Sep 5, 2014
Atari Games Aren’t The Only Things You Can Bury In The New Mexico Desert
Thirty years ago, fourteen trucks drove 90 miles from El Paso, Texas to Alamogordo, New Mexico, to bury surplus Atari games in the desert and seal them under concrete. As time wore on and the video game business recovered from the big crash, this event graduated to campfire folklore.
What’s funny is that it became campfire folklore despite itself. This was not a hundred years ago. The games were shipped by trucks, not covered wagons. Nobody involved in the story is dead, as far as I know. When the New York Times covered the story, which you can still find online, the unceremonious headline was “Atari Parts Are Dumped.” But recently a documentary crew went down to New Mexico and dug up the evidence anyway, like they were exhuming bodies from a forgotten war.
It all seems silly, to treat the story like a pilgrimage to discover secret history, a séance for the endearing ups and downs of ‘80s consumerism. Especially with the guy who actually made half the damn games on-site, his reaction taped for a documentary out this fall. A guy who, by the way, isn’t retired or 108 years old or anything like that.
It’s just a phony myth. The reality is that in 1983, Atari threw a bunch of games away because they made too many. What’s out there in the desert is just garbage, and lacks even sentimental import. They made millions of those games. None of them have first-draft code that can bring down the Kremlin.
But the Atari landfill mythmaking imagery is just too powerful for reality to get in the way. It’s the first line of a mystery novel. Take the video game aspect away and what are you left with?
Thirty years ago, fourteen trucks drove 90 miles from El Paso to Alamogordo to bury something in the desert and seal it under concrete.
Leave it there and it’s a great way to start a legend. Any legend. It’s a great American story, at least in a vacuum: a long time ago, a convoy left Texas and entered New Mexico to bury something shameful. It’s a tremendous PR tactic. Atari’s failure takes on a mythic hue after 30 years beneath the desert. “E.T.” has gotten mythical too: it’s no longer the caffeine-addled last minute work of one overworked guy but instead the worst game ever. By burying some of that legacy in New Mexico, Atari made its failure mean a lot more than it did when they poured that concrete.
Marketing agencies need to look into this strategy. If you have a product that won’t sell as much as you need it to and you’re out of options, just bury it in the desert and ride it out for 30 years. Spread the story around a little bit. Plant it in a newspaper or a blog and spin danger and symbolism where there isn’t any. Run the long con and make sure it doesn’t look like you’re doing it. Call it “The Desert Strategy.”
Let’s start small. When my grandma died, she left behind a whole storage unit worth of photo albums. Now, I’m never gonna look at those. It’s not gonna happen. They’re in Florida. Can’t be done. But if, in her will, she wrote that she buried “something” in New Mexico out by the Air Force base, not only am I gonna drive down to get it, but I’m gonna examine every one of those damn pictures like a forensics expert. I’m gonna memorize every last one of her vacation photos.
Now that’s an easy entry point. It’s a good way for all of us at home to experience the joy of burying something in the desert, to fake our way to a legacy, but let’s go a bit bigger. Say you’re in a band. You’re 27 or so. You got some steady local gigs, opened for The Dead Weather a few times, went on Conan, Pitchfork described your first album as “haunted by the ghosts of forgotten people and forgotten places,” but it’s time for a day job because nobody makes money playing music anymore.
So go out with a bang. Record the second album. Make it even more haunted. Ten times as haunted. Press it to vinyl, drive down to New Mexico. Put all the albums in a big safe. Write a note explaining the contents. Issue a Throbbing Gristle-y cryptic press release. “The course of my life has shifted. The second album must not be released. I have taken it to the desert and it will die there.” Wait 30 years, and you’re all but guaranteed a documentary and a tour out of it. If the album’s a 7 or 8 out of 10, it’ll get retroactively canonized.
The best application for the desert strategy is also the biggest, and takes place in the one field where people can aimlessly throw away sinful amounts of money: Hollywood. There are a couple approaches here. The first is a wide open field: movies that are already tax write-offs. Anything that’s been shelved for more than a couple years. Example: “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.”
That was never gonna make money and the studio knew it. They waited a couple years and sneaked it out in late summer.
The only mistake there was not waiting long enough. Let’s go back to 2002. Eddie Murphy is at a career nadir and everybody knows this is gonna tank. Everybody. Nobody’s gonna give this their all on the PR circuit – it’s just a total loser. The answer is to entomb it in the desert. Say something illegal happened during the final edit that can’t be removed. Just some unverifiable lie. Send the lie to the trades. Then somebody can go retrieve the movie in 2036, long after Eddie Murphy dies and his late-career mediocrity is smoothed over by history. Suddenly “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” will be screened at film festivals, anchored by a documentary and a Q&A with somebody really shady who kinda knew the director (also dead). It’ll make its money back now. Guaranteed. “What did an American film from 2002 really look like? What did mediocrity look like?” and this proposed answer will be so strange and broken that it’ll be watched in a completely new way.
The second angle for the Hollywood approach is to unceremoniously kill a movie that’s a guaranteed smash hit, just to make the director look like a tormented genius. Give an air of mystery to somebody fed up by the instant reaction culture of the internet. I suggest “Interstellar.”
Christopher Nolan is at the top of his zeitgeist game: everybody wants to see what he’ll do after Batman. And Matthew McConaughey, who is almost too famous to exist in 2014, stars in it. To cancel this movie for no good reason, well, that’d turn the heads of the most jaded sons of bitches on earth.
Can you imagine it? A whole cottage industry would spring up. Websites dedicated to preserving as much “Interstellar” related content as possible. All the studio has to do is let two or three people see a rough cut and make them sign a non-disclosure agreement for 15 years, then ghostwrite books for them. It’d turn Nolan into the next Orson Welles. But unlike Orson Welles, he’d be taken seriously as a filmmaker in his old age. All you have to do is say one little movie is buried someplace in the desert. Maybe by Roswell. Nobody knows.
Sure, there are some issues of practicality. “This is tantamount to setting a billion dollars on fire,” you’re probably thinking. Exactly. A faceless corporation would lose a bunch of money in the interest of creating a top 10 event in movie history. And thirty years from now, if any of us are alive, we can all go “oh sure, I remember the trailers to that” or “yeah, movies are horrible” and our grandchildren will pay tepid attention to us for a few minutes.
Worst case scenario? Well, a domino effect of studio rivalry and hatred, maybe some people go to jail, definitely a few mob-related murders, and all movies are ruined for awhile.
On balance: worth it.