Behind-the-scenes photo from the 1930
Scene from the 1964 film Cheyenne Autumn,
Behind-the-scenes photo from Arizona,
To the West … that’s where the cinema has frequently transported us. Very shortly after the motion picture industry arrived in the Los Angeles area around 1910 — escaping Edison’s patents, seeking sunnier skies and distancing themselves from the disapproving eyes of New York socialites — filmmakers began toting out their cameras to capture the vast, serene expanses and rugged features of the American frontier. They were drawn by both the long history of literature derived from the region, and the nearly overwhelming visual impact of the scenery itself.
It’s this legacy of how the West has been depicted on film, and the many ways in which those screen images have shaped our viewpoints and beliefs that is the subject of a new exhibition — Desert Hollywood — opening this month at the Tucson Desert Art Museum.
Gavin A. Healey, Ph.D., who co-created the exhibit, explains that the inspiration for it began when his fellow curator Alyssa Travis was hiking in Northern Arizona a few years ago. “She noticed the majestic and uninhabited feeling of the region,” he explains. “There was a power to it in her observation, so upon returning to Tucson she had an interest in seeing how people identify with, and recognize, the landscape across the country and around the globe. For me, the Hollywood landscape has been part of my university teaching and research for years now. When I was teaching film classes from the Native American perspective, the John Ford films were always a central piece in discussing the genesis of Americana and the West.
I had seen other exhibits and research that focused on the human elements of Hollywood Westerns and Science Fiction that involved areas like Monument Valley, but the landscape usually appeared as a side note.”
Anyone who has explored Monument Valley, driven through the sand dunes outside Yuma, or gone boating on Lake Powell knows that the almost alien nature of the surroundings lends itself to storybook interpretations. The land seems to say, “Once upon a time ….”
Small wonder that not only has Hollywood enlisted Arizona and Utah in telling tales about the wild frontier, it has also come to those areas when the subject was the Middle East, or a place that exists only in the mind of a film director.
The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, for example, has been the backdrop for everything from the Hope/Crosby film The Road to Morocco, to the “Star Wars” epic Return of the Jedi, to David Carradine’s TV series Kung Fu.
Through photographs, movie posters, multimedia presentations and other means, Desert Hollywood will highlight how these landscapes were used by filmmakers in ways that helped to determine not just how we picture the settings themselves, but the other places for which they are actually stand-ins.
Elaborates Alyssa Travis, “There’s actually an interesting anecdote about making The Greatest Story Ever Told. Cecil B. DeMille went to the Jordan River, and as soon as he got there he said, ‘This is not how it should be. The Jordan should look like the Grand Canyon.’ And he decided to make the whole film around the Moab, Utah, area and Lake Powell, which he was filming just after the dam had been created and the lake was being filled.”
Contributing various pieces to Desert Hollywood are: the Arizona State Historical Society, Orange County Museum of Art, and The Loft Cinema. The array of materials should give every film buff, landscape aficionado, and Western historian something to enjoy. According to Healey, the exhibit will include 15 photographs by Cindy Bernard; five movie montages, one for each region on display; a video called yikáísdáhá that’s part of the “Skyglow” series by Sunchaser Pictures; and 120 posters, panels, movie stills, and other items.
The Bernard photos examine iconic landscapes, years after movies were filmed there, and the video — named for the Navajo word for the Milky Way — is a time-lapse project by Gavin Heffernan and Harun Mehmedinovic, shot in the Monument Valley area and scored with Native American music. Notes Travis, “To me it kind of embodies how we try to commodify the landscapes, put them in a box and sell them as a symbol of the West, but in the end they are a timeless thing.”
On the interactive side, there will be an installation entitled, “Monument Valley: America’s Temporal Paradox” by two University of Arizona School of Art graduate students — Dustin Lee Shores and Eric Wilson. Says Healey, “Both artists drew inspiration from a recent relaxation visit to Monument Valley and Moab. The installation is a mix of Hollywood set design, kitsch, video and audio, creating the illusion of being on set during a movie production. The overall effect is something akin to what these landscapes might ‘feel’ as the celebrity in various films.”
Hamilton Distilleries is partnering with the Tucson Desert Art Museum on a red carpet opening on Jan. 12. The Loft Cinema will hold a “Desert Drive-in” in the east parking lot of the museum on March 10. Two scholars from the University of Arizona — Drs. Jennifer Jenkins and Amy Fatzinger, who head the American Indian Film Gallery digital film archive and project — will give a talk on Feb. 24 that will be moderated by Healey.
Visitors to Desert Hollywood may find themselves rethinking how the cinematic arts have depicted our region for more than a century, and what the landscape that is just outside the door of many Tucsonans means to them. “The West has always been a symbol of adventure and intrigue dating all the way back to the first popular medias and escapist fictions of the United States,” sums up Healey. “Whether dime novels of the late 1800s or moving pictures, the West has always been sold as a final frontier of sorts. It is a place where ‘anything goes’ and there is the essence of ‘anything is possible.’” tl