Directed by James Benning
All too many people, including plenty of knowledgeable cinephiles and critics who can appreciate difficult filmmakers like Hou Hsaio-hsien or Manoel de Oliveira, treat American avant-garde cinema as if it were an entirely different - and far less rewarding - medium than narrative cinema. A friend of mine has expressed his antipathy towards the avant-garde by declaring that he's only interested in film in so far as it offers some insight into human nature. While that might rule out Michael Snow, most of my favorite avant-garde films of the past 10 years have plenty of emotional substance: Lewis Klahr's animation THE PHARAOH'S BELT evokes childhood memories as eloquently as Terence Davies' films, while Stan Brakhage's SELF/DEATH SONG, a 5-minute short he made while undergoing chemotherapy, is as touching a reflection on mortality as Takeshi Kitano's FIREWORKS. As a result of this neglect, James Benning may be better-known as the father of Pixelvision master Sadie Benning than as a filmmaker in his own right. (Although much of Sadie's work is also non-narrative, its autobiographical focus and lesbian content has brought her to a different and larger ghetto than the one he addresses.) Anthology Film Archives' Benning retrospective has been one of the few genuine surprises of the New York rep circuit this year; as grateful as I am that MOMA's Bresson series gave me the chance to catch up with all of Bresson's films, it only confirmed what I already thought about him.
While Benning may be an avant-garde filmmaker, his films are hardly devoid of stories, most of them having to do with American history. However, I think LANDSCAPE SUICIDE, the only Benning film that uses actors, characters and dialogue, is his weakest - in large part because of the awkwardness of these narrative elements - while my favorite is the completely non-narrative ONE WAY BOOGIE WOOGIE, whose dry wit and fascination with "ugly" industrial sites make it an obvious precursor to Jim Jarmusch's STRANGER THAN PARADISE. The other films use some sort of narrative material - a cross-country trip in NORTH ON EVERS, the history of Utah and the Mormon Church in DESERET, the career of Hank Aaron in AMERICAN DREAMS , the struggles of Che Guevara and his band of guerrillas in UTOPIA - in counterpoint with non-narrative images. Benning has an extraordinary eye for landscape photography and framing, yet many of these films' strengths stem from a dialectical contrast of sound and image, as well as minimalism - 60 static minute-long shots in ONE WAY BOOGIE WOOGIE, lengthy verité-style interview scenes in LANDSCAPE SUICIDE - and overload: a barrage of political speeches and pop songs in AMERICAN DREAMS, diary entries in cursive scrawl racing across the bottom of the screen in both DREAMS and NORTH ON EVERS.
"Landscape suicide" is a brilliant turn of phrase, even though I'm not sure exactly what it means "Landscape murder" would be a fitting title for DESERET, which juxtaposes images of rural Utah with a voice-over narrating NEW YORK TIMES stories about the state's entire racism-and-violence-ridden history, as well as its more recent use by the American government as a dumping ground for nerve gas, radioactive and toxic waste.The political/environmentalist content of DESERET is unmistakable, but there's also a cosmic, even mystical side to it: these deserts and mountains come across as witnesses to the turmoil that went on and around them. Its most striking moments feel as eerie as the coda to Antonioni's L'ECLISSE. It's worth nothing that Benning's use of urban locales in ONE WAY BOOGIE WOOGIE is equally impressive: he films factories and smokestacks with clear affection rather than dismissing them as decrepit wastelands.
The images and soundtrack of DESERET add up to something far greater than the sum of their parts. I haven't seen FOUR CORNERS, the film he made immediately afterwards, but his latest film, UTOPIA, pursues a somewhat similar project with far less rewarding results. Here, Benning sets footage of the Southwestern U.S. and Mexican deserts to the entire soundtrack (used without permission) of Richard Dindo's documentary ERNESTO CHE GUEVARA: THE BOLIVIAN DIARY, much of which - as one could guess from its title - consists of filmmaker Robert Kramer reading Che's diary entries. By placing these images and narration together, UTOPIA dares us to make coherent whole out of these fragments. But should we, and are Guevara's utopian dreams relevant to the present-day North America that we see?
Surprisingly, UTOPIA doesn't offer much insight into that latter question. Not only do its placid, conventionally picturesque - Benning could probably use this film to get a job as Bertolucci's cinematographer - images seem removed from the sociopolitical realm, they also seem distanced from humanity itself. Relics of our presence do appear frequently - buildings, cars, even signs of agriculture, industry and the military - but people appear only as fleeting phantoms in the back of a long shot. For better or worse, Benning's perspective here marks him as a privileged, detached observer. One could almost imagine UTOPIA to be found footage assembled by aliens after the end of human civilization.
We spectators have to bridge the gap between visuals and soundtrack ourselves, but the bridge would be much stronger if the relationship between them didn't so often feel either completely arbitrary or narrow and forced. As ravishing as these shots are, the rationale behind their editing remains so elusive that I suspect they might be even more powerful as still photos. The overt connections made by UTOPIA are overly blunt - when Che's corpse is being transported, Benning cuts to a shot taken from a plane - or cheaply ironic, such as the use of images of suburban neighborhoods and casinos to accompany Che's complaints of hunger and squalor. The closing titles' description of animal predation and the deaths of illegal immigrants in the desert grasps even more clumsily for significance.
As UTOPIA shows, the radically open-ended nature of Benning's work has its risks. Nevertheless, the formal and political questions it raises are well worth asking. If our culture valued this kind of query, its New York premiere would likely have attracted an audience of more than a dozen people, and we might even be a tiny step closer to utopia.