Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Film: Deseret
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Of all the rare films that exist on The List, none is more rare than Deseret. There were a number of films that, as I started looking around, I had trouble finding, but none were more frustrating than this odd little film from James Benning. To my knowledge, this film has not only never gotten a DVD release, it’s never been put on videotape. There is a mythical copy of the film on 16-milimeter film somewhere in California, one that requires a massive deposit to rent, which doesn’t include the cost of the projector itself. I am, thus, massively grateful to Chip Lary at Tips from Chip for forwarding me this electronic copy.

Deseret is an odd film, one that is difficult to parse. On its surface, it’s a simple film—little more than a series of landscapes and a voiceover narration that seems to have little or nothing specific to do with the words being spoken. As it turns out, the words being spoken are excerpted passages from nearly 100 news stories printed in the New York Times over a span of just shy of 150 years. Each story is pieced down into a few sentences. Benning presents us with a static camera, switching shots for each sentence, and giving us a long pause on a shot between stories. Each of the stories is introduced with the individual story’s initial date of publication.

That’s really all that is here. What it turns into is, more or less, a greatly abridged history of the Mormons in Utah, from their first arrival when leaving Illinois to their various settlements and problems with the natives, to the growth of the church into something like its present state (or at least its present state in 1991). Frequently, we are given the ambient noise of a particular shot that plays under the voiceover. The shots seem to be in no particular order. There is, for instance, no progression from one season to the next in general. We see Utah in the summer juxtaposed with bare places in the desert next to snow-covered plains. When the stories suddenly reach 1900, the film suddenly switches from black-and-white into color.

As an added little quirk, the film, done obviously low-tech, shows the edges of the camera’s lens on the left side. There is evidence of a rounding of the two corners on the left side of the frame, giving the film the feel of being shot through binoculars or a telescope.

This is a difficult film to judge because of the way in which it is presented. Since the text appears to have very little to do with the images being shown, there is no obvious way to parse the images with the text. Because of this, it’s easier to separate the two and look at each part of the film on its own merit.

The text is interesting, although read in a somewhat bland monotone. Several of the stories offered are abrupt, consisting of an abridged pair of sentences while others are a little bit longer. In each case, the selected sentences give a partial, and yet somehow complete picture of the story being told.

The images are startlingly beautiful in many cases. Initially, the black-and-white photography is pretty and the color shots even more so. But this is not the standard brand of pretty that most people think of when looking at a landscape. This is a worn land, a place that appears desolate, harsh, and in some ways, completely used up. It is, for lack of a better word to describe it, filled with a sort of attractive harshness. These are beautiful shots, even if in many cases the appear to depict nothing more than a windswept field.

As a whole, then, we have a film with two interesting halves. Combined, they are not specifically something greater than the sum of the parts, but something different than that sum might originally indicate.

Fair warning, though; don’t try to watch this when you are sleepy. The droning narration and static shots will put you right off to dreamland.

Why to watch Deseret: It’s what The History Channel should be.
Why not to watch: If you’re not into it, you’ll find nothing here.


  1. You're welcome on this. Credit where it's due dept.: I couldn't find this one either. I found some links for it, but they were no longer active. I contacted the person who had posted them and they agreed to post fresh ones, which allowed me to finally get it. With his permission I shared those links on the 1001 Movies wiki, although they have also since gone bad and I had to replace them with new ones.

    This film is much like another hard to find entry - Too Early, Too Late. While I didn't like that film I did like Deseret. The difference is that I was interested in the information being presented on the history of Utah and the people there, and the images shown were more interesting to look at. Too Early, Too Late just shows you random scenes shot for minutes at a time, with no info or narration.

    As simple a thing as it was, I really liked the transition to color when the informative sentences reached 1900. As you said, the images were already attractive to look at in black and white and even more so in color.

    In regards to the framing thing, I was wondering if that was a result of the filming or the transfer. Not knowing much about either, I didn't know if whatever device the 16mm film was run through to get an electronic version of it was the thing that left the left side a little rounded off.

    1. I['m not sure about the framing either, obviously. A part of me thinks it may have been intentional. In a sense, we're looking at these (or hearing about these) events that are in many cases very distant from us, so this feeling of looking at them through a telescope kind of works.

      Of course, I might be just as completely full of it when I say that.

      For me, the biggest mental adjustment on this film was to realize how recent it is. It's so low-tech that it feels like a much older film than it is, but it's more recent than Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction and sits on the list next to Casino. It feels anachronistic.

  2. Someone finally put this one on YouTube. The good: I appreciated the different way he was trying to tell his story. The not so good: The different way he was trying to tell the story did get a bit tiresome after awhile. But one of the reasons I'm going through this list is to see different types of films. With that in mind, I give it a modest thumbs up.

    1. That was sort of my reaction, too. I did really like the photography.

  3. I got a kick out of this. I love old newspapers and when I was in college I looked at old newspapers on microfilm all the time. I wrote my master's thesis on newspapers in Natchez, Mississippi, up to 1865. And I used to look at the New York Times a lot. (Initial reporting on the Lincoln assassination is VERY INTERESTING!)

    And I also volunteer at the San Bernardino County Museum, and you can't be exposed to the history of San Bernardino County without coming across a lot about the Mormons!

    So Deseret is sort of right up my alley. On Facebeook, I linked to Deseret on YouTube and suggested all my history-buff friends take a look.

    1. I found this sort of fascinating in spite of itself. It's worth noting that I live not too far from where the Mormons spent a few years and where Joseph Smith was killed, so I feel like there's a minor connection to me.