Essay for the Architectural Journal Faces, Issue no 71, about Pioneertown in the California desert.
Extract from the essay
The American desert has a peculiar effect on its residents. It seems to alleviate them from societal constraints and obligations, makes them question what holds them to generic ways of living, and coerces them to conjure and build alternatives. What results are distinct constructions designed for bespoke needs: oddities artificially budding out of nowhere amidst the yucca plants and mesquite, coyotes and rattlesnakes. Cult compounds are built here, as are immense works of land art and psycho-spiritual healing centers, and the American military walls off vast tracts of the desert to test highly classified weapons and aircraft.
The desert is also, more importantly, a gateway to the unknown: The Frontier, and the formation of the pioneering mythology which holds all the glories and horrors that encompass the American consciousness. It’s where America had come first to justify itself, then to invent and define itself, and finally to reinforce itself through the proliferation of western dime-store novels, b-movies and television shows.
It is with this in mind that we (myself and 25 of my students from the Royal College of Art on a road trip from L.A. to Las Vegas in a convoy of white minivans) drove this February into the Mojave desert mountains to the all-together aptly named Pioneertown. A truth stranger than fiction (a shame Baudrillard didn’t stumble upon it, on his American voyage), Pioneertown was built in 1946 as a permanent set for westerns (Hollywood is a couple of hours away), and its main street, lined with all the conveniences of the 1880’s, served as the backdrop for hundreds of films and TV shows until it closed down in the sixties. From the seventies it served as a drug running and smuggling haven for southern Californian biker gangs. More recently, people have begun to buy the lots behind the western facades and (re)populate it, although it remains a refuge for outsiders, outlaws and desert eccentrics to hang out or lay low in. It’s a place where distinctions between reality and artifice are rendered vague and slippery.
Walking down the lone, vacant main street, one sees the typical layout and architecture of a turn-of-the-century town. The street is dotted with overgrown cacti, troughs for cattle and horses, stagecoach wheels and empty liquor barrels. Frontier facades with bold lettering announce the trade inside: BATH HOUSE, TOWN JAIL, SALOON, HOTEL, LIVERY, BANK. Further inspection, though, reveals real people and businesses active inside. There’s a food market, a motel, and a saddlery. There’s also a still-functioning bowling alley, built in 1947 as a way for cast and crew to unwind after shoots, and where Roy Rogers purportedly bowled out the inaugural ball. The students and I wander in and out of the sets, taking pictures, picking up rocks to see if they’re rocks or not, and talking to the current residents.
Before long the need to play out various western scenes is uncontrollable, and the street is quickly littered with amateur theatrics: Numerous duels leading to numerous zealous deaths, a faux-prisoner behind bars hurling Miltonian insults towards a lackadaisical faux-sheriff, students launching other students out of the saloon through the swinging doors and into the street. Anyone not performing is filming, and before daybreak a dozen mini-westerns will have no doubt been uploaded to Youtube. I giddily whistle the theme song to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and head off the main strip and behind the facades. The sets, which had also served as sleeping quarters for the cast and crew, are no more than three metres in depth. The backside reveals a junkyard tableau of broken down cars, ratty furniture, garbage, and outhouses. Behind the “Town Jail”, one local has decided to enclose (for whatever reason, given that there is nothing and nobody for miles around) a backyard with a short chain link fence, whose only possessions are a rug and a lay-z-boy. Some of the residents have built up cinder block homes which parasitically adhere to the backs of the western fronts, while others have simply parked up their trailers.
I return to the main street and enter the Chapparosa Saddlery, where two men (scruffy, bearded) ply their wares. One sells John Wayne memorabilia ($5), Indian dream-catchers ($3), and ice-cream sandwiches ($1). The other is a bona fide craftsman, producing incredibly ornate leather goods for a bygone era, from saddles, to cowboy hats, to gun holsters. He sits with his back to me, painstakingly stretching out the creases of a hat brim, and in front of him on the wall is a painted desert mural which pretty much depicts exactly what extends beyond that wall.
Nightfall and we enter Pappy & Harriet’s BBQ palace, just off the main street. The visual clutter is overwhelming, a phantasmagoric collage of centuries of Americana: Indian ephemera, illuminated beer signs, paintings of the wild west, buffalo and moose heads, autographed portraits of silver screen, music and rodeo stars, low hanging chandeliers, license plates, American flags, bumber stickers, antlers, and pool tables. A damn good bluegrass band is playing on the makeshift stage, in front of a motley crew of patrons.
The place is also heavy with Marines who are stationed 30 miles down the road at the 29 Palms combat centre, which specialises in desert warfare training. They are young (around 20 years old) and built like tattooed tanks. They sit in large groups passing around pitchers of beer, and there are at least ten of them standing at the bar, which makes ordering a drink intimidating. I initially mistrust them, imagining them as violent fraternity members, indoctrinated into a system which I cannot come to terms with. Instead they are, to a man, courteous and welcoming, engaging all the students in conversation and being candid about their army experiences. It turns out that this, for many of them, is the last night out before being shipped to Afghanistan in the weeks to come.
For a cinephile’s wandering imagination, Pappy & Harriet’s moves you through the atmospheres and perils of various film genres. It conjures rowdy scenes in the countless western saloons of cinematic memory: Marlene Dietrich riding a man like a horse in Rancho Notorious, the doomed wedding in a mining town saloon in Ride the High Country, Kirk Douglas and John Wayne raising barroom hell in War Wagon. It also invokes the underappreciated biker films of the sixties, like Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, where scenes of drug-taking, violence and anti-social actions proliferate. Horror is not far behind, especially when you move through the restaurant and out back, where a sweaty, hulking, leather-aproned man governs over a two metre long BBQ fire pit, heaped with chunks of unidentifiable sizzling meat. Its straight out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and you can imagine uncovering this scene after stumbling through the absolute wrong door, with the camera panning over the yard, to reveal human skins hanging from hooks. The whole place really makes you want to get very drunk, start a fight and break out of town shooting guns in the air, but to lose site completely of the ‘real’ can be dangerous. The bikers sitting at the bar with “Galloping Goose Motorcycle Club” jackets are genuine outlaws, and under no circumstances should be messed with. There is a sign that reads “Absolutely no Fighting Allowed on the Premises”, and the rifle displayed behind the bar looks more functional than ornamental.
Contrary to my own desires for a kind of cinematic mayhem to unfold, we have a completely pleasant time without incident. Later, as we head back to our minivans, we see a group of Marines holding one of their own upside down by the ankles, lowering his head into a portable toilet seat filled with some kind of home-made punch. A ritual, apparently, for those going to fight abroad. We are enthusiastically motioned to join them, but decline, and hightail it out of town.
photo by Bertrand Clerc