James Benning: the filmmaker as haunted landscape

James Benning: the filmmaker as haunted landscape

Berenice Reynaud

IN AN EMPTY classroom of the California Institute of the Arts, where we both teach, James Benning is screening Used Innocence (’88) for me. Part conceptual murder mystery, part diary in two voices, it recounts Benning’s friendship with the spectacular-looking Lawrencia Bembenek, who, while protesting her innocence, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her husband’s ex-wife. During the making of the film, Benning’s loft in downtown Manhattan caught fire, a catastrophe that caused him to relocate to California. This is much better than I remembered,” he says, with a little chuckle. “I’m a little embarrassed by how infatuated with her I was. To this day I can’t be really sure that she didn’t do it.” Later, in a local bar, we talk for hours, under the indifferent gaze of a blonde waitress in tight black leotard with long red fingernails. Outside the air is hot and intoxicating, permeated with the dryness and the scent of sagebrush from the surrounding desert – an atmosphere that could fit into one of his films. Since 1987, Benning has lived about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, in a small canyon town called Val Verde – one of the few places in rural California where white, black, and Hispanic coexist. It is there that his new film, Deseret (’96), was conceived.

Premiered at Sundance – in a section appropriately titled “Frontier” – Deseret was a succes d’estime (even when screened at 10 AM). Benning’s work has been showcased in a variety of venues, from the most prestigious (Art Institute of Chicago, Toronto International Film Festival, Whitney Biennial, Cinematheque Francaise) to the most militant of alternative spaces, but this was his first presence at Sundance. Of course, as he says with an engaging bad-boy smile, “they had to show it”; for Deseret (which was the name proposed by the Mormons when applying for statehood) is a foray into the mystique and spectacular landscapes of Utah. The film juxtaposes excerpts of 92 New York Times articles that chronicle the history of Utah from 1852 to 1992 and are “illustrated” with shots taken throughout the state.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1942 Benning studied to be a mathematics teacher; he still retains a playful interest in mathematical structure – resorting to them to “solve problems” in film composition, and offering to his CalArts students a course entitled “Mathematics for Filmmakers.” In the early Sixties he chanced upon a public television broadcast of Maya Deren’s landmark experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon that “jumped off the screen” and whose “freedom” from the “limited vocabulary” of mainstream film affected him deeply. He eventually bought a camera and completed a few super-8 films before reenrolling at the University of Wisconsin, this time in filmmaking and graphic arts.

With an MFA in hand, Benning started teaching filmmaking in various colleges in the Midwest, and attracting attention with elegantly constructed structural films – culminating with one of the masterpieces of the genre, One Way Boogie Woogie (’77). The film revisits the space of an unknown, unheroic, yet beloved Midwest, through 60 one-minute static shots saturated with primary colors and suggesting the paintings of Mondrian (for the arrangement of colors and lines) and Hopper (for the subject matter and sublimated nostalgia): forlorn industrial landscapes, smokestacks, one-way streets (giving the film its ironical title), and the ever-present oil pumps that recur throughout Benning’s filmmaking. The formalism of the shots, the careful positioning of a wide-angle lens, the stasis of the camera, the lack of human presence, all this conspires to obliterate any sense of depth, until a moving figure (a leaf falling from a tree, a car, a forklift or a truck driving, a little girl playing) stumbles into his carefully balanced composition, creating often comical effects. One Way Boogie Woogie keenly articulates Benning’s artistic obsessions: the collision between the American landscape and the human presence that endlessly reworks, re-creates, produces, and soils it@ the production/ subsumption of the narrative by the structural aspects of filmmaking; the discreet self-exploration of the filmmaker, at the crossroads between the suggestive power of the images and the narrative expectations of spectators.

In 1980, Benning moved to New York, where he lived as an Independent filmmaker. He continued to travel through America, and the disturbing masterpiece that crowns that period, Landscape Suicide (’86), was shot in California and Wisconsin. The film opposes two stories – the murder of a cheerleader in 1984 by her classmate Bernadette Protti, and the discovery of the Infamous Ed Gein killings in 1957. Landscape Suicide opens on a young woman repeatedly serving a tennis ball, in what looks like a single looped shot until a reverse angle reveals all the balls scattered on the other side of the court; it ends on a longshot of a hunter painstakingly disemboweling a dead deer lying on the snow. These two representations of “work” defining respectively suburban California and rural Wisconsin give possible keys to decode the murders: the pressure to succeed at work or at play for Bernadette, a repulsion/fascination for blood produced by a frontier culture for Ed. More narrative than in Benning’s previous period, the film alternates images of landscapes and static “talking heads”: against a neutral background, a young woman, then an older man, matter-of-factly reenact interviews with the murderers. “I compared the isolation produced by the Middle Wisconsin winter,” says Benning, “an isolation so severe that it can almost lead to madness, to the alienation felt in the pristine landscape of affluent California that caused that kid to become a killer.”

Landscape Suicide can thus be read as a direct forerunner for Deseret: both films are structured around a dialectic between landscapes and texts as “found objects” – trial records or newspaper articles. Benning had already resorted to a similar strategy in the rigorously three-layered American Dreams (’83). As the soundtrack unfolds a collage of popular songs (Peggy Lee, Charlie Rich, Bob Dylan … ) and public speeches recorded from 1954 to 1976 (McCarthy hearings, radio announcement of the Kennedy assassination, an address by Malcolm X … ), the screen is filled with images of baseball cards spanning the career of Hank Aaron, while, at the bottom, Benning has optically printed handwritten excerpts of the diary of Arthur Bremer, who shot Governor George Wallace in 1972 faithfully reproducing its idiosyncrasies and misspellings. Each of these elements defines its own imaginary landscape. The soundtrack suggests an ideological “map” of America at the time. The visuals imply a gap between a successful (black) home run champion and a failed (white) drifter-turned-assassin, one hitting the American dream and the second missing it. Finally, Bremer’s solitary travels (Wisconsin, New York, Canada, Michigan, Maryland) in search of the perfect opportunity to shoot a man – not unlike Benning’s own lonely travels throughout America, in search of the perfect image to shoot – draw another imaginary map across the continent.

Benning sees American Dreams as “one of [his] most personal films,” because of his love for baseball, and a similarity of background with Bremer: “We both come from the Milwaukee working class. The difference is that he was abused as a child and I wasn’t. I could almost have been him; I agree with half of the things he’s saying.” While Benning may feel sympathy for some aspects of Bremer’s broad political analysis (about Americas exploitation of the poor at home and abroad), what they really have in common is a certain fragility of the “rugged-macho persona,” lost not only within the immensity of America’s landscape but within its increasingly complex, society-despoiled natural resources, growing industrialization, stiffening class structure, and, last but not least, the challenge posed by women to the male ego. “The last person I held a conversation with in 3 months was a near naked girl rubbing my erect penis & she wouldn’t let me put it thru her,” writes Bremer.

This sentence strangely echoes lines found in North on Evers (’91) – film that Immediately precedes Deseret. “I’d been on the road for six weeks and all I could think about was sleeping next to someone. Maybe perhaps sex was all I really wanted. I fantasized about truck stop prostitutes.” As in American Dreams, this text is handwritten by the filmmaker and scrolling from left to right at the bottom of the screen. This time though, it is about Benning himself, for North on Evers describes a journey he made on his motorcycle from California through New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Virginia, New York, the Midwest, and back to California. Benning first travelled without his camera, then wrote an account of his trip, and later went back to film the places and people he had previously encountered. Here again, in a way that clearly prefigures Deseret, there is a tension between the soundtrack (ambient noises), the image, and the text. “What interests me is the difficulty of trying to read, listen, and see the image at the same time,” explains Benning. “To get Involved in the film one has to figure out how to do all these things at once – and maybe people at some point stop looking to listen or stop listening to look, and drift in and out of this process, but that’s part of the experience of the film.” In North on Evers (whose title refers to the filmmaker’s search for the place in which Medgar Evers, a black NAACP field secretary, was shot by a sniper in 1963), the text occurs about five minutes before the images that illustrate It (except for a brief section at the Vietnam Memorial). “Since I have started making films,” says Benning, “I’ve always tried to open a new narrative space from the juxtaposition of sound and image, or text and image – how the spectator experiences them, how they quote each other. So, if fifty people watch the film, fifty different narratives are created: if there is any consistency in my filmmaking, that would be it.”

STRETCHING OVER more than twenty years, Benning’s career Is not without ruptures and contradictions. While his trademark is the static shot with a rigorously defined frame, he’s used closeups In his first films, and hand-held camera a recently as North on Evers. He’s done optically printed films, and museum installations. He’s occasionally collaborated with other artists, but mostly works alone: a true independent, he produces, writes, shoots, and edits his films himself His work is often self-referential: shots from 81/2 X 11 (’74) or 11 X 14 (’76) reappear in One Way, Boogie Woogie or Grand Opera (’79) Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” is shown in North on Evers and Deseret. A faithful friend, he keeps visiting Lawrencia Bembenek in jail and shows a newspaper of her escape as an image-substitute in North on Evers.

Another thread runs throughout: the elusive presence of his daughter, Sadie, who, while still in her teens, became a celebrated Pixelvision videomaker. A little girl in One Way Boogie Woogie, at the age of 12 she inspired the making of Landscape Suicide by showing her father a Rolling Stone article about the California murder, and reappears as a shy young woman in North on Evers. Father and daughter have lived apart since Sadie was a toddler but have kept in touch, and in 1993 they shared a double engagement at the Walker Art Center. “She’s a very special person.” he says, beaming. “In the first piece I saw of her, she had written on the image, A friend of mine was raped by a black man. Now she’s a Nazi skinhead.” But it didn’t end there. The third line was `It’s so easy to fall in a trap.’ At 15, she was able to reinvestigate a blind racism that has taken me years to start to understand.” When Sadie acknowledges the influence of her father, he adds, it is because “I had simply shown her that it was possible to be an artist. That makes me very proud.”

When Benning shows or mentions Sadie in his films, he stresses her resilience and aliveness, but also her vulnerability – as a mirror, maybe, of his own secret, more fragile side. For, while he is obviously enamored of the beauty and diversity of the American landscape. his explorations, far from being a macho celebration of the mythology of the frontier, are often a voyage into darkness. He, identifies 1979 as a turning point, when he woke up to find a close friend dead at his side* : since then, death has cast a subtle shadow on his films. He’s also showing an increasing concern, for history’s slow work of destruction on our social and physical space – particularly for the debilitating aspects of racism, an issue that is an intimate part of his history, since he grew up in a white working-class neighborhood in which blacks gradually started to move in.

Benning’s mourning for America’s “used innocence” is two-sided: part romantic, pitting the transcendental, yet ironical, self of the filmmaker against the vastness that surrounds him; part materialist, mapping out a space through history – not unlike the Marxist-inspired films of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet. Deseret gains added layers of signification when put in the context of Benning’s previous work. The film was shot in 120 days spread over a period of 18 months, and we may imagine each of the nine trips it took as an adventure a la North on Evers, punctuated with Navajo women on the run, racist bikers, black folk artists, runaway teenagers, or travelling country singers. Yet the two films differ greatly in their style of shooting: “moody” and almost tactile in North on Evers, with handheld movements and haphazard editing-in-the-camera, it reverts in Deseret to the rigorous, eerie, minimal compositions of One Way Boogie Woogie – minus the visual puns. With a few exceptions, the human figure is kept offscreen, yet one is subtly aware of the presence, the emotion of the filmmaker when composing the shots.

The image was edited to a prerecorded soundtrack of New York Times stories boiled down to a few lines, by matching one shot per sentence. Benning made slides out of each shot, then selected and rearranged them in the slide-holder, sometimes creating mysterious correspondences between image and text: “I would have at least one shot with a literal connection to the story, but you may miss it, if you don’t know what the places mentioned look like.” Indeed the viewer may wonder, but also get lost as the wealth of information provided on the soundtrack is offset by the still beauty of the land scapes: deserts, plans of snow, lonely trails, trees in bloom, cemeteries, ruins, unfriendly rocks, empty settler’s houses, roads that seem to be leading nowhere.

The text recounts the turbulent genesis of Utah from the frontier days of settlement, persecutions, massacres, and retaliation, to the containment of the Indians, the access to statehood, the transformation of the Mormon Church into a wealthy, conservative corporation, and the use of the land as a military-industrial testing ground. Because of its ambiguity, the correlation between image and text is more perverse than in North on Evers or American Dreams. Apart from a spectacular instance – when the newspapers stories reach turn of the of the century, the black-and-white footage gives way to color – they are at odds with each other, the East Coast style of The New York Times seemingly missing the point of tile real drama that took place there. The landscapes resist the inscription of official history, yet they are haunted by its imperfect traces. Never have Benning’s images been so beautiful. so starkly composed, and so sad. Their deceptively still surface hides troubled waters, but the emotion is kept at bay. They hint at the filmmaker’s intimate affinity with classical Japanese cinema – whose composition, inspired by traditional painting, was used not for its expressive quality, but, as Donald Richie says in Ozu, “for its own sake, for its pictorial beauty.” It should be no surprise that beginning has long acknowledged an intimate affinity with the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu; indeed, the use of emptiness in Deseret, the importance and to offscreen space, as well as the rigorous principle of “one cut, one line,” bring to mind the aesthetics of the Japanese master. Both Deseret’s minimal landscape and Ozu’s still life denote a principle composition more “pictorial” than expressive, and in both cases the use of emptiness invites the spectator to “supply” his own meaning: “Though faced with emptiness he must choose to experience the empty scene. The effect is one of stasis, a literal standing still through which he himself must move.” And as in Ozu’s films, Benning’s poetic explorations of the American space bring us to a moment of pure contemplation, in which a fleeting absolute may be glimpsed behind the cool seduction of appearances.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group