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.”
What a thrill – Morris’s most energetic movie yet. The story of a certain litigious woman (let’s call her J) and her exploits – in her own words, and from the perspective of a couple insiders (a pilot she hired, a dog-cloning scientist) and outsiders (two tabloid journalists and an ex-mormon radio host). The result is what Morris calls a “Looney Tunes Rashomon,” in which you can never quite be sure of the true events because each side is enthusiastically, entertainingly promoting their own version.
The events in question: in 1977 J’s boyfriend/crush went away on a mission (or was kidnapped by the Mormon church). She assembled a militant team to rescue/kidnap and deprogram/rape him, depending whose story you buy. When the story came out, the tabloids hit her hard, finding and publishing supposed evidence that she’d been a sex worker. Towards the end of the movie as we’re running out of details and stories regarding the 70’s incidents, J lives alone with her dog, still pining after her now-married Mormon boy, when the dog dies – so she has him cloned in South Korea, and now lives with five perfect replicas of her former dog. The events in J’s life would be notable in themselves, but the genius of the movie is all in the telling. The editing is a little jittery and jumpcutty for my liking, but the welcome absence of the Mr. Death-style re-enactments and the wealth of valuable stock photos and the cool tabloid-headline graphics make up for that.
I like this new film because it’s a return to a kind of absurdist version of what I do. I love the oddities of how people express themselves. Take [tabloid journalist] Peter Tory’s affection for the phrase “spread-eagled.” Every time he says “spread-eagled,” and he says it again and again and again, I ask myself, “Is he making this up? Is this tabloid journalism in its essence?” At one point, he’s talking about the “sex in chains” headline, and he says, “I think it was ropes, but chains sounds better.” Tabloid’s a story about narrative, about how stories are constructed as they’re being told. I wanted to achieve that effect in a movie, and I hope it’s there.