Screening twice Thursday at Anthology, James Benning's Utopia is a genuinely experimental sound-image juxtaposition. Benning has long been interested in the relationship between landscape and narrative; here he appropriates the audio from Richard Dindo's documentary Ernesto "Che" Guevara: The Bolivian Diaries (shown at Film Forum in 1996) as the accompaniment for a series of "empty" landscapes shot in and around Death Valley and the U.S.-Mexican border.
Benning isn't the first avant-gardist to lift a ready-made soundtrack (Ken Jacobs used Ulmer's Black Cat to accompany one of his projection pieces), but, thanks to the Dindo documentary's romantic subject and Benning's underpopulated vistas, Utopia is predicated on a tangible absence. The timeless vistas echo with once world-historical derring-do and overheated rhetoric, even after the desert gives way to a succession of refineries, mines, and motels. Although Utopia's shots feel roughly the same length, there doesn't seem to be any particular pattern to their assemblage or any consistency to their relationship with the narrative. At one point someone mentions a river and Benning shows one; at another, he intervenes in the landscape by inscribing an embankment with the slogan "Che Lives"; after a while, he begins adding his own ambient sound.
Written and directed by Jim Shedden
A Zeitgeist Films release
At the American Museum of the Moving Image, May 1 and 2
A film by James Benning
At Anthology Film Archives, April 29, May 3 and 4
The strategy is minimal but undisciplined; the imaginary connection between sound and image flickers like a bulb in a bad socket. (After running on empty for perhaps 20 minutes during its last reel, Utopia's windup recaptures something of its earlier global-village feelBenning juxtaposing a long road with an articulation of Che's dream and then trumping it with a shot of a derelict trailer park.) Dependent as it is on feelings stirred by an archaic revolutionary myth, Utopia is ultimately a variation on Dindo's moviewhich itself returned to document the scene of Che's last stand a quarter of a century later. Benning's postscript attributes particular significance to his border landscape, but, reminding us that the original meaning of utopiais "nowhere," the point would have been made equally well with images of Berkeley or Disneyland.
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