“James Benning marks the centennial of Utah’s statehood with his excellent experimental documentary, Deseret. As befits its structuralist maker, the film examines the imposition of human design, both physical and conceptual, on nature.
A chain of beautiful, static shots frame details of Utah’s landscapes, from windswept waters, to snowy pines, to immobile oil derricks and silent government buildings. Meanwhile, texts from the New York Times describing the state’s social history, 1852 to the present, are read in voice over. Just as the terrain is contained within human constructs – Indian paints mark rocks, graffiti mark the Indian paintings, the graffiti are enclosed in the filmmaker’s frame – the state’s human inhabitants are circumscribed by the stringent codes of Brigham Young and his burgeoning Mormon sect – fascinatingly described in the Times pieces – and that group’s resistance to outside control and interference. (Deseret was the people’s original choice, rejected by Washington, for the state’s name.) Benning imposes his own strictly defined filmic formula, and it’s that intriguing complicity that gives Deseret the authority to transcend mere prettiness. …" —LA Weekly
James Benning’s early films fused the “structuralist” investigations into sound-image relationships of filmmakers like Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton with an interest in narrative and a deep sensitivity to color, light, and landscape. He first grabbed the attention of the avant-garde film world with 8 1/2 × 11 and 11 × 14. Filmed in vivid color in the rural and urban landscapes of his native Midwest, these two films would provide the kernel for his further investigations into film form.
His films’ rigorous structures — often based on numerical systems — and exquisitely composed shots reflect his training as a mathematician, and their frequently autobiographical subject matter draws upon his working-class roots (a rare subject for avant-garde film) and his longtime commitment to political activism.
While his earliest films are mostly concerned with form and narrative, his work in the ‘80s began to introduce both personal subject matter and documentary elements, at the… read more