Landscape Suicide James Benning (USA; 1986) Rhonda Bell; Elion Sucher
viewed: YouTube 6 August 2020
The opening sequence of Benning’s ‘Landscape Suicide’ (LS) comprises a medium full body shot of a left handed tennis player practicing the tennis serve. The same shot is repeated multiple times but broken by brief interludes as the image fades to black, like the blink of an eye, before repeating. The object of Benning’s gaze is small town America: the sort of place that in the era of the ‘80’s was supposed to represent all that was best in the USA.
Perhaps Benning, who grew up in this kind of environment, feels that the game of tennis, with its service ritual requiring hours of practice to perfect, epitomises the milieu where nothing much happens, life repeats, obsessively.
I suppose that the ‘Nothing much happens around here’ descriptive trope set Benning to thinking on what actually did happen ‘around here’. And it wasn’t just tennis. Because these small rural townships were often the locations for homicide, the types of murder one might characterise as American gothic. The killings that happened in these places tended to differ from those of the big inner cities with their racial and economic strains and tensions, where gangs and desire left their mark in corpses and blood. No, these small town murders stemmed out of a particularly American psychic phenomenon; the playing out within the individual psyche of particular restless underlying disturbances, bringing to the surface in homicidal action those forbidden forces endemic in American life. Possession by the unnameable the unsayable. Assimilation by the Gothic. A weirding of life that is finely described by Sherwood Anderson in his 1930’s collection of short stories, “Winesberg’. Anderson’s stories describe a small town community in which people are trapped within themselves, goaded by a sense of restlessness and incompleteness. An American dilemma in which individuals were trapped, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the psychic trap to spring.
Of course today the Americanisation of life has spread a certain kind of disturbance of the individual psyche throughout the world. But the USA with its waves of mass killings, facilitated by the gun laws, still stands out as the archetypal marker of the lone killer carrying death within them, the agitation of death.
Benning takes up Anderson’s theme and castes it onto post war America, an America in which Americans are now no longer just ‘ornery citizens, they are consumers, living in a society where they are entitled to buy into their dreams, to acquire whatever money can buy. A society where restlessness and identity are catered for by a carefully calibrated mass media. A society in which individuals, accustomed to getting what they want, are ever more prone to acting on their desires. The culture of dreams, frustrated unrealisable dreams that mutate into fantasy.
Benning’s ‘LS’ uses the Court and/or interview transcripts of forensic questioning of two murderers, to act out the testimony given by the perpetrators of their states of mind and their consequent actions. The murderers featured are a young girl who had killed another young female classmate; and a older man who murdered and butchered at least two women (somewhat in the manner of the movie the Silence of the Lambs) externalising his internalised twisted sexual promptings. The murders were quite different in nature but both murderers were characterised by an apparent distancing from their actions. What comes across from their own words was that they seem to have been disconnected from their selves. That both the culture and their own dislocated beings necessitated them directing feeling and actions outwards as a means of relieving an internalised pressure.
The restlessness and the insecurity of being described by Anderson have by the time Benning makes his movie become an epidemic in small town America. Something about this kind of milieu engenders isolation where individuals are easily detached from the community and retreat into themselves, desires and destructive imaginings pushing up beneath a surface of normality. And it is the surface also that attracts Benning’s intention.
Framed about the accounts of murder, and always interposed with the blink of the eye, the rhythmic fade to black, we see in their multifarious forms the backgrounds against which his two main subjects lived their lives. As recorded by Capra, Spielberg and other Hollywood interlocutors with small town America we see the normal: the hardware stores, the churches, the main streets, the diners, the wooden houses, the gas stations, the parking lots. Benning always shows these images in their context: next to the road. The road and the sound of the road is omnipresent in the film, an endless streaming of automobiles going from one place to another. And this is what Bennings captures: linking all these images of small town life is the agitation of the highway, this restless unending movement from one place to another that mirrors the inner life of his subjects. There is no stillness. What you see looks like stillness but it’s not, it is an unsettling vibrating constant.
Benning’s title suggests a nation that is in the process of killing itself. In retrospect the film’s imagery, the film’s story is now from the perspective of the 2020’s something seen in the rear view mirror of time. The roads are of course the same, but the traffic, the passage of car and truck has intensified: Banning’s landscape has been left behind. We are now living in a world of particles, a virtual world where the constant agitation of endlessly forming and reforming of bits and pixels creates a new reality. America has moved into a world defined less by Gothic more by Sci-Fi, Star Wars fantasies where global suicide becomes possible where the individuals can fantasize and practice mass killings. A world where in King Vidor’s ‘the Fountainhead’ , scripted by Ayn Rand, the protagonist, an Architect decides on moral grounds that it is better to destroy the World, than to have to exist within it in an ideological form he could not tolerate. Welcome to the USA.