Posted on: 09 September 2010
In anticipation of the New York premiere of his new film Ruhr at the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde, Not Coming to a Theater Near You presents two varied older works by acclaimed experimental documentary filmmaker James Benning on Saturday, 11 September, at 92YTribeca.
Three chronologies hypnotically overlap in Benning’s American Dreams: the span of champion home-run hitter Hank Aaron’s major league career, summarized through Benning’s own collection of baseball cards and Aaron memorabilia; American politics and pop culture that parallel Aaron’s rise to fame, heard through excerpts of newscasts, political speeches and top 40 hits; and finally, the scrolling text sourcing the 1972 diaries of Arthur Bremer, would-be political assassin (and key inspiration for Travis Bickle). While Benning has been more recently acclaimed for his “landscape” films (13 Lakes, RR, the forthcoming Ruhr), American Dreams offers a dark exploration of a different topography: the landscape of the mind and the scattered remnants of American ideals.
Completed a year before the 1996 centennial of Utah’s statehood – and titled after the Mormons’ original, rejected name for the state – Benning’s Deseret explores the state through fragments of history and topography. As it impassively records Utah’s majestic landscapes (mountains, deserts and red rock country) and quiet man-made constructions (churches, highways and fast-food restaurants), ninety-three articles from the New York Times from 1852 to 1992 are excerpted in voiceover, documenting Mormon codes, the construction of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, violence between Mormons, Indians, the federal government and government-sanctioned toxic waste dumping. Through this collage of texts and images, Benning creates an expansive portrait in which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has it, “the viewer is… compelled to construct a Utah and a history of his or her own – a makeshift novel or at least fragments of such a novel – in which all these elements belong.”