Seven Strangers and the Genesis of ‘Shades’

While working on a film production headed for catastrophe, I came across a new song from Dinosaur Horses front man Angelo Felder. ‘Seven Strangers’. At first listen, I was immediately struck with a visceral image that refused to leave my head: seven silhouettes walking on a desert plain.

‘Seven Strangers’ has that Johnny Cash feel. A song about men on the fringes of society, and outside the bounds of the law. And as in many Cash songs, the theme is one of self-destruction, of being caught in a maelstrom of excess that pulls you inexorably into the heart of ruin.

My first vision was of course those seven silhouettes walking toward me in a desolate land, a shattered landscape fit only for the plains of Hell. Yet the more I listened, the more the topography emerged.  A hostile world where sparse vegetation clings desperately to the sun-baked earth. And a world where roving bands of ruthless outlaws prey on the little enclaves of civilization.  A region populated with men undone by their own greed and lust, it seemed the perfect place for Angelo’s requiem of self-destruction.  And so the idea for a music video was born.

Over the course of the next few months, the idea crystallized. As Angelo was a bicycle mechanic at the time, a friend suggested that we throw in one instead of a horse, for practical reasons as well as aesthetic ones. It now became not a Western in the middle of the era, but at its conclusion. The characters were anachronisms, much like the main players in ‘The Wild Bunch’, slowly being forced into extinction by the inexorable march of the modern world, and the depths of their own depravity. The rock stars of the era were disappearing with the Old West.

The production was something of an adventure, filled with both disaster and triumph. The hood of my car flew into the windshield as we were changing locations, leaving us with shattered glass held together only by the whims of fate. Yet still we trudged onward over rocky terrain barely fit for an intact car, and somehow captured the footage we needed. We filmed at a fantastic ghost town in Silver City, a collection of Old West era houses from around California. We camped at desolate but beautiful Lake Isabella. And we wandered through the ruined houses of Trona, a fallen meth amphetamine community barely held together by its forlorn salt mine. This was California. This was America sub-rosa.

Given our experience of this 150-year cross-section of America, my producer and I began talking about a collection of music videos that would encompass the spirit of the country, both the darkness and the light. The more we talked, the more the idea began to coalesce. Each video would take place during a pivotal era in American history. And each video would capture the spirit, whether it be the euphoria…or the despair. What better way to launch the campaign than with the Old West setting of Seven Strangers?  One down, eight to go.

Over the last two years, the project was forced into dormancy due to the economic pressures imposed on us by the reckless and cavalier financial institutions. But through the mists and the mire, we have managed to get the project back on track. Once Shades of America started out as a collection of music videos, but now it has expanded to cover the arts, literature and science. Despite financial backing only coming from our sparse wallets, we are now nearly done with Phase One.

This endeavor shall cover the breadth of our short history, but it is still nothing less than a colossal undertaking. And it will take assistance from you, from the people of our Union. So we beseech you. We need your help, your voice. For all of our voices comprise the Shades of America.

Written by Matthew Millan

Matthew Millan is a writer/filmmaker residing in Los Angeles, California.  His background is in physics and history, and he tutors on the side, so he has developed an integrated approach that stretches across many disciplines.  He is particularly interested in the evolutionary and disevolutionary nature of civilizations, a theme that continues to surface within the body of his work.

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