The United States of America
Legendary structuralist filmmaker James Benning crafts an ostensibly simple, quietly mischievous landscape work that reflects on his homeland today.
In 1975, Benning (Ruhr, MIFF 2011; American Dreams, MIFF 1986) joined Bette Gordon (Variety, MIFF 1986) in travelling cross-country from New York to Los Angeles, a 16mm camera capturing the turmoil of a Watergate-era nation through the windshield of their car. The resulting film was called The United States of America, a title that Benning now repurposes for this updated survey of his homeland; shot during the pandemic, it tours the country’s 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico via 52 roughly-two-minute static shots.
This expansive documentary’s formal conceit – that its locations are presented alphabetically by state, from Alabama to Wyoming – invites the audience to reflect on the impact of human action across lineages of place. Punctuating its contemplative compositions are a range of voices, from songs by Alicia Keys and Woody Guthrie to a speech by civil rights campaigner Stokely Carmichael, that build into a rich portrait of a complicated nation. Of course, true to form for Benning, there’s also delightfully impish sleight of hand, one that both upends and deepens the themes of this already enigmatic, resonant work.
“Benning offers a wry yet searching look at an America united not by its principles of opportunity and equality but by its limitations and failures.” – Little White Lies
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