Directed by: Alexander Tuschinski
Starring: Roger Ball
Documentary Film Review by: Chris Olson
In the Mojave desert in California there is a small shop owned by one Roger Ball. A former worker of a gold mine that has since picked up sticks and left, Ball is relatively unconnected to the outside world, needing no telephone or computer. His premises is filled with wall to wall signs, hand painted, depicting any manner of wording, theme, or idea that has particularly struck Ball. Many are taken from films that have particularly struck the man. Over the course of filmmaker Alexander Tuschinski’s short documentary Caligari in the Desert, we see this shop-owner-cum-artist start to represent something more poignant than an eccentric local, instead lending credence to the need to study film history, and in particular the silent movie era.
Having recently watched and reviewed Tuschinski’s other short documentary Mission: Caligula, I cannot help but find parallels and comparisons with at the very least the themes of Caligari in the Desert. Both have a profound love of movie making at their core even, if in the latter it is less obvious. Both also have a fantastic narrative that is expertly sculpted through Tuschinski’s intelligent editing skills. This short, however, does not feature Tuschinski and all his eager enthusiasm.
The film relies heavily on Ball as a misfit character, his specific nature and speech being compelling elements to his presence on screen. Whether he is regaling the viewer with his “product of the sixties” origin story or simply reading aloud one of his hand painted signs, the result is still a strangely intoxicating piece of visual cinema and documentary film. As the topic turns more to the silent movie era, and Ball’s growing passion, viewers will be able to connect the dots between this story of compulsive signage creation and the artform that is perhaps the most expressive visual storytelling we have and how it can transform anyone’s outlook, no matter their age.
Some of Tuschinski’s aesthetic choices are peculiar. There are frantic sweeps of the camera inside Ball’s shop with barely enough time to read the wording on a sign before the camera zooms off again. Classic Western-style imagery of empty landscapes and dusty roads are used to cement this atmosphere of the old being at odds with the new, furthered by numerous shots of abandoned or broken buildings that pepper the Mojave desert like tombstones. All combined, Caligari in the Desert has an unorthodox and striking visuality that beautifully accompanies the story of its central character.
Watch the official movie trailer below…