We’re in structural a-g territory here, a tennis player woking on his serve, over and over with precise editing. But then it’s twin true-crime re-enactments, actors playing murderers in interrogation.
A California teen girl is stabbed to death in 1984. The sound of typing throughout, cuts to black between her responses, ties to the novel Devil House, landscapes and artifacts. We have to listen to an entire song from Cats while watching a girl with perfect 80s hair talk on the phone. I don’t wanna have to think about the cost of music royalties when watching a movie, but putting a song from Thriller in your experimental documentary is okay?
Another girl is found dead at a Wisconsin farm in 1957. Static composition takes from around town, same as we just did in other town, listening to a radio preacher. Woman dancing alone to the worst version I’ve ever heard of “Tennessee Waltz.” This time no typing on the interview scenes, some ambient industrial sound.
It’s some pretty cool work by Benning, but I feel like I was tricked into watching a serial-killer movie, and I should’ve put on that four-hour George Harrison documentary instead. As far as my relative interest in musicians/murders go, I’ve skimmed the wiki on Ed Gein and though “oh no, that pretty much sucks” then moved on and never thought about him again. But I’ve considered George Harrison every day this year, and maybe that’s because I think I could pretty easily be a serial killer, but could never play guitar in a good group.
A selection of screenshots, with some notes I took, not necessarily going together…
Rough edits, film flares out at the end of each shot.
Mostly motor vehicle themed except for some especially long takes: a train ride, washing dishes, nude cuddling to an endless Dylan song.
The camera moved!
Not the best audio in the world, wind and transit sounds.
One editing trick at the hour mark to make sure you’re still paying attention.
Smokestack song is same as cuddling song, Black Diamond Bay by Dylan.
Staged-looking scenes and some natural street life.
(note photo in the above shot)
Good weekend afternoon movie.
The filmmuseum DVD comes with a great director interview:
What I am talking about is a general feeling that I believe people get when they watch a film. This feeling may be shared among members of the audience, and it may vary from one individual to another. What I am trying to do is to design films that are seductive, that leave gaps in the narrative that people will be able to fill with their own lives. I want the audience to help piece the shots together. I want them to have to work a little when they watch a film, to make watching a film more of an active experience. I think that when this happens, when people help tie a film together with their own personal experiences, the images in the film become what I am calling a metaphor. It is a pattern of meaning rather than a direct translation. You don’t say, well, this is what happened in the film, but rather this is how I relate the images, the events that occur on the screen. This kind of general pattern of meaning that you come away with is not really in the film, nor in the events that are photographed. There is no objective reality; there is only this metaphor.
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.”