“This movie is about the end of the world,” director Marnie Ellen Hertzler tells us in the opening minutes of Crestone. The images that accompany this statement show a group of Soundcloud rappers in a neon-lit room, smoking weed and watching their own music videos. This isn’t a familiar rendering of the apocalypse: there’s no religious prophecy, cosmic event, or natural disaster. Not a bang nor a whimper, just a rap beat. Here in the desert of Crestone, Colorado, it’s not the end of the world. But—much like 2020—it sure feels like it.
Crestone follows a rap collective called Deadgod, a group of misfit young men living in a makeshift commune in the remote deserts of Colorado, growing weed and dispatching their music to the internet. Hertzler knows these boys from high school.She is a perceptible presence in the film, a sensible but curious visitor, as if Wendy picked up a camera to document the Lost Boys. She introduces us to the group’s leader, Sloppy, a schlubby Post Malone-esque figure covered in tattoos, and his crew, most of whom go by their rap names: Sadboytrapps, Rybundy, A.M. the A1.
Hertzler tells us outright that the boys are engaged in multiple levels of performance: for the internet, for each other, and for her camera.Living in yurts and fending for themselves, it’s almost as if they are play-acting at building their own civilization. Yet, even as Hertzler signposts the extent of the make-believe, doubt creeps in about the veracity of her images. The boys raid abandoned houses, emergency alerts warn out from television screens, and we’re told that wildfires are approaching—is this real? And if so, is the apocalypse coming or has it already happened?
I watched Crestone at an online streaming premiere in April, a replacement of sorts for the film’s scheduled run at SXSW, one of the first festivals to be cancelled by the COVID-19 crisis. It was around a month after the first lockdown orders, and the world felt as if it was still processing the global feeling of emergency. I’d become obsessed with documentaries about doomsday preppers (or “survivalists”), which I mostly watched in fragments on YouTube. Everything I watched was pre-pandemic; I wasn’t much interested in contemporary uploads from that community, although part of me did wonder if they were feeling vindicated. Rather, I wanted to know what compelled people to get ready for doom, especially in such a radical way, before doom ever actually presented itself. Watching these documentaries, I sensed a very practical self-fulfilling prophecy: in their excessive preparation, the survivalists became distanced from the society they were convinced would soon be nonexistent. Having already decided on their own personal endpoint, they resolved to live through it at once.
In the footage I consumed of doomsday preppers, a dominant aesthetic—and politic—emerged. The preppers were majority white and American, touting American flags (often the Gadsden or Confederate variation), camo gear, and a disproportionate amount of firearms.Their politics were far-right, and slid easily into conspiratorial territory. They often expressed fear of a global takeover by an elite cabal, or an organized uprising under the New World Order (oh, how easily these beliefs would mutate into today’s QAnon allegiance!). The preppers were also overwhelmingly male. If prepping was less about imagined future doomsday scenarios, and more about creating an ideal society in the present, then there seemed to be a real desire to recuperate a type of preindustrial masculinity, where combat, aggression, and protection of property (including one’s family) were both necessary and valorized.
Watching Crestone at the height of my obsessive viewing of doomsday prep documentaries felt both analogous and disruptive. Although similar to the preppers in their willful isolation and renegade attitude, the Crestone collective painted an entirely different picture of post-society survival. That’s not to say there aren’t a few overt parallels, conspiracy theories among them; as Sloppy tells us, he’s not entirely sure the Earth isn’t flat.
However, Sloppy is eager to articulate that his vision for life in the desert is less about conflict and more about care. Hertzler, in voiceover, reads from the commune’s fundraising page, where Sloppy writes that his ultimate goal is to build a sustainable village, fostering a community who care for and love each other. When Hertzler is given an initial tour of the commune, she observes that, as well as the typical growing of vegetables and foraging for supplies, the boys also focus on the more spiritual aspects of survival, creating stained glass windows for their yurts that align with the colors of their chakras. She films these interiors in sweeping motions, scored by dreamy music that amplifies the other-worldly vibe. The dwellings seem positively utopian, an inverse of the dystopian drive of traditional preppers. It is as if the boys have chosen not to reinforce the old destructive habits of masculinity, but to create new notions altogether. They’ve shrugged off any oppressive societal expectation—all it took was the world to end.
And yet, Crestone is shot through with ambivalence, suggesting that this binary of dystopia and utopia cannot be so easily established. Hertzler herself is the root of this ambivalence. Her perspective informs the film, and while her gaze as a documentarian is largely observational, her relationship to the boys becomes more fraught the longer she stays with them. Hertzler’s role in the film begins as a kind of translator: she renders the boys comprehensible at their vaguest or most obscure, a task that requires a certain amount of belief in their vision. She offers us assurance against the qualities of the commune we might be most baffled by (like the boys’ penchant for dressing up like viking warriors) or apprehensive of (such as how cultish the whole thing seems). Though she states that she believes Sloppy’s vision is an earnest one and “not just a sip of Kool-Aid,” she never fully drinks from it either.
However, as oncoming doom starts to feel more urgent, Hertzler’s healthy skepticism becomes more acute. Black ash from wildfire begins to fall in flurries from the sky, and the boys respond with a shrug. Hertzler films the boys lying on the floor around her, blatantly ignoring her attempts to prepare everyone for evacuation. She tells us in voiceover: “I had begun to distress the utopia that even I had come to love, and they dismissed my concerns like some kind of buzzkill.” Disillusionment also creeps into her imagery, and in the same sweeping motion with which she first filmed the utopian yurts, she now follows a trail of debris of dirty plates, spilled food, and discarded shoes. These scenes illustrate her spoken doubt, as she wonders if “maybe [the collective’s] devotion to creativity was actually a complete dismissal of reality.” Hertzler never fully crosses the line into non-believer or harsh critic, but her hesitation, be it explicitly spoken or visually indicated, is vital in her presentation of the boys of Crestone. She is a lens, behind a lens, that allows the boys’ behavior, ideals and ultimate vision to be properly scrutinized.
One immediate element of the commune that is interrupted by Hertzler’s presence is its strictly homosocial nature. Sloppy never clarifies who exactly is welcome in his ultimate vision, but at the time of Hertzler’s visit, she is the sole female. This not only throws the masculinity of the Crestone collective into relief, it also conjures the male dominance I identified in the prepper community, and its reliance on old notions of violent masculinity. It’s tempting to suggest that the brotherly, care-centric masculinity of the Crestone boys stands in simple opposition to the hostility of the preppers. However, in Male Trouble, art critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau questions this possibility: “I am uncomfortable with formulations that imply some utopic…masculinity outside crisis. In this respect, I would argue that masculinity, however defined…is always in crisis.” It’s not so much that at the end of the world (imagined or otherwise), one can simply free themselves of masculinity; it’s that there is an apocalyptic factor inherent in how society demands masculinity be practiced within it. Crisis is intrinsic to society’s expectations of masculinity, so apocalyptical crisis will not magically bring liberation. This means that whether the response to society’s collapse is to recoup gender expectations or grow new ones from their seeds, the impulse to regulate and delineate remains. What Crestone does is uncover this contradiction through the microcosm of the community at the center of it. It’s a tactic the film will take not just for masculinity, but also for technology, and, eventually, reality itself.
While in concept the Crestone crew aspire to be free of oppressive social structures, in execution they remain completely entangled with them. Nowhere is this more true than in the collective’s relationship with technology. On the fundraising page for the boys’ sustainable village, Sloppy writes, “the rise of technology is leading to the downfall of being a true human.” The irony is immediate, for the boys’ commune is fully equipped with VR headsets, drones operated by Playstation controllers, and enough internet connection to at least torrent Avatar. Yet their exit from society seems to have arisen from fairly reactionary anxieties, a re-wiring of the same impulses that fuelled the commune movement of the 1960s, where thousands of Americans “dropped out” of modern life to construct communities organized around humane principles they felt had been eroded.The ‘60s movement led to a string of failed projects. Communes fell apart primarily when the structures of modern life re-emerged, be it through hierarchical dynamics, unequal distribution of resources, or their participants’ inability to overcome prejudices and ideologies that had, at that point, become ingrained.
In a similar way, the extent to which Sloppy and his crew actually renounce technology, or the extent that they are even prepared to, is negotiable. The rap collective is indebted to technology—indeed, they make music for the internet. Their music isn’t just distributed directly onto online platforms, it’s informed by internet culture, full of reference to video games (Rybundy performs a particularly vibrant ode to the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise in his song“Chaos Emeralds”), memes, and early 2010s emo aesthetic. Hertzler immediately recognizes the collective’s apparent rejection of technology as problematic; she tells us, “for people so embedded in technology as a medium, it seems like a violent uprooting of their personas to want to leave it all behind.” Another compelling ambivalence. Whilst there is an element of having simply failed to think through their withdrawal, it’s more apparent that the boys simply cannot escape the technology that has defined their lives so far. Complete departure is not a viable option: the collective’s wiring to technology reveals their denouncement of it as a platitude that they very likely have no intention of following through on, inferably because they wouldn’t even know how.
The boys’ inextricable connection to technology is felt in the very form of the film. When we’re shown the boys’ Instagram videos, the clips aren’t refashioned in any way; instead, they’re presented in desktop documentary format—the computer screen becoming the entire image. The videos play within the platform they were made for, the digital feed on either side. The refusal to separate the message from the medium mirrors the inability of the boys to detach themselves from the digital context they operate within. The film also shifts into the form of the music video, most notably unfolding into an entire visual accompaniment to the aforementioned “Chaos Emeralds.” Breaking from the observational gaze, Hertzler’s camera transforms, swooping around Rybundy as he dances and mimes along to the lyrics. His surroundings become decorated with pictorial gems and sparkles, and glitchy transitions serve the music video’s aesthetic. Shifting so easily and abruptly into this form, the film suggests that there’s no authentic way to capture the boys beyond meeting them at their level. There’s no slipping of the mask—their performed selves are their authentic selves—and form must follow content to keep up.
But if the boys’ performed selves are their authentic selves, then to what extent is performance relevant, or authenticity actually possible? Technology has been complicating these questions for decades. Whilst the early-internet-era conjecture that our lives would soon be completely subsumed into digital avatars never really came true, what did happen was much more insidious: the proliferation of multiple platforms through which one can augment and curate their selfhood. In these platforms lies an inescapable trap, for the pursuit of authenticity will always be overshadowed by the objectives and ventures of the capitalist structures that own the platforms (and any data the expression of the self begets). This situation begs the question: when did the internet stop being a space we could choose to participate in, and instead become a space we couldn’t opt out of if we tried? In her book, How to Do Nothing, visual artist Jenny Odell refers to recent events that complicate our sense of online and offline, such as how the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory propagated on online message boards led to a man walking into a pizza parlor to self-investigate with a gun. She states that these events connect the completely virtual and the utterly real in a way that is “deeply, fundamentally disturbing on a human phenomenological level.” It’s not the pursuit of truth that is of concern now, but the pursuit of reality itself. What is really real in Crestone? It would be easy to propose that the boys, living in remote isolation and mostly online, are “out of touch” with reality, but that’s not quite true. It’s just that the boys’ reality isn’t the easiest to pin down.
Hertzler tells us that during her stay with the boys, “so much of our time together involved this game of belief and disbelief.”There’s an extent to which documentary as a form is engaged with this game, for images never quite escape the mechanisms of representation and reproduction inherent in film. Crestone fully commits to this condition. Around halfway through the film, Sloppy encounters an unknown figure on a motorized bike. The young man tells Sloppy that he’s on his way to California—he’s heard there’s a settlement out there. He says he’s been traveling a while, and has enough rations and supplies to last him the rest of the journey. He’s a dystopian hero, a lone survivor after the fall. Sloppy gives him the bread from some of the sandwiches he’s carrying and a pair of dust goggles. It’s a faintly ridiculous exchange; the man has a stilted way of talking (“Yes sir, thank you very much, sir”), and he puts the bread in the breast pocket of his t-shirt. There’s a knowingness, and charm, to this charade.
But what’s important is that this encounter introduces and integrates the unreal into the documentation of the boys’ lives. The dystopian fiction the man on the bike appears to have ridden out from is carried with him through the commune. He gives credence to the emergency reports we’ve seen on television screens, to Hertzler’s own voiced concern about the wildfires and the boys’ discussion of end times. The weaving of the unreal into the texture of Crestone is what allows the apocalypse to creep in, not so much as a doomsday event, but as a persistent, apocalyptic feeling that one cannot help but also diagnose this year with. The pandemic that loomed over 2020 was a manifold apocalypse, chewed up and spat out by the already degraded sense of reality we’ve all become accustomed to. It was a crisis, a hoax, political, impartial, mountain, molehill, fake news. It’s not important to distinguish what is truth and what is fiction in Crestone (or if it’s the end of the world or not). The collapsing of these boundaries is what gives the film the same sense of apocalypse we’ve felt this year, perceptively real in its feeling of unreality.
At the end of the world, whenever or however it may present itself, Hertzler tells us that she hopes the boys are indeed the last people alive, for they have the “ability to adapt, and reinvent themselves over and over.” Perhaps this is the most fundamental element of survival, more important than any of the outmoded practices of the doomsday preppers. The Crestone collective’s ultimate survival skill is their flexibility—their ability to jump between personas and forms allowing them to keep up as reality continues to reinvent itself. We leave the collective as suspended as they are: smoking weed, play-fighting, actually fighting, telling each other they love each other—ready to remake themselves for the next turn, whatever or whenever that may be.
In the final scene, we travel away from Crestone to return to the young man on the motorized bike, riding steadily down an empty road. He rides towards the mountains, to the promise of California, as fires rage on the horizon, and smoke fills the dimming sky.
Editor’s note: Crestone was recently picked up by Utopia, and will be available to stream via Amazon, Apple, and Altavod on February 16th.