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09 Dec 2014

Desert Rock Chronicles: Filmmaker Jesper Wachtmeister's 'Test Site' Looks at Fascinating Desert Characters

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A scene from Test Site. A scene from Test Site.

Test Site is a documentary by Jesper Wachtmeister focused on the unique—if not downright odd—life perspectives of 14 interesting characters, all living and creating in North America’s deserts.

The film is filled with breathtaking desert landscapes from Utah to our own backyards of the Coachella Valley and Morongo Basin. If the majestic imagery doesn't draw you in, the personal stories—offering intimate looks at characters who would fit in a new-age Mark Twain novel—will.

Wachtmeister visits with folksinger Katie Lee, James “Flaming Eagle” Mooney; archaeologist David Nichols; Karen “dezert nymph” Reynolds; ex-homicide detective Pat Dingle; writer William L. Fox; Area 51 expert Glenn Campbell; bar owner Pat Laudenklos; artist Bobby Furst; desert-rave organizer Willy (Electronarcosis); musicians Mario Lalli and Tony Tornay from Fatso Jetson; drummer Johnny ”Sticks” Hilliard; and poet Richard Corsano. Each story is extraordinary!

Jesper is on a quest to learn about what goes on in the outskirts of civilization, where people are free to express themselves in ways not permitted in the urban world. The film takes viewers to artists’ colonies, temporary shelters for transient desert visitors at The Slabs, Peyote trips in sweat lodges guided by a real-life native-American medicine man, and crazy desert rock shows in box canyons powered by generators.

The film was produced in 2010, but I only recently learned of its existence. It boasts some of the most beautiful images of the desert I have ever seen. I was shocked to see footage of a generator party that I had attended in 1999, in a box canyon of the Indio Hills called the Iron Gate; the footage was shot by Steve Esterly. My dear, departed dog was actually in a frame. Dear sweet Kobe, rest in peace. It made me feel that stumbling upon this gorgeous piece of art, inspired in part by things I value most, was no accident.

After viewing the entire 57-minute film, I had to learn more about the filmmaker. Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Jesper Wachtmeister has been making films and building light installations since his teens. It was his sense of adventure, and his love researching and exploring to find out more about a subject, that led him to creating documentary films. He prefers making films about the real world over make-believe scenarios, he said.

“I lived in and around L.A. in the early ’90s,” he said. “I studied filmmaking at Cal Arts. During that time, I took various kinds of adventurous and spiritual excursions in the desert. I was intrigued by the layers of mythology that are embedded in the desert landscapes—science fiction, old Westerns, the Swedish immigrants who died on their way west, the Las Vegas mob who brought people out in the desert to have them disappear, UFO-myths.

“It’s a place where, according to many beliefs, you are able to ‘find yourself.’ (It’s) a place for hallucinogenic rituals, ancient and modern. A place where people do what the hell they want, without having to think about their neighbors. And (it’s) a place to experience the awe of nature—where you feel both smaller and larger.  In the desert, we humans enter into a very different kind of proportion than what we are used to. Seemingly, the law seems to look the other way, allowing people to blow off some steam. Make-shift communities exist there, like Slab City.”

Wachtmeister said he listened to Kyuss back in the 1990s, but he didn’t know much about the desert-rock scene until he began researching Queens of the Stone Age for the film.

“I didn’t really know about their connection to the desert or about Mario Lalli, Rancho de La Luna and generator gigs,” he said. “They opened up the whole family tree of Masters of Reality, Desert Sessions, Mark Lanegan, Fatso Jetson for me.

“The people I met were very different, depending on what their relation to the desert was. What they all seemed to share were exceptionally strong emotions while being in the desert: Fear, love, awe, freedom and inspiration.”

Wachtmeister returned to the desert not long ago for another documentary.

“Most recently, I made another film that was filmed around the world, but that also brought me back to the U.S. deserts—to Texas and in the Joshua Tree area. It’s called Microtopia, and is about inventors, artists and architects who have chosen to downscale their or others’ living/houses—in order to put money, time and resources on other things in life.”

Learn more about or watch Microtopia at www.solarisfilm.se/portfolio/microtopia. Learn more about or watch Test Site at www.testsitemovie.com.

Read more from Robin Linn at rminjtree.blogspot.com.

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