Chocolate Factory

Edward Dimendberg on Pat O’Neill's Where the Chocolate Mountains

Pat O’Neill, Where the Chocolate Mountains, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 55 minutes.

CALIFORNIA ABOUNDS WITH BEGUILING PLACE NAMES. The divergence between promise and reality may be no greater than in the case of the Chocolate Mountains. Stretching more than sixty miles across the Colorado Desert that traverses Riverside and Imperial counties in Southern California, they form a geography that few Californians have seen, let alone visited. Home to the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, a practice site used by the Navy and Marines and inaccessible to the public, the region’s arid and inhospitable topography is magnified by the unsettling thought that somewhere over a distant crest shimmering in the heat the weapons that will be deployed in the wars of tomorrow are being tested today.

Pat O’Neill’s Where the Chocolate Mountains (2015) nimbly plays on these associations. Although we never actually see the mountains, we hear their name spoken by a character on the sound track of an old film noir, one of many elements that O’Neill transforms into a wholly new and vital substance, confirmation that he remains the master alchemist of Los Angeles experimental cinema. Instructional films, B movies, Caruso, and 1920s jazz are but some of the ingredients in a rich visual and sonic mix realized with his longtime collaborator, George Lockwood.

O’Neill has been working as an artist, photographer, and filmmaker in Los Angeles for six decades, during which time he has gained prominence for his investigations of land- and cityscape, as well as his deft command of the special effects initially associated with celluloid cinematography and optical printing but today involving digital technology. Not infrequently, he has worked for Hollywood and provided technical expertise and solutions for big-budget extravaganzas.

Where the Chocolate Mountains fully delivers the richness, sophistication, and allusiveness one has come to expect from O’Neill’s work. It makes a compelling case for his unparalleled skill as a creator of densely layered images and sound mixes and as a virtuoso of the mono genre—the urban essay film of hallucinatory intensity that ranges freely across culture and cinema history—for which he attained wide acclaim with The Decay of Fiction (2001).

Unlike that film, which explores the Ambassador Hotel—the landmark building in which Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 and that was demolished in 2005—the spatial locus of Where the Chocolate Mountains is more ambiguous. Hovering above the street grid and the freeways, tracking past cacti in the desert, or plunking the viewer into the middle of a frightening street in downtown LA, Where the Chocolate Mountains evokes an investigation of the city’s unconscious, a reading made plausible by its continual return to the Los Angeles River, long associated with malevolence (epitomized by the giant mutant ants that make it their home in 1954’s Them!) but today the center of efforts to remake the city in a more benign guise.

Awash with references to the work of other photographers and filmmakers (Eadweard Muybridge, Hollis Frampton, Yvonne Rainer, Kenneth Anger, Chris Marker), film genres (science fiction, film noir), the circular purgatory of Dante, and the symbolism of Roman Catholicism, Where the Chocolate Mountains is simultaneously a rigorous investigation of two wooden cones in motion, surveyed from a shifting variety of perspectives from which they alternately appear as an alien spacecraft, a missile, a celestial object, or body parts. Visually unpredictable, chromatically arresting, and quietly witty, this may be the darkest of O’Neill’s films, suffused as it is by repetitive looping structures and the implication that a death drive and the military industrial complex pervade Southern California. Sparks fly and quietly conjure the bombs released over the Chocolate Mountains.

Bits of dialogue, images of a woman, and references to a character called “Alicia” heighten the mystery. As an interim report on the incomplete project that is Los Angeles, Where the Chocolate Mountains compellingly supplements the city’s established tropes with the infinite resources of O’Neill’s imagination. At one point, an intertitle reads “Hell really isn’t all that bad. There are things you need to know.” Many of us who love Los Angeles couldn’t agree more and remain grateful to O’Neill, our cinematic Dante.

Pat O’Neill’s Where the Chocolate Mountains has its West Coast premiere Saturday, March 12, at REDCAT in Los Angeles.