a feature length screenplay and photos shot on location in Imperial Valley (production in Nov 2021)
An archway stands frozen-still, deserted, approximating an image (Think de Chirico’s Enigma of a day).
A ray of light slices the intrados. A pedestrian emerges from the far end. Pursuing him, the gaze glides to the foreground. In perfect synchronicity, the archway stretches lengthwise; a sense of depth returns to the scene, and with it, the plausibility of the plaza. The plaza seems to be a rather curious case but its behavior isn’t so extraordinary. The plaza lies within the purview of physics, like any other place stuck on earth. The plaza hums. Not the soothing kind that makes you warm and drowsy but the kind that bothers. Puts you on alert.
EXT. CIUDAD PLAZA - MORNING
(thrumming, as if incantating)
There is no place in the Southwest where intelligent effort will win more independence and satisfaction in return than in the valley. What a man can do to better his condition will be measured chiefly by his energy and his ability. The valley offers much to the man who wants to get ahead.
Leaning against the cobalt blue kiosk, he lifts his gaze. No bustling crowd, no chitter chatter, nothing but the tedious drone of the plaza, to which his ears have grown accustomed. He can no longer differentiate it from clean silence.
OSCAR (V.O.) (CONT'D)
...the long growing season and the possibility of making every day in the year a day of productive labor. The dry air is full of health. Nature helps and does not hinder. This is not a theory but a fact.
EXT. CALIPATRIA - MORNING
Oscar drives across the 1200-acre wasteland, which not even the most foolhardy pioneers deemed adequate for any kind of productive labor. So the land remained empty until the year 1992, when the California department of corrections and rehabilitation who had been eyeing the lot for its brutal character purchased it to build a facility that would fit right in: Buonopatria.
The environs are imbued with serenity. Hot air, thick, almost viscous, gathers densely around the walls, creating a barrier—the best kind. This hot puffy dome of air muffles all the noise emanating from within, from solitary confinement to communal showers, giving the facility the aura of an abandoned lot (while in reality, it is filled to the brim, 127% its design capacity).
The entrance sign vaunts the facility’s record-setting lowliness: at 184 miles below sea level, it is the lowest elevation prison in the Western hemisphere. On the other side of the field, meadowlarks, immune to signs of inauspiciousness, warble in orbital harmony. When the news of Buonopatria’s construction was first announced, people here at the valley sang like the meadowlarks do now, overjoyed at the prospect of more new jobs. With the annual budget surpassing 100 mil, the institution indeed feeds half the town. 56 COs including sergeants and SRTs, 28 nurses, 9 doctors, 5 psychiatrists, 67 administrative staff, 12 teachers in the prison graduation initiative. An overall sense of optimism stems from knowing that this enterprise will never go bankrupt.
EXT. AIRPORT PICK-UP AREA - DAY
The glass door rotates. IRA steps out through the gap. Her curious gaze lands on the palm fronds cascading over the balustrade. The intense warmth feels like pressure, a numbing grip. She starts unbuttoning her jacket, takes it off, and proceeds to take off her long sleeve, until she’s left with just a cotton tank. She can breathe now. She sees a black Mercedes at the pick up lane and stoops down to attract the driver’s attention.
INT/EXT. CAR/KUMEYAAY HIGHWAY - AFTERNOON
The black Mercedes drives straight into the colossal mountains. The ridges throb with arterial blue. Even the tiniest striae are neatly defined against the sky, each with the same significance of intaglio incision that en masse cast a plausible shadow on a figure's arm.
Is this your first time visiting?
Similar, but no.
Before the driver starts again, Ira’s phone interjects. She snatches the opportunity to break away from the chat.
(Dolly zoom) The freeway snakes around the escarpment. When the Mercedes shrinks, the boulders jump up, growing, as if to counteract the rapid distancing. The hulking, deceptively animated stones are the first thing we see and then the only thing. The car, grain-sized, camouflages in the whirl of earthen hues and is already gone.
INT. IRA'S CAR - EVENING
So the microbes you have, how tiny are they, really? Are they like fleas?
Even tinier. A flea has a way way more advanced system than them. Microbes are so tiny and we are so large that we are practically invisible to them.
What do you do with them?
We ship them to Mars. They munch on the regoliths once there, “mining,” so to speak.
Do they make gold, too?
They make rare earth minerals. Like lithium. Gold is valuable, but it’s old.
It lasts long.
Yes, it’s durable.
Durable and desirable.
So you’ve been to Mars?
No, I can remotely control the chambers from here. But to visit, maybe. I can see myself traveling there soon.
EXT. CIUDAD PLAZA - DAY
The archway is as still as ever. Ira emerges from the far end. She traverses frames of light and shadow shaped by the alternating pillars and non-pillars. She glints. A phantasmagoric sheen evokes a Muybridgean dancer embalmed in silver gelatin.
(Reverse shot) When Oscar recognizes her silhouette, his heart beats faster and faster. He develops a manic belief that he possesses a superpower, say, power to freeze frames.
EXT. OCOTILLO WELLS - NIGHT
Ira sits on top of Oscar. Oscar closes his eyes; his mind travels far, to somewhere foreign but familiar. He glides his hands up her waist, and the shape evokes an important tactile memory from his childhood: hand-carved oak corbels above the fireplace at grandpa’s farmhouse. His ten fingers tightly grasping the curvature, he found himself moved in the way that he wasn’t supposed to at age seven. He presses her down, causing both to sink in the sea of sands. His shoulder peaks like a capsized ship's prow. She grabs onto this part. They stare into each other in bone-crushing, pupil-dilating painglory.
(MATCH DISSOLVE TO the microscopic image of a ciliate engulfed by an amoeba; they fuse into one blob. ZOOM OUT TO the rock where the microbes live. ZOOM OUT TO the desert where the rock sits. In the midst of scattered rock formations, Ira and Oscar are seen wrestling.)