of border patrol officers, just another gringo hippie to all appearances. The film playfully channels such adversity in frontier Western tropes, framing a border patrol truck perched on a distant desert plateau while a ranchero ballad beams from his truck radio in the implied foreground. The contrast provokes distinctions of just which party is doing the toiling out in this hotly contested middle of nowhere.
The deployment of sound – both in the field and in its surround sound expression – is integral to the film’s persistence of sensory reception. Indeed the film functions like an ambient, natural variation on a musical, punctuated by the radio pop and rock songs that sporadically burst amid Sundog’s quotidian routines (that he’s privy to Flock of Seagulls and Led Zeppelin is fitting of his romantically feral persona). The astonishing soundscape – design and mix credited to artist/engineer Ernst Karel – hums and crackles as if the atmosphere itself was hot mic’d, conjuring the static desert air, the soporific buzz of insects, the chorus of birdsong, and the incessant roar of military jets in their war on silence. Not least among the sonic tapestry is Sundog’s chronic grunting, evidence of the film having assumed visceral proximity to its subject, as well as affirmation that, like his hairy sow retired in a bed of hay, he’s class Mammalia as well.
Lest Sundog appear entirely unsocialised, there are “ordinary” scenes of him dropping in at the town bookstore and bar, both seemingly trivial encounters that persist, like so much of the film, to reveal and revel in minutiae. His familiar rapport with the bookseller suggests that literature may be the one commercial exception to his transactions. “How come you got all these books about snitches?” he implores (while handling a copy of Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels, and the Borderland Dream), to which she notes a holdout among the stacks, How Not to Kill Your Houseplant: Survival Tips for the Horticulturally Challenged. He replies in jest: “I’m pretty good at that, considering I don’t have any.” Her response functions as an offhanded koan to the film’s implied ethos: “I wouldn’t say you don’t have any, I would say you have an expanded definition of house.” For a film of no exacting polemic, this recontextualisation might be a good enough takeaway. From the threat of an imminent collapse in society, to the more modest notion of “home” redefined, the film scales both macro and micro scenarios, and more critically links them.
Situated within an oneiric chronology – the editing blurs between fictive and documentary impulses – Sundog appears to emerge from his act of retaliation in a celebratory mood at the town saloon while the house band jams to a cover of “Not Fade Away”. The camera eddies intimately among the musicians (the proverbial fly has long since left the wall), attuned to the palpable sensation of electrified rock ‘n’ roll, as if it too were of an holistic nature that Sundog was trying to commune with. By which point the filmmakers themselves may have finally acclimated to the desert surroundings, the sequence revealing the none-too-exotic town as Arivaca, Arizona, population 646. Has this all been a ruse, the viewer is left wondering, as Sundog and crew now seem to loiter in “civilisation” and are no longer treading barefoot into the creosote mystic?
A more forthcoming exposé would have you know that Sundog, aka Perro del Sol, was once the lone resident caretaker of the neighbouring ghost town of Ruby, a fact that is not structurally ruled out by this documentary’s more expansive repertoire, just left deliberately undisclosed. Sniadecki and Malloy have cultivated the creative potential of non-fiction, not as a fashionable hybrid conceit but rather as a transfusive cinematic endeavour. Theirs is the rare documentary in which the viewer is left genuinely mystified by the encounter, such is the manifest, experiential legacy of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab where Sniadecki once cut his teeth.
The willfully inconclusive finale finds Sundog back in his solitary kingdom, dozing like royalty in an upholstered armchair while, in actual or dreamed space, indelible images flicker before us: of nocturnal hummingbirds sipping at sweetwater feeders, and bats slumbering upside-down in collective tremor. By day Sundog has returned back to his supine place among the grass, which has become greener from the season. The power of smoked toad’s venom has apparently separated him from self, as well as the camera from any nominal subject. It has taken flight like an insect in the undergrowth, buzzing among the blossoms, borne on a wayward path that recalls Sniadecki’s homage to Bruce Baillie ((Movie of) ALL MY LIFE 1966, Bruce Baillie, 2017) and Nathaniel Dorsky’s floral effusions. And just maybe there is something of Victor Erice’s wistful sumptuousness about it.
The film’s title may have a politically oracular connotation (i.e. H.G. Wells’ speculative fiction), especially in our cataclysmic times, but perhaps it can instead be read as a modest observation that the future is shaped by what precedes it. We are the living precedent. And this film advances termite-like, per critic Manny Farber,7 devouring its own boundaries and leaving nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity. By the end there is more than one snake loose and sensing its way in this impossibly arid and haunted patch of eden.
- Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, Oakland, CA, University of California Press, 2015. ↩
- De León, Ibid, p. 5. ↩
- Undocumented Migration Project ↩
- Jordan Cronk, “A shape-shifting portrait of the US desert border, cloaked in dread,” Sight and Sound, September 2017. ↩
- André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Film Quarterly 13, 1960, pp. 4-9. ↩
- Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, New York, Seven Stories Press, 2011. ↩
- Manny Farber, White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art, Film Culture 27, winter 1962-63. ↩