The United States of America
The few spoken passages of the film, at the request of the filmmaker, are not subtitled. A paper translation will be distributed at the entrance to the auditorium.
Forty-seven years after a short film with the same title, made with Bette Gordon and shot entirely in the interior of a car, James Benning changes the rules. The shots of this new The United States of America no longer cross the country from East to West but rearrange two-minute views associated with each of the fifty American states in alphabetical order, adding the potentially new state of Porto Rico. As always, each space exists in a present, past or future relationship to resource management. Underlying each shot, the humming of industrialisation, the changing frequencies of a non-stop engine: extracting, harvesting, producing, transporting. Sparingly integrated onto the soundtrack, political speeches (of Eisenhower, Stokely Carmichael and John Trudell) show the extent to which the ownership and governance of the land oppress and destroy bodies, while the rare pieces of music heard seem to respond to the spectator’s desires. Yesterday’s road movie captured the geographic transformations of the landscape through the fixed frame of a car’s windscreen and pointed to the notion of manifest destiny; today’s road movie accumulates static shots that seem to stake out not only a sort of retrospective of the American filmmaker’s works – rivers, flags, miradors, factories, power plants, lakes, clouds and trains recalling past films –, but also the composition of a fragmented and comprehensive representation of the country. Of course, like any language, representation is an arbitrary system, and it could well be that this democratic horizontality is nothing more than a huge joke.
Making the first of his avant-garde works in 1972, James Benning shortly thereafter started to produce longer experimental films. Between 1978 and 1985 he realized numerous projection and computer installations. From 1977 to 1980 he taught at the Universities of California and Oklahoma. Since the end of the 1980s he has lived in Val Verde, near Los Angeles. He teaches at the California Institute of the Arts where, through his works, he continues to greatly influence younger generations of artists. One particularly important aspect of his oeuvre is his engagement with the American landscape. Using durational, fixed-frame shots, Benning’s films often study nature and man’s encroachment on the world.