This article appeared within the March 24, 2022 version of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly publication that includes unique movie criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter right here.
The United States of America (James Benning, 2022)
In 1975, James Benning and Bette Gordon, two graduate college students on the University of Wisconsin–Madison, took a pair of street journeys to New York and Los Angeles. With a 16mm digital camera mounted within the again seat of their automobile, they intermittently filmed their journeys, capturing photographs of the American panorama as news broadcasts and Top 40 radio hits drifted from the audio system. The ensuing 27-minute movie, titled The United States of America, was Benning and Gordon’s third and closing joint directorial effort; not lengthy after, Benning would launch his twin landmarks One Way Boogie Woogie and 11 x 14 (each 1977), positioning him on the forefront of the American structuralist cinema motion, whereas Gordon would pursue the narrative route and ultimately direct the influential impartial function Variety (1983).
Now, nearly a half-century later, Benning has revisited The United States of America with a feature-length remake of kinds. In this new movie, the 79-year-old artist expands the central conceit of the unique into a scientific portrait of the nation, presenting a sequence of 52 static photographs of each state within the nation, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, in alphabetical order. From the desolate plains and verdant farmlands of the Midwest to the manicured lawns and concrete expanses of the coastal metropolises, the pictures current a large view of the United States in all their light glory. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a choice of canonized pop and rock songs alternates with speeches and musings from artists and activists concerning the sociopolitical struggles that proceed to plague the nation. No mere index, the movie opens up an area for the viewer to think about the nation’s many contradictions, whereas concurrently demonstrating the impossibility of defining or depicting its essence—some extent put over by an finish title card revealing that the movie was shot completely in California. Much greater than a sly joke, this conceptual sleight of hand is a helpful reminder that America, for all its surface-level similarities, is an enormous canvas upon which new histories can nonetheless be written.
In March, a couple of weeks after the movie’s premiere within the Berlinale Forum, Benning and I met up in Los Angeles to debate the movie’s pandemic-era origins, his longtime curiosity in remakes, and his underestimated humorousness.
I’m inquisitive about the place to begin for this venture and the way it advanced as a remake of your earlier movie. Obviously you made it in the course of the pandemic, however did the circumstances dictate the scope and logistics of its conception?
The concept got here to me when the primary movie was proven on the Criterion Channel early within the pandemic. It received loads of consideration. So that’s what made me assume I’d redo it. But from the beginning I knew I wouldn’t journey to make the movie—even when there wasn’t COVID, I wouldn’t have been capable of go to 52 completely different locations. So that turned somewhat recreation for me to play. Knowing California so properly and having traveled a lot all through the U.S., I believed I may match up the locations fairly convincingly. The entire concept of defining the U.S., as a result of it’s so huge and so completely different—any form of description of it would fail. So I believed this was a simple technique to fail. But as I made the movie it additionally appeared like I used to be taking a look at locations I had already filmed. So it turned a movie about my very own movies as properly.
I only in the near past watched the unique for the primary time myself, and looking out again over your and Bette’s filmographies, I noticed that it got here simply earlier than you each began making options. Do you’ve any reminiscences of its making and the way you two conceived of it on the time?
Part of it was that we simply wished to make a journey. We had been each in graduate faculty, and so simply earlier than spring break, over a protracted weekend, we drove to New York—that was the primary loop. And then over spring break we made the longer loop to California and again.
For the primary loop to New York City, the route on the way in which out of Madison was south of the return route; in truth, at one level on the way in which again, we even went into Canada to see Niagara Falls from that aspect. The identical factor was achieved on the Madison-to-L.A. loop. The approach out was extra southern (for instance, via Dallas), and the way in which again was extra northern, via Nebraska. Then, when modifying the movie, we lower the photographs going from the east to the west of the U.S., however we’d soar between the southern and northern routes.
The movie was made in 1975, as Saigon was falling, and we used radio applications—each news and music—to provide it the texture of 1975. I knew I wished to have a little bit of that within the new movie, so I added some music and texts from sure those that I actually admire.
What was your and Bette’s working relationship like on the time? Did the division of labor on that movie affect the way you conceptualized making the brand new movie by yourself?
For the primary two movies we made collectively, we divided the labor fairly equally. But it was at a time after I would get extra credit score than she would. That’s why after we made I-94 (1974)—the second of our three movies—we made a acutely aware effort to divide the labor equally: we each appeared within the movie, and we every made half of it after which put it collectively.
For The United States of America, because it was a travelogue movie shot whereas we drove collectively, the filming side was equal. My work ethic whereas we had been modifying was in all probability a bit stronger than Bette’s, so I ended up doing a lot of the sound work. She was there, however I used to be working hours and hours, and he or she didn’t actually need to try this—and I don’t blame her! [Laughs] That made it tougher to make it half-and-half, however the vital elements had been definitely shared: the idea, the capturing, and [deciding] what could be within the movie.
Can you speak concerning the concept of remaking different movies? You’ve achieved it quite a few occasions, each with your personal movies and different folks’s. Where does this impulse come from?
I feel it got here out of my want to discover ways to paint, which got here after I had purchased some property within the Sierra Nevada mountains. I tore the home aside and put it again collectively to make it form of my very own. I wasn’t positive what I’d do in the course of nowhere, so I believed I’d discover ways to paint. I began by copying, primarily the work of Bill Traylor, however different outsider artists as properly, like Mose Tolliver. As I did that, I noticed that my motive to discover ways to paint was one factor, however the precise exercise made me really feel a lot nearer to these those that I had admired. For occasion, Traylor was an enormous man with large fingers, and he was capable of do some issues which might be very delicate. I used to be having a tough time doing one thing as delicate as he did. I additionally discovered that if I didn’t put the picture on the web page precisely like he did, then it misplaced its energy in unfavourable area. Because of these observations, I used to be capable of find out about him extra—what he was about and all that.
So that started my concept of copying. I then did the Two Cabins (2011) venture, the place I remade Thoreau’s cabin and Ted Kaczynski’s cabin. And once more, I understood the sense of area of these cabins significantly better from the precise copy of them than [I would’ve from] simply studying about them. So I noticed that I may be taught issues that I couldn’t be taught every other approach by reproducing them. It additionally turned a form of enjoyable recreation to see what I’d do with a copy—how it might change and what I’d add to it.
How does that relate to remaking your personal work? Are you making an attempt to pursue one thing completely different because it pertains to the sooner movies?
I feel so. It’s the concept of making an attempt to recollect what was really achieved to start with, after which seeing how I modified between that point and the time I’m remaking it.
Is there one thing particular about The United States of America that you simply wished to revisit or reimagine?
My most important concept for this movie was to arrange an issue that’s nearly insolvable, which is what America is at this specific time. You will at all times fail at that form of train.
How did you map out and match up every shot with its corresponding location?
Well, there’s all the plain issues: I wished to have completely different seasons and completely different topographies—deserts, mountains, issues like that. But I do know California very well, having lived right here for 30 years and having made loads of work right here. I’ve additionally traveled across the U.S. rather a lot—I’ve been in each state. But I additionally spent loads of time on Google Street View to actually match issues up, and to verify my reminiscence was appropriate. For occasion, the sunflowers in “Maine” had been close to a railroad line in California, and the soundtrack picked up a practice going by within the distance. I knew there have been sunflowers in southern Maine, however I didn’t know in the event that they had been close to any practice strains, so I actually regarded on-line for sunflowers close to practice strains. I used to be that obsessive about making an attempt to match this with that.
But I additionally broke that rule—for instance, after I used the statue of the farmer in California for Washington, D.C., I did that as a result of they’ve all these monuments in D.C. of what I’d name—I wished to say failed presidents, however I assume all presidents have failed in some methods. [Laughs] In any case, I believed I’d relatively see a statue of a working particular person being represented in our nation’s capital. And I used to be additionally inquisitive about giving Washington, D.C. its voting rights by calling it a state—Puerto Rico too.
Were there any specific states that proved laborious to match?
No. I feel there was at all times one thing I may discover. Though some folks assume sure states received cheated as a result of they received, like, a cloud as a substitute of one thing else. But I feel that’s not being cheated in any respect—they’re really representing all of Ten Skies (2004)! They’re being singled out in a optimistic relatively than unfavourable approach.
But all completely different sorts of choices are being made within the movie. For occasion, for Wilmington, Delaware, I wished to shoot an previous neighborhood that might signify previous cash, but in addition a neighborhood that might be coded politically, as a result of there are such a lot of folks in Wilmington who’re lobbyists elevating cash for no matter they signify. So I used Ronald Reagan’s house in Sacramento. He didn’t reside within the Governor’s Mansion, however relatively in a pleasant previous house that represents previous cash.
That’s one of many few photographs that, after realizing what the movie was doing, I believed may tip a viewer off to the self-esteem.
It’s humorous, on the screening this previous weekend in Los Angeles, somebody from Delaware got here as much as me and mentioned, “I was sure that was Delaware. That looked like a house in the town where I grew up.” [Laughs] I used to be more than happy with that.
The Florida shot is certainly one of my favorites. That pastel-colored constructing seems to be a lot like what I consider as mid-century Floridian structure.
What’s unusual is that the constructing in that shot was designed by the identical individuals who constructed the condominium constructing that just lately collapsed in Surfside, Florida. That was a coincidence. I clearly made that shot earlier than the constructing collapsed. But after I noticed the news concerning the collapse, I believed, “That looks a lot like the building in my shot.”
Let’s discuss among the dialogues and speeches we hear. Is that one thing you knew you wished to incorporate from the beginning?
For positive. It’s within the unique movie within the type of the radio. But I’ve achieved it in my different movies as properly. The Eisenhower speech and the studying of “Revelations” by Gregory Peck [from The Omen, 1976]—I used these in my movie RR (2007). I used to be form of taking part in again to the issues of earlier movies.
Specifically, I selected speeches by Stokely Carmichael and in addition John Trudell, the American Indian activist, as a result of I met each of them after I was youthful—Carmichael after I was about 22 or 23. I used to be very impressed by him. And then I met Trudell within the early 2000s, when there was a movie about him that his [partner] produced. I used to be fortunate sufficient to spend a night with him. I used to be very taken with the Native American philosophy that runs via his on a regular basis speech.
What concerning the music? Like within the unique movie, the tune decisions appear pretty pointed. How did you go about pairing sure songs with sure photographs?
Well, I knew I wished to make use of the Minnie Riperton tune [“Lovin’ You”], since that’s within the unique movie—I feel it performs three or 4 occasions. That was the #1 tune within the nation at the moment; it saved taking part in on the radio as we drove. For this movie, I take advantage of Karen Carpenter’s tune [“(They Long to Be) Close to You”] to open. She’s such a tragic American determine, and had such a phenomenal voice. It performs over the Alabama shot, which might be considerably misplaced. I additionally use the Woody Guthrie tune “This Land Is Your Land,” however I knew that that might be a cliché to make use of if sure stanzas weren’t dropped from it. So I take advantage of the very potent stanza the place he talks concerning the “No Trespassing” signal and personal property—I believed that needs to be included within the movie.
Some locations I take advantage of for music-related causes: Hibbing, Minnesota, as a result of that’s Bob Dylan’s hometown, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, due to the Lucinda Williams tune “Lake Charles,” which is a tune about someone who likes to go to Lake Charles and finally ends up committing suicide there. It’s very ironic as a result of Lake Charles isn’t a lake in any respect—it’s an industrial space that’s very polluted.
I can’t not ask about Alicia Keys’s cowl of “Imagine.” You spoke about clichés earlier than; I really feel like utilizing Keys’s model form of sidesteps what would have in any other case been a clichéd tune alternative.
Yeah, and I purposefully lower it off at a sure level within the lyric, which form of destroys the cliché. It units issues up with “Imagine all the people,” however doesn’t proceed with “living life in peace.” We all know what comes subsequent, however then it isn’t there.
That form of performs into the movie’s mixture of melancholy and humor, the latter of which is among the extra under-recognized elements of your work.
That’s actually true. Artists are sometimes afraid of humor. And then when folks write about my movies, they need to shrink back from it, too, as a result of by some means [they think] humor demeans the work. But I don’t consider that in any respect. I feel issues are humorous. And generally you don’t make them up. Like the shot of the horses within the movie which might be staring on the digital camera. They’re immobile besides for his or her ears, which transfer somewhat bit. They’re fully hilarious, however in a really unhappy approach. Or the racetrack shot, with simply 5 vehicles within the race, and one automobile getting additional and additional behind. It’s form of a pathetic race, despite the fact that the viewers actually appears to be having fun with it. I feel that’s hilarious.
The greatest snort on the Berlin screening was when it’s revealed that the movie was all shot in California.
Nobody laughed on the L.A. screening, however possibly they had been afraid to as a result of I used to be within the room. [Laughs] I requested them, “Why didn’t anyone laugh? It’s pretty funny at times.”
That mentioned, it’s not a movie I made to idiot anyone. I feel it’s an vital assertion about how we are able to create what we predict the U.S. is, and take it as actual, even when it’s fully false. I feel any building of which means for the U.S. can solely be false, as a result of how will you embody every thing? There’s at all times a contradiction.
Jordan Cronk is a movie critic and founding father of the Acropolis Cinema screening sequence in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Cinema Scope, frieze, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sight & Sound, and extra. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.