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It doesn’t happen very often that texts about experimental or essayistic films come with spoiler alerts, but in this case, it can’t be avoided: in what follows, a fairly important “punch line” of James Benning’s THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA will be pre-empted—because without doing so, it’s impossible to write anything meaningful about the film. Anyone who would rather be surprised in the cinema should stop reading this text now. But I will say just one thing before you go: sit through the credits!

A simple block of text in the credits makes the spoiler alert necessary: because it removes the foundational text-image synthesis upon which everything that appeared before it seemed to have been based. What we believe we have seen—up until the credits—in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is a political-geographical moving-image atlas of the eponymous nation, consisting of 52 text overlays and just as many static shots that almost all, to greater or lesser degrees, can be considered as images of landscapes. “Heron Bay, Alabama,” reads the first overlay, and the subsequent shot depicts a row of warped rods anchored in sandy soil—presumably the remnants of a demolished building. The next textual insert reads “Copper River, Alaska,” followed by a panoramic view of a mountainous region.

And it continues: an alphabetical run-through of the American states (plus—and this counts as a political intervention in itself—the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, two places that are part of the territory of the United States, but don’t enjoy the status of states). The names of the states and territories are coupled with a specific place name and followed by an approximately two-minute-long shot that we can only assume has been taken at the named location—at Heron Bay, Alabama, for example, in the case of the first pairing. The two main elements of the film could hardly be more clearly connected to each other, an impression occasionally strengthened by the soundtrack, when for example the text overlay “Fayette, Mississippi” is followed by the image of a cotton field to which is added a statement by the Black American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael on the legacy of slavery. In fact, the reference can be resolved semantically in both directions: the text is an identifying “captioning” of the image, just as the image is an illustration of the text.

Text and image uncoupled

Or could be. If it weren’t for the credits. There, we read: “Filmed in California”, followed by a “partial list” of the locations; both aspects of the text-image connection, the relationship of placement and that of representation, reveal themselves at once to be chimeras. Retrospectively, the two central visual components of Benning’s United States of America come apart, and what remains is the principle of cinematic montage as basically a meaning-neutral sequence of discontinuous moving-image blocks. Which are then inevitably once again charged with meaning. 

For of course the landscape shots in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA don’t turn into purely random images just because they, according to the credits, were produced exclusively in California. On the contrary: the relationship between the two elements becomes more complex. That the principle of geographical identification is no longer fully operational does not mean that the landscapes are completely sundered from the offered place names through our expanded knowledge. Rather, we are confronted with the question of why, earlier, we accepted that exactly these images were representations of exactly these places.

Moreover, and this is perhaps even more important, the gaze (which, again, remains, in terms of the aesthetics of reception, the central “point” of the film—just retrospectively) is freed up for those aspects of the images that, from the start, weren’t absorbed in the representational function. For self-reflective aspects, for example. Some of Benning’s older films, such as RR (2007), TEN SKIES (2004), and GLORY (2018) are evoked with visual motifs in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; others, such as STEMPLE PASS (2012), via the overlays of place names. The credits, however, invoke the three films in which Benning first fully developed his particular style of “landscape film,” which in the meantime has almost become a cliché; so is THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA an addendum to, or a continuation of, his “California Trilogy”, which includes EL VALLEY CENTRAL (1999), LOS (2000), and SOGOBI (2001)?

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (1975) by James Benning and Bette Gordon

The return of fiction

The most complex connection in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is to an early work, a 27-minute film of the same name, that Benning made in 1975 with Bette Gordon. In this first film about the United States, we see a man and a woman in a car; mostly he is driving, sometimes she is. The camera, in the back seat, aimed over the heads of the two characters and through the windshield, films the areas the car moves through. Instead of the hard cuts of the new film, in this earlier film gentle dissolves allow the various landscapes encountered in the course of the road trip to flow into each other—along with the various dynamics and moods in the car itself.

The connotations of the title—which “states” become “united” (or not), and what that has to do with “America” (or not)—are grasped very differently in the two films. But the new film does connect to one aspect of the older one—an aspect that in Benning’s early work was almost always front and centre: fictionalization as both problem and potential of the cinematic image. Not just in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, but also for example in 11 x 14 (1978), HIM AND ME (1983), and LANDSCAPE SUICIDE (1986), the look at American landscapes unites with fragments of character narratives, sometimes somewhat autobiographical, sometimes quasi-documentary. In the works of the last two decades, however, such techniques rarely appear or are at least pushed even further to the edges of the images, or completely out of sight. Especially in hyper-minimalist works such as TEN SKIES or 13 LAKES, meaning emerges only out of the images themselves, or out of their serial presentation. In a certain sense, then, in the new film, fictionalization makes a return to Benning’s cinema. But in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 2021, unlike in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 1975, it is no longer tied to characters. Instead, by means of the credits, it is located in the landscape takes themselves—which is to say in the substance of an America that, in James Benning’s work, never quite comes to terms with itself.

Lukas Foerster, film critic and media scholar, lives in Cologne.

Translation: Hilda Hoy

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