Deseret (1995)

"Deseret" is an odd movie that is uncommonly hard to find. Rarely seen and scarcely talked about, it's a film devoid of the human figure. Yet, it's story (if it can be called that) and it's message are both about humanity.
James Benning, the director, took clips from The New York Times dating back as far as the 1850s. Using the headlines mostly concerning Brigham Young and the Mormons of Utah, Benning then had Fred Gardner read clips of the stories. For visual effect, Benning took long shots of Utah's landscape. Combining the voiceovers with the nature shots—voila!—he made a documentary of sorts.
The way that "Deseret" was described to me sounded much like a work of John Dos Passos. Though critically acclaimed, it wasn't exactly a great pleasure reading The 42nd Parallel. Dos Passos used several techniques including taking headlines from newspapers and biographies of famous men. Then he spliced them up and juxtaposed them in seemingly random places all throughout his book.
This is what I though "Deseret" would be—a maddening and disorganized, but perhaps brilliant mess.
Instead, "Deseret" is remarkably straightforward and only deals with the territory that is displayed on the film.
At first questions arise—Gardner reads stories about the violent acts that transpired between the Indians and the Mormons while a peaceful and serene nature shot is being shown. This is the first step that Benning makes to make his viewer think.
Is "Deseret" about nature versus humanity? Acts of violent people as opposed to the tranquility of the natural world? Perhaps, but then again—who can really say?
Whatever the reason, "Deseret" is not very flattering to the Latter Day Saints. In fact, the entire film felt like a giant obscene gesture to the religion and its history. It was as if Benning was so sick of the Mormons that he went out of his way to make a film about their shady past.
Allow me to sidetrack for a second....There is a new show called "Amish Mafia" that's coming on very soon (maybe it's already aired, I don't keep up with shows like that). It looked completely ridiculous and absurd, but it is sure to find its own following. For me, it's too hard to accept that there is an Amish mafia...but hey, I've been wrong before. Whatever the reason, whether it was the name of the show or the commercials I saw for it—I found it utterly unbelievable. Then again, I never saw the show.
Okay, back to "Deseret"—this movie began to feel like "Amish Mafia" after a period of time. Brigham Young is described as a tyrant of sorts, a mob boss of his people. He kills and punishes—while masquerading the facade of being holy. At least, that's how "Deseret" describes him.
We travel in history towards the statehood of Utah. The Mormons wanted to name the territory Deseret...hence the name of the movie.
When Young dies in 1877, John Taylor stepped in to fill his shoes.
This is when the movie gets more political.
The first part of the movie is dealing with death and murder....perhaps saying that the Latter Day Saints's lifestyle is the reason that they're dying. A little harsh, I think.
Then the movie begins to center around polygamy and "Mormon bashing". The press is accused of treating the Mormons poorly, though all in a satirical way.
"Deseret" recreates a period of history dealing with a specific territory. It starts in black-and-white and then changes to color when the clipping of the Times reach the 1910s and 20s. Nature turns into industry and we see more buildings and cars.
The legal battles of the Mormons are heard as the bleak desert is seen.
There is no possibly way that the pictures going along with the sound are an accidental surprise. It's the work of a highly meticulous man and absolutely purposeful.
In the end, "Deseret" dissolves into something much more subtle—it's a warning for those to come. What started out as natural and beautiful become poisoned and graffitied. Was it the Mormons's fault? I don't think the film is saying that (though it comes close). The evolution of culture that stemmed from violence led to disease and death—preachy, but effective.
Benning is not kind to the Mormons, but he is fascinated by their land.
"Deseret" is curious, quietly powerful, and most definitely biased.

Score: 3 out of 4 stars

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