American Dreams (lost and found) / Landscape Suicide Review
This double-disc set of American Dreams (lost and found) and Landscape Suicide marks the beginnings of a major project for the Edition Filmmuseum label. It’s the first in a series of releases to be dedicated to the American experimental filmmaker James Benning; a series that will also represent the first time any of his work has been committed to disc. The Austrian Filmmuseum have the original elements in their possession and they will, one by one, restore, newly print and preserve each of Benning’s films. The 1980s pair that make up this disc were recently screened at the Filmmuseum’s Vienna base in spruced up form alongside a number of new works, including some world premieres. A new publication also surfaced at the same time, this one devoted to Benning’s Two Cabins project and following up their 2007 book, simply titled James Benning, which marked the first dedicated volume to the filmmaker. In other words, they’re doing it right: paying due care and attention and producing what should be definitive editions. Indeed, if all goes to plan then this series will surely compete with Edition Filmmuseum’s earlier, exhaustive look at the mammoth output of Alexander Kluge. And that kind of competition is extremely enticing…
No reason has been given for starting with a double-bill of American Dreams (lost and found) and Landscape Suicide. These weren’t Benning’s first films - he began working with a camera in the early seventies - nor were they his amongst his first feature-length works. Yet they do work extremely well together as a thematic pair and, arguably, are sufficiently accessible for the newcomer. Indeed, both are derived, in part, from true crime: the diaries of would-be assassin Arthur Bremer (who targeted President Nixon and presidential candidate George Wallace) are an important element in American Dreams’ make-up; Landscape Suicide, on the other hand, utilises the testimonies of serial killer Ed Gein and the fifteen-year-old Bernadette Protti who murdered her classmate Kirsten Costas in 1984. Not that viewers should be led to expect docudrama re-enactments. The Costas murder inspired a 1994 TV movie by the name of Death of a Cheerleader, whilst Gein’s exploits found their way, in one guise or other, into both Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Yet Landscape Suicide - or, for that matter, American Dreams - couldn’t be further from them in cinematic terms.
Of the two, American Dreams has both the denser and more tightly constructed framework. It operates on a number of visual/aural levels which, individually, would appear to be quite simple. The soundtrack consists of a kind of ’greatest hits’ of American songs and moments from American history between 1954 and 1976. We hear snippets of Elvis, say, or Dylan, interspersed with news coverage of JFK’s assassination or the Apollo moon landings. Textual identifiers, in plain font, appear onscreen to denote person, performer or event at hand, though it should be pointed out that anyone with even the slightest knowledge of American pop culture should be able to identify most, if not all, without such prompting. The main visual content is twofold. Pictorially we find a succession of baseball cards and other memorabilia devoted to Hank Aaron. Benning’s method is to show us both the fronts and the backs of this paraphernalia: the former being a colour photograph or illustration of Aaron; the latter being mostly text consisting of various pieces of Aaron-related trivia or statistics. Meanwhile, a text scroll occupies the lower part of the screen, continuous throughout the entirety of American Dreams. Here the font is plain but rather appears in handwritten form. At first it’s hard to get a grip on exactly what it is we are reading - excerpts from letters perhaps, or maybe diary entries - though, gradually, a ‘narrative’ does begin to take shape.
Having already mentioned Arthur Bremer, it isn’t difficult to conclude as to whose narrative that is. The source was indeed a diary, one that was published in 1973, whilst Bremer was in prison, as An Assassin’s Diary. It’s publication attracted some notable attention, including becoming part of the influence behind Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver and coming under the critical eye of Gore Vidal, who concluded that its prose was too literary to have been the work of a janitor with low IQ such as Bremer. Certainly there’s a definite style to be detected and it’s one that draws the reader in as American Dreams so keenly demonstrates. (Benning maintains fidelity to the text by keeping in all of the typographical errors, all of the instances of capital letters and all of the underlining.) As the overall picture becomes clearer - especially if the viewer comes to the film with little foreknowledge of Bremer - so too the tension builds as discussion turns more readily to Nixon, Wallace and the infamy to be had in becoming a murderer. At one point he considers the results if he were only able to kill a few secret service agents: it would be “something to show for [his] efforts”, he states, and enough to lead to him “getting in the papers”.
With such a heavy concentration on text, image and soundtrack, American Dreams places the viewer in a situation whereby it can be impossible to decide where our attentions should lie. There is no hierarchy to this layering and as such no indication as to where our eyes and ears should be putting in the most effort. The only deciding factor would appear to be our individual pre-knowledge. When the news is broken relating to the assassination of JFK, for example, the viewer is able to ‘switch off’ this particular piece of information; likewise text indicating that we are listening to Peggy Lee perform Fever. (Benning’s musical choices are almost all well-known - apparently the result of him picking the most obvious choice for each year of American Dreams’ timespan.) Conversely, the diary entries of Bremer are not common knowledge and neither, at least to a British audience, are the achievements of Hank Aaron. Thus a conflict arises between the ticker-tape of text at the bottom of the screen and the information appearing on the baseball cards - do we shut one out to concentrate on the other or do we try and balance out the two? Furthermore, can we entirely ignore the jukebox of American pop tunes and bulletins of major events or will their constant changing prove a further distraction?
The temptation is to take advantage of American Dreams’ presence on disc and utilise the pause, rewind and slow-motion buttons on the remote in order to fully take everything in. It simply isn’t possible to latch onto it all, rather we’re left with whichever snippets we choose to focus on and the sheer overwhelming sensation of so much information. Of course, this is entirely the point, with Benning wishing for us to consider the whole rather than the individual elements. This isn’t a film solely about Aaron or Bremer or seismic events in American culture during the fifties, sixties and seventies. Rather this is a portrait of America as seen through the collage of these varying aspects. The (lost and found) subtitle becomes clearer as American Dreams progresses, with Aaron and Bremer representing opposite ends of the spectrum. Both wish to - and did - hit the headlines but through alternate means: Aaron’s fame was based on positive achievement, in other words talent and skill, as evidenced through all those stats and figures popping up on-screen; Bremer’s infamy came about through negative means, cynical and nihilistic, yet ultimately marked by failure. Between them, and amongst all that American history, we have a picture of the United States. Which side holds greater sway perhaps depends on which portions of the screen you’ve being paying the greatest attention too.
By comparison Landscape Suicide is the more understated and contemplative work. Its two subjects - Bernadette Protti and Ed Gein - are dealt with individually resulting in a two-part film as opposed to the dense layering of American Dreams. Furthermore those two parts mirror in other in approach and construction: we get images of the landscape (Orinda, California in Protti’s case; Wisconsin, Texas for Gein), lengthy driving sequences in which we slowly approach the scenes of the respective crimes, and even longer re-enactments centring on the two murderers’ individual testimonies. Some text and visual inserts make an appearance, as do contemporary pop hits and bursts of the radio à la American Dreams, but these are minimal and easily consumed. Indeed, even the performances during the re-enactments are distinctly un-flashy and unfussy. They are there more as means of delivering information as opposed to working in a dramatic sense; some may dismiss the acting as wooden, but that would be to miss the point.
It’s important to make clear that, despite the mixture of drama and documentary in a highly stylised form, Landscape Suicide should not be considered as having any kind of overt kinship with Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. If a comparison was to be made then Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is a more apt starting point. Of course, the teenaged Protti (and her fellow pupil victim) suggests a direct link with the teenage killers at Columbine High School, but the relationship is much deeper than that. Just as Van Sant merely presents actions and then leaves the audience to add their own connections and connotations to the facts of the matter, so too Benning is asking that the viewer draw their own conclusions. (The driving sequences in Landscape Suicide also look forward to the prowling camera techniques of Elephant.) The question on Benning’s lips relates to what makes a killer, specifically from an environmental - or, to quote the title, landscape - perspective. Did the suburban streets of Protti’s existence in some way have an effect, either physically or emotionally? Similarly how did the bleak winters of Wisconsin affect Gein? With the pairing of the film with American Dreams it’s also tempting to consider such questions from a strictly US standpoint - what does this violence tell us about the country in which it occurred?
Answers, in both American Dreams and Landscape Suicide, are hard to come by - or at least those which could be considered definitive. In the case of the former this is owing, in part, to the sheer amount of information thrown at the viewer; in the latter it results from being asked to consider aspects that are less than concrete. Yet it’s this consideration which is key and ultimately, I believe, what Benning is seeking from his audience. These are films designed to prompt contemplation, provoke debate and, as a result, to return to again and again. Arguably the questions they ask are too big for a pair of features respectively barely an hour in length and just over 90 minutes, but that doesn’t make those questions any less valid.
Edition Filmmuseum are releasing American Dreams (lost and found) and Landscape Suicide as a two-disc set, with one disc per feature. Both films have been restored from their original 16mm elements and both look rather terrific. Given the film stock we’re dealing with 1.37:1 aspect ratios here and a certain inherent graininess to the image. Some signs of wear and damage over the years remain - mostly during a couple sequence in Landscape Suicide - but importantly the clarity levels are excellent, colours are strong and the amount of detail consistently impressive. Certainly, reading the various pieces of text in American Dreams is never an issue. Given Benning’s involvement in and endorsement of the Edition Filmmuseum series, it also seems highly likely that he signed off on these transfers.
Soundtracks appear in their original English mono across two channels. Optional German subtitles are available for Landscape Suicide, but not for American Dreams - not doubt a side-effect of the sheer amount of textual information onscreen the majority of the time. The soundtracks are mostly clean and generally without problem. American Dreams’ rendering is particularly good, though do bear in mind that it is making use of various archive radio broadcasts and news reports meaning that a consistent standard could never be expected. Landscape Suicide, meanwhile, suffers from a slightly muffled soundtrack at times during its voice-over. Given the quality elsewhere I’m tempted to suspect that this flaw was inherent in its original recording as opposed to any issue with the disc and its transfer.
Extras are limited to a 20-page bilingual booklet with no additional material on either disc. In interviews Benning has previously stated a disinterest in audio commentaries and, given his involvement in this release, it looks as though that also extends to other special features. Nonetheless the booklet comes with a fine essay on both films by Barbara Pichler (a longer version of which appeared in the Austrian Filmmuseum’s 2007 James Benning book), a general introduction to this series of releases, a brief and newly-commissioned by Benning on making the switch to digital filmmaking after years of 16mm productions, and the expected illustrations and credits. In sum not the weightiest collection of additions, but the booklet does do a sufficient job of placing Benning and these particular works in context.