Photo courtesy Video Data Bank
In the late ’80s, Sadie Benning catapulted from her bedroom in Milwaukee, where she was a lonely queer teen making home videos, to the bright lights of media stardom, where she was rightfully celebrated as a leader in a new queer cinema. Museum curators, academic feminists and a growing cadre of adolescent bad girls talking about grrrl power found in Benning’s achingly beautiful, entirely hand made video diaries a new voice and a sublime new talent, one that radically re-imagined the collision of sound and image, and demanded a place in American culture for young girls in general and baby dykes in particular.
Using a funky, junky little Fisher-Price PXL-2000 — a toy camcorder that records onto audiocassettes and produces an evanescent, grainy black-and-white image — Benning began making video diaries in 1989 when she was 16, detailing the sense of alienation that assails most teens and that in her case was exacerbated by the fact that she is a lesbian (she dropped out of her high school to sidestep the rampant homophobia). “Video really seemed to be the most appropriate way to express myself,” she says. “With video, you can perform and you can create fantasy, and I think I was really interested in creating a world other than the one that I was living in.”
Benning, who grew up with her artist-filmmaker mother, Bette Gordon (while her dad, filmmaker James Benning, offered paternal guidance long-distance), attributes her choice of equipment to necessity. “I didn’t have the money to buy a $3,000 camcorder,” she says, “so originally, using this toy wasn’t an aesthetic or political choice. It was more about access. Now, maybe because of my class background, I firmly believe that you don’t need an expensive camera to be creative.”
Benning’s work is certainly a testament to this philosophy. Her early tapes, which include Me and Rubyfruit (1989), A Place Called Lovely (1991) and Girl Power (1992), are invariably set in the claustrophobic but entirely safe space of her bedroom; she generally speaks directly to the camera or in voice-over, offering her take on issues both personal and political, from girl friends to high school to what it means to be a girl who looks like a boy. What makes the tapes so dazzling, though, is the way they careen between extremes. While the pictures, for example, are often a high-contrast blur, they’re absolutely breathtaking — Sadie in super close-up, her white profile sharp against the deep black background, or, in one of the sexiest scenes in cinema, her mouth and tongue around her thumb, the full-on eroticism caught in a sea of gray pixels. And while the stories are rather mundane tales of teen angst and lost love, they’re infused with emotional insight and humor.
Benning’s latest masterpiece is Flat Is Beautiful (1998), which, at 50 minutes, is her longest and most complex video to date. While she again grapples with her own life and shoots mainly in Pixelvision, she also, for the first time, incorporates per formers — all wearing cartoonlike masks. “I started out wanting first to make an animation, and second to deal with the psychological space around this androgynous young girl and that transitional time girls go through between childhood and adoles cence,” Benning explains. “So the masks add that cartoonlike feel, but they also have symbolic associations that I felt really worked in terms of dealing with this child’s sense of gender, as well as in the way they ask the audience to project more onto the characters.”
The strategy works — the masks are all about hiding and performing, and the hell of trying to figure out just who you are — and the tape embodies all of Benning’s gifts: It’s smart, beautiful and entirely moving. Benning claims she spent three years editing, but you’d never know. “That was where I was really making the structure and the ideas happen,” she says. “At points it was all mangled around, and I was definitely lost. But now it’s strange — people see it and think that it’s something I didn’t angst over. I guess it’s not all screwed up!”
Flat Is Beautiful screens with James Benning’s American Dreams Friday, February 12, at Art Center, and Sunday, February 14, at LACE. Both Bennings will attend both screenings. Call Filmforum for more information, (323) 526-2911.