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Structural Healing 

Filmmaker James Benning's Utopia

Wednesday, Jan 27 1999
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Photo by Katja Perrey
Filmmaker James Benning, subject of an ongoing career retrospective at Filmforum, is known primarily for his attention to structure: For each film, he adopts a set of rules and structures the film around it, then gives us pieces of a story in such a way as to make us conscious of both the story itself and our desire for stories in general. His 1977 film One Way Boogie Woogie, for example, is made up of 60 one-minute shots. The pleasure of this particular film is characteristic of Benning's work: Each shot is composed with formal rigor, yet there is also unexpected humor and intriguing complexity. Benning likes nothing better than to set up two seemingly disparate poles, then leave us to play in the tension between them.

The 56-year-old Benning came to California 11 years ago to teach in the film program at CalArts. Originally from Milwaukee, he first earned a master's degree in math in 1970. He taught briefly at a college in upstate New York until the math building burned down and, vaguely implicated, he was fired. He began filmmaking in the early '70s, and while his work has been critically lauded, it has limited distribution, playing mostly in museums and festivals. He now seems to hover in the twilight zone between independent filmmaking and the more classic avant-garde tradition.

Benning has made more than 30 films, many of which explore the connections between landscape and history. This continues in his latest film, Utopia, which uses a soundtrack from a documentary on Che Guevara to counterpoint a series of images tracing a southbound trek through the SoCal desert. "The original idea was to finally make a film about the state -- I've lived in California for many years and never made a film here," says Benning. "And I had become very familiar with the Southern California desert, and I felt like that was the place to start to make a portrait of what California was about." Benning was also interested in the state's legacy of utopian communities, as well as in Che Guevara. (It's an odd mix, certainly, but that's never stopped Benning.) "Che Guevara just popped into my mind," he says, "and his ideas were something I actually believed in. The whole idea of creating a revolution that would form a new social being was very interesting to me."

While researching Guevara's life, Benning came across Richard Dindo's Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary, a 1994 documentary on Guevara's failed revolution. "When I saw Dindo's film, I thought it was pretty much what I would end up writing, so I thought I'd just steal it," says Benning. "At first I really liked the film, but then I realized that it seemed to be playing into this whole mystique of maintaining the myth of Che Guevara. I thought maybe I could retell the story by putting different images to the text."

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Benning did just that. "I transferred Dindo's soundtrack to magnetic film and then counted frames to measure the length of each section of the film's narration," he explains. "Then I did a shot for each paragraph of the film. It was a very economical process. After I did all the shots -- I think there were 156 shots in the film, and I shot maybe 250 -- I put them in those slide holders that hold 16mm film, and I actually edited the film on slides as I read the text. Once I had the order figured out, then I went back and cut the work print to the sound. The whole process is kind of a poor man's Avid [nonlinear editing] system."

Having boldly stolen Dindo's soundtrack, Benning is now somewhat contrite, hoping that Dindo, as a fellow artist, will honor the strategy rather than sue. When asked if he plans to continue to use appropriation in future projects, Benning contemplates another brilliant theft: "I was joking with somebody the other day that I would like to remake Psycho," he says. "I'd take the Psycho soundtrack and make a documentary about Los Angeles, playing again with that sense of displacement between the cityscape and the soundtrack."

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