I’ve finally watched a James Benning movie. I knew I’d either love it, or not get it, which would be frustrating since I have about 15 Benning movies on my must-see list based on critic recommendations. Whew, loved it. Felt like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind meets Hollis Frampton. I noticed he was cutting the picture on every new spoken sentence, but later I discovered it gets more Framptony yet: there’s one literal/relevant shot per segment, the long between-segment shots get gradually shorter, movie switches to color when Utah becomes a state and there are precisely as many b/w frames as color.
All spoken text is from historical New York Times articles, which don’t seem overly fond of Utah or the Mormons, so it’s interesting to get a history lesson told by a suspicious narrator – from early reports on Brigham Young, U.S. military expeditions to quell the Mormon rebellion, fights against polygamy, the cross-country railroad, and the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia killed 100+ non-Mormon settlers. Things get somewhat less extreme once statehood is achieved – standouts include the U.S. army’s nerve gas tests killing thousands of sheep and Robert Smithson’s great Spiral Jetty.
Amazing quote from 1880s: “Mormonism is a good deal as slavery seemed once to those of the north who had never seen, but only read one-sided unreliable representations of it: not half as bad when you come to see it.”
Rosenbaum: “Benning’s eye for evocative beauty is as sharp as ever, and his complex invitation to the viewer to create a narrative space between his separate elements keeps this 1995 film continually fascinating.”