First time documentary writer/director Lindsay Jaeger takes us on a subjective journey into the isolated desert of Utah.
Following in the footsteps of Into the Wild, Jaeger’s Everett Ruess Wilderness Song is an independent documentary that explores the final days of artist, poet, and desert enthusiast, Everett Ruess, who disappeared in 1934. Ruess, a kind of modern Henry David Thoreau, though more adventurous since Thoreau hardly roughed it, spent the last years of his young life exploring the deserts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, with his two burros and small dog.
This musically driven documentary focuses on the events surrounding Ruess’ disappearance, paying special attention to his interactions with the townsfolk of rural Escalante, Utah. Hearing the stories of Reuss’ interactions with the many older townsfolk, then young men and children, weaves a colorful tapestry of the young man’s character. His passion for adventure parallels a young Jack Kerouac, but his temple is the outdoors instead of the urban areas Kerouac loved.
Reuss’ unabashed personality brought him into close contact, not only with the Mormon settlers in the Escalante region, but Native American communities as well (he even learned to speak Navajo). Some believe his gung-ho lifestyle led to his death via him sticking his nose where he shouldn’t have. However, one thing is for sure, whether he was murdered, fell off a cliff, or died of dehydration, he left behind a wealth of letters and art, and the film aims to illuminate his world through them.
Jaeger’s film creates an interesting mosaic of image, music, and story. Her style shows a flare for the poetic, and you can definitely feel her own love for the desert and southwest through the camera. The editing and general flow of the film carry us through this short piece nicely. However, there are a couple scenes where the dialogue is fighting the music for screen time. I could have used some moments of silence to contrast the lyric heavy music and perhaps experience the solitude of the desert, as Ruess would have.
Most intriguing of the stories involves a grave discovered that was suspected to belong to Ruess, but we never fully explore it. However, in the defense of my filmmaking comrade, controlling your interviewee is sometimes just not possible. Aside from these small discomforts the film functions well. Case and point: I really wanted to hear these guys spin the yarn and I didn’t want anything to get in the way of it. After all, it is the human element that drives a story like this. I guess I’ll just have to wait for the outtakes to hear what other interesting things they had to say (I was saddened to see that three of these men passed away after filming).
Jaeger’s clear intention to humanize Reuss is successful in the film. She took an artist I knew nothing about and made him somewhat iconic to a fellow desert dweller, me. Although his last stand might have been in Utah and before I was born, I feel like I know him. Moreover, he’s someone we all should know: the youthful and creative child in all of us, who dreams of adventure and beauty and is happy to die doing what they love.
I will leave you with Wilderness Song, a poem by Everett Ruess.
Say that I starved; that I was lost and weary;
That I was burned and blinded by the desert sun;
Footsore, thirsty, sick with strange diseases;
Lonely and wet and cold, but that I kept my dream!
Always I shall be one who loves the wilderness:
Swaggers and softly creeps between the mountain peaks;
I shall listen long to the sea’s brave music;
I shall sing my song above the shriek of the desert winds.
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