Cosmic and Sublime

by Kiko Matsing

I hadn’t realized, moving to Santa Barbara, CA that I was moving to desert country. Climate here is perpetual mild summer: 60s-70s during mid-day and 40s-50s at night. Humidity averages 50-60%, so it’s comfortably dry. There’s hardly any precipitation, but the mornings are dewey from being close to the sea. No wonder they call it the American Riviera, and attracts both tourists and drifters, moneyed retirees and homeless panhandlers. It’s a good balance. The ultra rich on lower State Street never lose sight of the plight of the poor as they sip their caffè lattes. The sun shines on both the evil and the good, and it rains on both the just and the unjust. Perfect weather afforded all.

Santa Monica, CA

Went down to LA one weekend to meet with an aunt who is visiting from the Philippines. On my way back, I stopped by Santa Monica and spent the afternoon on the beach. I tried to capture the view with my iPhone’s panoramic feature in iOS7. This mode allows you to take continuous photos by sweeping the camera 180 degrees. The smart software would then stitch together the images and produce a seamless panoramic picture.

The distorting effect of having two vanishing points immediately adds drama. (You need to click on the image and view it full-sized on a new tab to best appreciate this.) Compare this with the regular shot that looks narrow and truncated. This is most apparent in the cloud formation, where the panoramic mode captures the large-scale swirling, making the scenery more breathtaking.

Pacific Coast Highway

Spent Christmas Day with an uncle who lives in Grover Beach, near San Luis Obispo. We drove up north, along the Pacific Coast Highway, for some sightseeing. The rugged California coast offered spectacular views of tall bluffs and toppled rocks.

In addition to the panoramic effect, once I uploaded the photos on Google+, I was able to use the editing templates there to give them a distinct vintage look. Here, for example, the color balance was adjusted to enhance the reds and yellows, making the photo look like sun-drenched California of the 1970s.

Solvang, CA

Solvang is a Danish town nestled in the Santa Ynez valley, northwest of Santa Barbara. (What is it doing in the desert?) It is similar to Fredericksburg, TX (German) and Poulsbo, WA, (Norwegian), which preserved the quaint architecture and traditions of their original European settlers. And like them, Solvang has leveraged its patrimony to spin itself into a profitable tourist-trap. This is no more evident than the Red Viking restaurant downtown and their awful smörgåsbord. This kitsch is no different than the made-in-China Americana on display at Cracker Barrel.

This vintage treatment makes the photo look like a faded postcard of a Scandinavian town from the 1960s, as if Alain Delon might just drive by in a Volvo. (BTW, aren’t windmills a Dutch thing?)

Road to Death Valley

No other way to capture the desolation of the desert than with a 180-degree panoramic view. The vintage treatment quickly transports you to the spaghetti Westerns of Clint Eastwood. It is hard to imagine, living close to the ocean on the other side of the mountains, that this entire region is desert. Southern California climate is Mediterranean warm-summer, with some regions quite conducive to wine-making. Just like Italy where spaghetti Westerns were actually shot.

There is a style of desert psychedelia inspired by the soundtracks of spaghetti Westerns as defined by Ennio Morricone. Prime examples include the Austin, TX group, The Echocentrics, featuring the vocals of Natalia Clavier, and the Danger Mouse collaboration with Daniele Luppi, Norah Jones, and Jack White. Infused with trip hop grooves and dense lo-fi textures, the sound becomes darker, more ambient and brooding. In fact, “Black,” from the album Rome, was used in the hit TV series Breaking Bad, a noirish, modern take on the Western, set in the desert around Albaquerque, NM.

Desert Psychedelia

This next photo shows a discontinuity on the left side, which can occur when you sweep the camera too fast that its stitching algorithm is not able to create seamless transitions. You also need to keep the camera at a more-or-less level ecliptic or the top and bottom parts would get truncated.

Endless road, open sky, and rugged country that stretches everywhere out. This is what I love about desert road trips. The emptiness clarifies the mind, purifies the soul. This might as well be the center of the Universe. Allain de Lille, 12th century French theologian, said of God: “[He] is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere…” (J.L. Borges, The Fearful Sphere of Pascal) No wonder Gram Parsons found Cosmic American Music in the honky tonk bars of Bakersfield. It is in the loneliness of small towns, in the mystical negative space of the desert, underneath the stars of the celestial dome.

Gram Parson’s Cosmic American Music

When the seminal alt-country group Uncle Topelo splintered in the 1990s, one half of the band went on to mainstream success as Wilco (Jeff Tweedy), with a polished, affected lo-fi sound. The other half pursued the alt-country back roads as Son Volt (Jay Farrar), opting for more authenticity by sticking to honky tonk roots. But this is introspective honky tonk–oblique lyrics, tinged with Zen wisdom (“May the wind take your troubles away…”), accompanied by melancholic steel guitar and twin fiddles. (Steve Leggett, Allmusic) This realizes the “cosmic” in Gram Parson’s Cosmic American Music–a mix of Buddhist acquiescence to life’s downturns and cowboy grit honed on desert flint. “Windfall,” from their debut album Trace, is the perfect road-trip song. Make sure to put on repeat.


Now and then it keeps you running
It never seems to die
The trail’s spent with fear
Not enough living on the outside
Never seem to get far enough
Staying in between the lines
Hold on to what you can
Waiting for the end
Not knowing when

May the wind take your troubles away
May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your troubles away

Trying to make it far enough, to the next time zone
Few and far between past the midnight hour
Never feel alone, you’re really not alone…
Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can’t recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven

May the wind take your troubles away
May the wind take your troubles away
Both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel,
May the wind take your troubles away.

Is there any doubt what VAST was going for on the cover of their 2005 album? Never has the band name and its effaced typography fit the artwork as well as here. Turquoise and crimson are the colors of the Southwest, the colors of desert sky and earth. (Yet the photography was ironically done in black and white.) The music is soaring as well, the turn to a more acoustic sound tempering their industrial rock roots. Especially so in “Desert Garden,” where the experience of expansiveness becomes an encounter with the sublime (“The sky is big and my life is small…”). Another great desert road-tune when cruising at 10 miles over.

Desert Garden

Do you feel like I do
Tired of everything
Can you feel what I can
Almost everything

I want to leave today
The sky is big and my life is small
I want to leave with you
So we can build a perfect garden

The stars are far away
I can see them with my eyes
I watch them fade away
Like the moments of my life

I want to leave today
The sky is big and my life is small
I want to leave with you
So we can build a desert garden

The stars are far away
I can see them with my eyes
We watch them fade away
Like the moments of our lives

Strange how the houses look
Exactly all the same
And you’re just a slave like me
At least I know it’s true

I want to leave today
The sky is big and my life is small
I want to leave with you
So we can build a desert garden

Sand Dunes and Salt Flats

We usually get annoyed at random tourists ruining our vacation photo, waiting for them to get out of the way or contorting the camera angle to get a clear field of view. We want our photos to be absent of people but ourselves, as if we had the entire place to ourselves. We forget that we are also tourists, annoying the hell out of somebody else, getting in the way of their vacation photo. Exclusivity is the most invidious of conspicuous leisure.

There was no way to take a panoramic photo of these sand dunes without the tourists, so I let them figure prominently instead. The effect was surreal. These decorously dressed Chinese and Indian out-of-towners look like they staggered out of a space ship crashed into some forbidden planet in a Soviet sci-fi B-movie from the 1950s. Oh, where are the voracious sand worms?

Love the rich colors of this salt flat. Usually, I would imagine them to be bleached white bone. Glaring and harsh. But here we have shades of mauve, taupe, ochre, ivory, coffee. Nick Joaquin loved the color of deep jungle, its whisper of Eden. “Verde yo te quiero verde,” he declaimed in a poem. But he speaks of primary, tropical colors: of river-cool sea-serpent skin, and waters jewelled thick with islands. Desert colors are perpetually sanded down by wind and water. They are vague, uneven, tonal. Buffed into sonorous overtones by the great, transient forces of erosion.

Zabriskie Point

My favorite spot in Death Valley. Ultimate badland. It’s sulfurous yellow gullies, carved deep by millennia of slow weathering, look utterly otherworldly. This infernal, alien landscape does not belong in this world, but in a galaxy, far, far away.

Droids in Death Valley

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, Zabriskie Point, the desert becomes the accidental meeting place for star-crossed lovers. The movie bombed in the theaters and was panned by critics.

This is such a silly and stupid movie, all burdened down with ideological luggage it clearly doesn’t understand, that our immediate reaction is pity… [The] hero steals an airplane, flies into the desert, sees the girl’s 1952 Buick, buzzes it a couple of times, lands, and they go into the desert and make love. They make love, in fact, at Zabriskie Point, which is the lowest point in the United States… The love scenes are obnoxiously true to all the corrupt love scenes Antonioni copies them from. There is no feeling of liberation, or delight, or anything else other than a long, ridiculous time when lots of people roll around in the sand. Then, let’s see, the hero paints the airplane in psychedelic colors, flies it back to Los Angeles, and is killed by cops. Period. The movie is not this uncomplicated, but it is certainly this simple. Antonioni attempts to flesh it out with thousands of yards of outdoor billboards, which are supposed to show America being corrupted by advertising and capitalism, I guess. (Roger Ebert, 1970)

Ebert once again falls into the bad habit of reading films as 19th century literature, privileging psychological realism and novelistic conventions over visual style. The movie is not “burdened down with ideological luggage;” it is indifferent to it. Antonioni is clearly not interested in the silly left-wing politics of American counterculture. In fact, he seems to scoff at the revolutionary aspirations of these white middle-class kids, as much as the brute stupidity of the police force. And how can the gorgeous photography of outdoor billboards be interpreted as his condemnation of corrupt advertising and capitalism? His beautiful surfaces betray his core aestheticism, and ambivalence towards hard political commitments.

Antonioni’s films are mesmerizing to watch. There’s hardly any dialogue that they’re almost silent films. There’s hardly any story as well. The camera simply follows the meandering of aimless characters. But they are not documentary accounts. There’s an an eerie, surrealistic quality in the photography. For example, the opening credits here make use of the jerky motion of news cameras, but the use of extreme close-ups, play on focal planes, and ambient music, adds an atmospheric feel approaching the psychedelic experience. This subliminal visual language is what makes Antonioni’s films more cinematic than literary. This is something that cannot be captured on text, which makes his plot lines seem deceptively trite, as Ebert makes them out to be.

Sure these characters are bored out of their wits, and they cannot make up their minds about love and life. But they bear their ennui and indecision in style. Antonioni provides endlessly fetishiziable imagery: Monica Vitti’s wind-tousled hair, Alain Delon’s pursed lips on a cigarette, Jean Moreau’s gait in high heels. And here, Daria Halprin’s doe eyes and bronze legs. It’s mesmerizing to watch those legs meander aimlessly.

Flirting in the open desert

Ebert dismisses this scene where Mark Frechette buzzes over Daria’s car in his stolen plane. I think it is the most elaborate flirtation scene in cinema, and captures the romanticism of the hippie movement, before it spiraled into sex-and-drugs decadence.

I don’t know what movie Ebert watched,
but there’s certainly delight here in Mark Frechette’s face.

Free Love

At Zabriskie Point, Mark and Daria are divorced from human society. It is a strange, unknown land–the cartographer’s terra incognita–where laws and politics are meaningless, and they become archetypal Adam and Eve, man and woman. That imaginary orgiastic scene is an amplification of their own jouissance, reverberating throughout elemental Nature.

Las Vegas, NV

Las Vegas is the apotheosis of the desert town. Visiting Las Vegas in the mid-1960s was like visiting Rome in the late 1940s. For young Americans in the 1940s, familiar only with the auto-scaled, gridiron city and the antiurban theories of the previous architectural generation, the traditional urban spaces, the pedestrian scale, and the mixtures, yet continuities, of styles of the Italian piazzas were a significant revelation. They rediscovered the piazza. Two decades later architects are perhaps ready for similar lessons about large open space, big scale, and high speed. Las Vegas is to the Strip what Rome is to the Piazza. (Robert Venturi, Learning from Las Vegas)

The Forum and casino at Caesar’s Palace

How fitting to end this journey in a desert oasis. After a day of driving around barren country, Las Vegas and its abundance of tourist amenities was a welcome sight. I spent the New Year here with yet another aunt who works as a nurse at the nearby air force base. I was surprised its shameless inauthenticity quickly grew on me. The World can be found on The Strip. Mock-ups of architectural monuments (The Statue of Liberty, The Eiffel Tower, The Bridge of Sighs) as well as whole sections of Rome and Venice (fountains, arcades, piazzas) are staggering in scale, they become completely immersive experiences. The Forum at Caesar’s Palace has a fountain as large as Trevi and a fake sky painted on its domed ceiling with lighting that alternates between mid-morning and dusk. We thus managed to have brunch at 9 in the evening.

There is a come-hither sensuality to Las Vegas of a frontier saloon or a Bedouin tent. You have buxom ladies dealing cards on the tables, and also working the pole not unlike belly dancers. Great thought and resources are invested in interior design. Those in the fine arts who have retreated to their elitist, insular, and increasingly insignificant domains should see in Las Vegas how the applied and decorative arts thrive. They make statements but not the offensive nor PC-preachy kind that alienates the popular, middle-class audience. Rather they are welcoming, self-satisfied in their luxurious decadence, or clever and cheeky like Andy Warhol or Claes Oldenburg. They certainly don’t need hand-outs from the NEA.

Jaleo Tapas Bar: I want that Warholian bull with the wrestling mask!
(“Motekutli” by Mikel Urmeneta)

The Chandelier Bar at The Cosmopolitan: Oldenburgian play on scale

Hoover Dam: Monumental modernist project
just outside Las Vegas’ postmodern architectural mishmash

I passed by the Mojave Desert on I-15 on my way back to LA. Further south, along I-10 is the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s one of Gram Parson’s favorite hang outs, where he’d get wasted with his friends on booze and drugs. In September 1973, he finally OD’d and died during an excursion at the park after recording sessions for Grievous Angel. What occurred afterwards, was stranger than fiction, the stuff of music legends that sealed Parson’s cult status.

Before his death Parsons had said that he wanted to be cremated at Joshua Tree and have his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. But after his death his stepfather arranged to have the body shipped home for a private funeral, to which none of his low-life music buddies were invited. Said buddies would have none of it. Fortified by beer and vodka, they decided to steal Parsons’s body and conduct their own last rites.

Having ferreted out the shipping arrangements, Phil Kaufman (Parsons’s road manager) and another man drove out to the airport in a borrowed hearse, fed the poor schmuck in charge of the body a load of baloney about a last-minute change of plans, signed the release “Jeremy Nobody,” and made off with Parsons’s remains. They bought five gallons of gas, drove 150 miles to Joshua Tree, and by moonlight dragged the coffin as close to Cap Rock as they could. Kaufman pried open the lid to reveal Parsons’s naked cadaver, poured in the gas, and tossed in a match. A massive fireball erupted. The authorities gave chase but, as one account puts it, “were encumbered by sobriety,” and the desperadoes escaped.

The men were tracked down a few days later, but there was no law against stealing a body, so they were charged with stealing the coffin or, as one cop put it, “Gram Theft Parsons.” (Cops are such a riot.) Convicted, they were ordered to pay $750, the cost of the coffin. What was left of Parsons was buried in New Orleans. (Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope)

Gram Parsons (right) and Keith Richards (second from right)
on a “trip” at the Joshua Tree National Park
Image source: Michael Cooper, The Selvedge Yard

Sounds like some episode in an Easy Rider road trip. Gram Parsons is cut from the same fabric of reckless youths insouciant about death. Antonioni re-creates this archetypal character in Mark Frechette’s cocky posturing, opaque expression, and steely indifference.

Mark: They might not even think it’s a plane… Strange prehistoric bird spotted over Mojave Desert with its genitals out.

Daria: You are just crazy enough to take this thing back to LA.

Mark: Sure. You don’t borrow someone’s private plane, take it for a joyride, and never come back to express your thanks.

Old Man: It’s nice to see a young man who shows some respect.

Daria: But why take it back? You could just ditch it here and ride with me to Phoenix. You don’t even have to take the risk of–

Mark: I wanna take risks.

The flight to the desert is an escape from society, fenced-in and ordered by paternal restrictions. The desert represents the ruggedness of Nature, its emptiness a blank slate. Native Americans have used psychoactive substances from cacti for shamanistic rituals that open the mind to the cosmic and sublime. For the young rebel of the suburbs, this expansiveness can be disorienting, and can quickly descend into decadent indulgence. Transgressive excesses of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll culture test out new limits. But alas, the ultimate limit is death.