Earth, Air, Water

Desser House Chips

People have been acting for a very long time, and the profession is rich with allure. Nearly 2,500 years ago, in his tragedy The Bacchae, the Greek playwright Euripides observed:

Headlong he runs to death.
For death the gods exact, curbing by that bit
the mouths of men. They humble us with death
that we remember what we are who are not god,
but men.

What joy to speak such lines before an audience! To call to the assembled crowd, enjoining them to consider such themes! What ham bone could resist such glorious occupation.

But actors also engage fundamental notions by which people understand the world in a way that transforms them. There is no higher praise than when a performance elicits remarks like, “I really believed what she did!” Or “He made me forget I was watching a play – I was there with him in some other place and time!”

The desire to work such magic can tempt the actor to dabble in risky psychic business. Participation mystique, for example, regarding which C.G. Jung explained, “It denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.”

If everything works out all right things are cool, sometimes even impressive. But, as my shrink Tom once remarked, “It’s like walking around with your unconscious hanging out…no wonder strange things happen.”


Imagine the interior of a 1966 BMW sedan. We had been on the road since 2 am, talking movies and screen plays and actors and directors. Ahead Highway 86 glided through the halo of our headlights, sliding endlessly away under the car. Out the back and side windows the star crowded sky glistened above the empty black silhouettes of the hills.

It was going to be a long day, and none of us had had the discipline to nap the night before. How could we? We were in our twenties. It had been Friday night. All we had to do was stay awake another eighteen hours or so. Then we could crash and catch up. We knew the drill. That’s how we’d played it three times before. Get through Saturday – then Sunday would be fine.

On our left to the east the sky began to lighten. The crest line of the mountains on the far side of the valley became distinct. Nearer by the first blue-gray hints of dawn reached out to us across the still surface of the Salton Sea. We glided over a rise and not too far ahead down the highway a candy red neon sign came into view.

“Desser House” we all exclaimed then laughed.

“This is what we should be filming?” David, the driver and cinematographer proposed.

“Our arrival at the Desser House?” Greg, the director asked.

“Not us,” David explained. “Whatever weird thing we find there.”

He had a point. If we had captured on film the odd circumstances we discovered in our rooms each time we had checked in on our previous expeditions to Salton City it would probably have spliced together into something compelling. Perhaps even mysterious. Greg considered the logistical challenges. “Can’t do it,” he concluded. “If we hang out at the motel until there’s enough light to shoot, there won’t be time to set up at the shore before the sun comes over the mountains.”

A pity. In similar circumstances today all of us would have simply whipped out our cell phones. But in 1975 it was considerably more complicated to capture live footage and sound. The USC Film School standard issue equipment in the trunk – a Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder and an Eclair 16mm camera – were excellent but delicate and took time to set up. And we had no lights. Greg and David were determined that the sun would be the only source of illumination by which our little black and white movie would be shot. A reasonable plan considering the slim budget. And it made a certain amount of aesthetic sense as well since the dramatic locale we hoped to simulate was the Arabian Desert near the ancient city of Petra in the 13th Century.

We rolled to a stop in front of the motel office. The lights were on inside, but as we had come to expect no one was behind the desk. The wind was blowing so hard that only David got out of the car. He pressed the button beside the door.

We waited and gradually the structures beyond the small office building could be seen in the near-darkness. The motel sat on a big square patch of desert with two-story lani-style arcades of rooms along three sides around a parking lot with a swimming pool in the center. To our left, at the foot of the southern arcade stood a low dark building that housed a restaurant and a card casino. Like most of Salton City, the Desser House was slipping into abandonment and decay. Dying with the lake that had spawned false hope of prosperity twenty years before.

“Here she comes,” someone observed.

“Which one is it?”

“I have no idea. I can’t tell them apart.”

A girl, perhaps 15 or younger, wearing cutoffs, fuzzy slippers and holding a sweatshirt close around her – her hair whipping wildly in the sandy wind – hurried out of the gloom toward the office. She unlocked the door and five minutes later David emerged waving a key attached to an elongated green diamond of plastic. “Today’s lucky number is 27,” he told us as he climbed in and started the engine. “Ground floor center.”

“Which one was it?”

“Don’t know,” David shrugged. “I can’t tell them apart.”

We got out of the car in front of number 27. “Don’t unload anything until we check out the room,” Greg shouted over the boom of the wind. David went to the door and inserted the key.

We had yet to score a workable room on the first pass. As far as we could tell two teenage sisters were operating the place on their own, and they seemed to be having trouble keeping track of which rooms they had cleaned after visitors had vacated. Perhaps initially it had not mattered much. There were nearly 70 rooms and since we never counted more than three cars in the large parking lot at any one time almost all the rooms were almost always empty. But gradually it seemed that someone had spent a night or two in pretty much every room, and signs of prior habitation were what we had come to expect to find in the first, or even second, room we were assigned.

There had been a somewhat comical aspect to the state of the first room we entered at daybreak the previous Saturday. At least we hoped it was more comical than sinister. Inside when we turned on the light we found near the door a pair of blue jeans, but in a state unlike anything I had seen before. And though, out of curiosity, I attempted to reproduce the effect several times afterwards I never managed to pull it off.

Imagine, if you will, that someone – a man it seemed – had stood facing the kitchenette, pulled his pants down all the way to the floor – I mean compressed flat against the floor – then somehow stepped out of them without disturbing the perfect symmetry of the two circles of crumpled pant legs within the larger perfect circle of the waist, complete with belt and silver rodeo buckle. Stranger still, there was an open suitcase on the bed, a set of keys in the ash tray on the nightstand…and…it was not yet 6 am.

“So where’s the guy?” we all had wondered.

“People come and go” was the only explanation one or the other of the sisters had offered. “It’s hard to keep track.”

David turned the key, then the doorknob and pushed. The door opened a fraction of an inch then closed again firmly. “Hello” David called, stepping back and brushing something from his face.

“What is it?” we shouted.

David said something, but we could not hear it over the rumbling wind. “Sand,” he repeated.

“Look at the window,” Greg pointed.

The curtains were pressed against the glass, at first firmly, then less so, then firmly again, as if the place was breathing.

“They must have the air conditioning on full blast,” I proposed.

“No,” David managed. It seemed his throat had suddenly gone dry. “It’s not cold in there.”

John, the sound technician, didn’t say much when we were all together, though he’d open up one-to-one if you went slow and didn’t show too much surprise at some of the things he said. There was not a lot for him or me to do between takes but find whatever shade was available and try to keep sand out of the Nagra. So we often spent a good deal of time sitting together with our backs against a rock or the wall of an arroyo. And during one of our conversations I learned that he carried a small caliber semi-automatic handgun.

John went to the door and I fell in behind. We pushed and the door pushed back but began to give way. A torrent of warm air heavy with grit poured out accompanied by an orange glow that grew brighter as we edged the door open. Suddenly we were inside, standing in a swirling sandstorm, bathed in light of a infernal hue.

The temperature dropped. The carpet, the bed, everything, lay under an inch of sand wavy with dunes. In the kitchenette the door of the electric oven was open and all the burners were set to high. I turned them off and the room quickly faded into darkness except for faint gray light coming from the half open bathroom door.

Since we didn’t have goggles the torrent of wind pouring out of the bathroom made it almost impossible to look inside. A quick peek, however, revealed that the floor was buried under drifts of sand sloping down from the walls, the sink and bath tub appeared half full of sand, and all the thick white glass had been knocked out of the small window in the back wall. That breach framed a dim vista of desert rising slowly to distant hills from which swarming clouds of sand and fragments of twigs raced toward us.

Half an hour later our personal belongings were stashed in a corner two-bedroom suite on the ground floor and I was in costume.

“We’re burning daylight,” Greg fretted as we piled back into the car. An incongruous band – several very contemporary and sharp-eyed film students, plus one self-conscious aspiring actor dressed in medieval attire, armed with a long, two-edged sword and wearing a white size 8 cowboy hat on his scruffy blond 7¼ size head.

From a distance the Salton Sea was beautiful like a primordial vision of the birth of the world. Water, mountains and sky, raw and featureless except for shifting tints of gray going blue reflecting each other above and below. But the sights nearer by were grotesque and the smell appalling. Dead fish bobbed in ripples nudging ever closer to the shore where they would rot and their bones join rows of their predecessors lining the flat beach in both directions as far as the eye could see.

Chemical fertilizers from agricultural runoff combine with industrial waste and raw sewage flowing north via New River out of Mexico to produce a toxic brew in the unique oxygen-starve environment at the bottom of the sea. Unpredictable and sudden fermentations occur, sending clouds of poison rising to the surface killing the fish, and sometimes also annihilating large numbers of migratory birds who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such was the fate of the eared grebe. An estimated 155,000 of the small diving birds perished in a single incident.

“Do you remember that shot of Mifune in Seven Samurai where he’s standing with his sword resting across his shoulders?” Greg asked.

“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah,” I grinned and showed him my recollection of the manly stance.

He turned me around so I was facing the water and mountains then ran back to where David had set up the camera and framed the shot.

“That stinks,” John muttered.

“Ignore him,” Greg called to me. “He’s talking about the fish. Just hold the pose. ”

“Here comes the sun,” David cautioned.

“Roll it, roll it,” Greg called.

For a moment there was silence and the arc of the sun began to rise over the mountain tops beyond the sea. In my imagination I saw what David was seeing through the lens and I was well pleased. Yes, I thought, I do look dashing. Very Tashiro Mifune-like. The stuff of legend. Then into my self-aggrandizing revery I heard John intone, “What sort of man reads Playboy?”

Again there was silence, but the strain was palpable. “No one laugh,” Greg whispered though clenched teeth. “Please God in heaven, no one laugh.” And of course we all did.

David completed a couple more setups including a pan north to south along the entire length of the sea to suggest what I had been looking at so Greg would have something to cut to when my manly stance collapsed into quivering convulsions. Then we packed up and hurried to the car. The air was already beginning to heat up. The scent of rot would soon shift from really bad to unbearable.

As we raced back through the ruins of Salton City and rolled into the Anza Borrego Desert I toyed with the idea of staging the accidental escape of my too-big cowboy hat out the window. As if he could read my thoughts David caught my eye in the rearview mirror and cautioned, “Be sure to keep your hat on between takes.”

The previous weekend I had been laid low by heat prostration in the middle of Saturday afternoon and we lost a third of a day of shooting. Like the goings on at the bottom of the dying sea, a spiral of chemical reactions had been triggered. My costume was designed to be as light as possible, but it still consisted of several layers of thick fabric that tended to hold the heat. Consequently, I sweat pretty much from dawn to sunset, and drank a lot of water. But when one sweats, substances that used to be inside the body tend to migrate out, including salt. And a certain level of salt is needed to regulate the process of perspiration. The previous Saturday I had drunk so much water, and sweat so profusely, that I had drained the salt from my system. When that happened, my pours opened, the remaining water inside me suddenly ran out, I turned gray, and felt nauseas in any position except lying down. If one was alone and did not know better the lying down could prove fatal because the only way to survive is to get up and find some salt to eat. But your instinct is to lie very still in your cool wet clothes.

David and the others had gotten me to a ranger station where I was given a monster salt tablet and allowed to lie on my side on a cot for an hour, after which I was weary but otherwise entirely fine. The next week I put salt on everything I ate and felt confident that the worst was behind me were desert mishaps were concerned.

Desser House Chips

Our primary location in the Anza Borrego Desert was a flat plateau laced here and there with networks of deep dry arroyos, from which extended equally deep tributaries called slots that wound away like ever-narrowing veins though thousands of years of sediment. Some of the larger arroyos were more than fifty feet deep and twenty feet wide, and offered considerable shade when the sun was not directly overhead. This is where much of the action of the movie took place.

The morning slipped by pleasantly, but by mid-day even in the shady depths of the arroyo where we were setup began to get very hot. Or so it seemed to me. Everyone else appeared less discomforted by the heat than usual.

There was a slight overcast that softened and defused the light. Greg and David were ecstatic. These were ideal conditions for shooting in black and white since textures and other fine details that often got washed out under intense light would register on film. They were energized by the possibilities and we picked up the pace. At the same time I found myself feeling wearier as the afternoon progressed and I tried to remain as still as possible between takes.

In the moments when I was not distracted by things John chose to share there was much to occupy my thoughts. From time to time a handsome black beetle would amble by leaving a long trail of delicate fern-pattern footprints in the soft sand.

Such confidence, I marveled. Such certainty about where he’s going!

At one point I found myself lying on the floor of the arroyo beside a layer of the wall of sediment that was peppered with thousands of tiny white goniatite shells. Squid-like creatures that have been extinct for more than 200 million years. Looking up I could see the edges of the surface of the desert high above me on both sides of a strip of sky. I imagined the geological events that had taken place in that very spot. Drifting, shifting sands and seas, leaving layer upon layer of silt and rubble. I wondered what it meant that I was reclining where the sun had only just begun to shine again since long, long, long before medieval man, the ancient Greeks, or even the first mammals walked the earth.

I was much relieved when we finally packed up and began making our way back to the car – looking forward to the long ride back to the Desser House and planned to fall asleep as soon as we were on the road. But when we climbed out of the last ravine onto the desert floor Greg and David realized there was an opportunity to get one last rather spectacular shot. The sun was settling down into a bank of dark clouds creating a strangely shimmering mottled pattern above the distant horizon. Inconveniently, there were telephone poles in the way.

We climbed into the car and drove like crazy people to the highway, then headed north until David was sure he could frame a shot out across the flat terrain to the west that did not include any man-made structures. While he set up the camera Greg pointed me toward the glow of the setting sun behind the clouds.

“Just jog toward the sunset until I call cut,” Greg directed.

He was so excited and I was so weary that neither of us had the wits to observe that the wind was coming up and we were already nearly shouting at each other to be heard.

“Ready to roll,” David called.

“Then roll ‘em,” Greg called back and wacked me on the shoulder. “Head out, soldier!’

I began trotting toward the setting sun. Having no trouble feeling like some weary warrior near the end of the road. Almost immediately it occurred to me that I could hear nothing but the wind rushing past my ears and I began to wonder how far I should run. The custom is to keep doing whatever you’re doing until the director tells you to stop because you can’t know what he or she is seeing or thinking. It could be that something completely unexpected and wonderful is being recorded that you are not aware of, and you don’t want to spoil it by breaking the moment. So I trotted and trotted, and the sun began peeking through the clouds straight ahead casting everything else in my line of vision in darkness. How wonderful it will be to lie down and fall asleep, I thought. Just a little farther. Just a few more steps.

Finally I slowed to a walk, then stopped and leaned forward on my knees panting and sweating. After a moment my eyes lost their sun spot blindness and I found I was looking down into an arroyo so deep that the bottom was lost in darkness. One more step would have been my last.

Rain began to fall before we got back to the motel. A short time later there was a tremendous thud that shook the building.

“6 point 0 at least,” David speculated.

“More like a truck running into the back of the building,” John was certain.

A flash flood had surged down from the distant hills. The rampaging leading wave quickly past, but the entire motel complex was now immersed in six inches of water. The next time one of us opened the door a deluge poured in flooding the place. We scrambled about in the rising torrent, tossing equipment and personal belongings on top of the furniture. That night I slept in a bed that stood like a segment of causeway over the waters of a dark and silent sea.


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