A 21st century generation of cinephiles has enthusiastically discovered and tirelessly championed the work of the American experimentalist James Benning (born 1942). Virtually no film festival anywhere in the world, if it considers itself to be progressive, lacks a new work by him in its programme whenever possible.
Yet it is a curious fact that this generation probably considers Benning to basically be the guy who shoots skies, rivers, roads, and trains in minimalistic, beautifully composed long takes. A poet of nature, and of duration, of love and respect for space and time. Scott MacDonald in an Artforum issue of 2007 dubbed him “the foremost filmmaker of the American landscape” (Benning has subsequently filmed in other countries as well, including Germany). What a salutary surprise it is for such fans to travel back two or three decades to the time when Benning was yoked to a highly conceptual movement dubbed (by the art magazine October) the “New Talkies”.
His work of that period captures the rich moment historical moment – after the purist abstractions of Stan Brakhage & co., but before the narrative steamroller of Sundance/Miramax-style indie film – when a Third Way was possible (see the 2008 essay “Main Street USA”). Moreover, this is a path that Benning has never entirely left. The hint of narrative – a certain kind of play with its possibility – is still strong in works including One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later (2005).
And the conceptualist aspect has never gone away, either – I recall Benning mildly shocking a Rotterdam audience in 2012 when he informed us how much of his seemingly “Bazinian” (i.e., wholly photographic) small roads (2011) was, in fact, proudly stitched together in digital composites. Not to mention his cross-media “cabin project” that involves not only the building of particular structures in rural areas, but also an engagement with the philosophy of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski – a direct continuation of the concerns of his earlier work.
My first encounter with Benning was purely through reading detailed interviews in Wide Angle and Framework magazines in the late 1970s – I had only my imagination to project tantalising films including 8½ x 11 (1974) or The United States of America co-made with Bette Gordon (1975). What a blast, then, to actually see Grand Opera (1978) on the massive screen of the Melbourne Film Festival in 1981. I was immediately hooked by Benning’s work, and entirely ready to consider him on par with the veritable Mount Rushmore of the USA avant-garde featured, playfully, in the film itself: Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, Hollis Frampton.
Beginning with a quotation from Stan Brakhage, whose attempt to define an essence of cinema led him to banish soundtrack altogether (since sound, according to him, lends an unwanted and impure quality of absurd melodrama or “grand opera” to the image), Grand Opera is, on a formalist level, a dazzling demonstration-deconstruction of the myriad ways in which sound and image can be made to work with and against each other.
It’s a project familiar to devotees of Snow or Frampton, but what is especially distinctive and delightful about Benning’s contribution to this art-as-research is his remarkable finesse with the varieties and nuances of sound. Grand Opera works diligently and humorously through the modes of filmic sound – speech, music, noise, silence, direct-synchronised or post-synchronised, in-frame and off-frame – and all the ways they have been conventionally combined and layered. A little in the vein of Philip Brophy’s early Super-8 epic Contracted Cinema (1978), another laboratory-opus.
So, at one moment, we are treated to a condensed and parodic biographical narrative – constructed entirely of a voice-over, pans across the streets of several American towns, and snatches of familiar rock or folk tunes that have come to represent the times in which they were recorded. It’s a story in the sense that it takes us through a specific historical and geographical progression; and yet it tells us almost nothing.
Then, at another moment, Benning dispenses with all this fooling around with convention (whether of the commercial or experimental kind) and demands that his juxtapositions be received in a wholly new manner: the breathtaking sequence in which a series of what are visually seemingly insignificant shots come to be montaged together by virtue of the pitch or tone of their accompanying direct sounds – the result being an elaborate musique concrète composition comprised of disparate hisses, hums, noises and spoken syllables. Forget the coloured bottles hopping around the screen from shot to shot in Ozu; this is truly parametric filmmaking!
What makes Benning not only a formalist master is his consistent concern with the pre-existing social meanings that objects, images, events or sounds carry. He’s close to Ken Jacobs, in this sense. The many still life or tableau vivant images that punctuate Grand Opera, always somehow strange and off-realistic, do not amount to a photo-diary à la Jonas Mekas, Howard Guttenplan or a hundred other caméra-stylo cine-chroniclers, but rather a veritable catalogue of the signs and codes that constitute American culture and its lifestyles.
Benning, unlike almost an entire generation of avant-gardists before him, does not disregard fiction and its rhetorical conventions. He’s fascinated by how we, as social subjects, get caught up in (interpellated by) the structures of fiction – why we succumb to the grand opera.
The entirety of Grand Opera is built on a paradox: pieces of the real world that Benning chanced upon in his camera-travels are used to generate a complex fictive intrigue (one that is oddly predictive of certain September 11 2001 conspiracy theories regarding the reflection of a flash from an incoming airplane before a building explodes … ). They are assembled as “an historical romance” (the film’s subtitle) that testifies to the American obsession with the mystical and transcendental. When the original “found” shots appear, they register as simultaneously a fitting climax to the narrative illusion and an undoing or demystification of it. A tricky conceit worthy of Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973)!
Grand Opera is historical in another sense as well. It is full of jokes and pastiches relating to the avant-garde cinema of its time, functioning as a witty State of the Art commentary. Benning is abundantly open to diverse trends and tendencies going on in filmmaking at any given moment. In the festival context of 1981, the richness of his project stood in stark contrast to Fabrice Ziolkowski’s L.A.X. (1980), the total analytical drift of which was to present us with a series of static, long takes of various Los Angeles sites, with an occasional voice-over quotation to cue us into what was already patently obvious in the image itself: that this is not reality but photography (wow!), not a window on the world but a specific point-of-view … Not everything that, since the early ‘70s, has come (more or less) from the CalArts “school” around Thom Andersen is as vibrant and multi-layered as what Benning achieves. [Note: Ziolkowski eventually travelled far from his experimental roots, forging a career as a scriptwriter for film and TV animation, and as a voice director.]
Throughout the 1980s, Benning produced carefully structured, long-form collages of images, voices, texts, graphics and staged elements. The content (as befitting the director’s activist roots) is highly, strikingly political: where American Dreams (1984) deals with (among other things) the ideology of race in sports, and the disturbed psychology of a killer (via the diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot Senator George Wallace in 1972), Landscape Suicide (1986) explores the traces of two murderers, Bernadette Protti and Ed Gein.
Far from conventional documentary or even essayistic forms, Benning stresses in these two challenging films the determining factors of place (landscape) and media (movies, songs, radio, magazines … ). As Barbara Pichler suggests in her excellent accompanying essay presented in both German and English for the 2011 Austrian Film Museum DVD release of the two films (no. 68 in their series), these are “American nightmares”, reflective of Benning’s personal state of mind (in 1979, he experienced the trauma of waking up next to someone who had died during the night, a history recounted in detail in Him and Me ), but also indicative of wider cultural disquiets.
From a related but different angle, a compelling account of Landscape Suicide in terms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its relay through the perceptual apparatus of experimental film video can be found in filmmaker and psychological counsellor Dirk de Bruyn’s fascinating 2014 book, The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art (Cambridge Scholars Publishing).
© Adrian Martin August 1981 / April 2012 / November 2016