Credit: IMDB / James Benning
by Maximilien Luc Proctor Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Landscape Suicide | James Benning

June 18, 2021

In the opening minutes, an individual practices tennis serves to no one. After every two serves, there is a momentary black screen. Some serves are obviously different while others seem tantalizingly similar, but it’s almost impossible to know that we aren’t watching a loop of the same two serves — or it might have been, if not for the suggested passage of time through the subtle yet continuous depletion of bright yellow balls in a nearby bag. Though we cannot see the total contents of the bag at any given point, we can see the surface levels change; an important detail hidden in plain sight.

It’s a mirror of the way filmmaker (“director” doesn’t make much sense with a one-man crew) James Benning has us consider the landscape throughout — while we can observe minuscule surface changes within a limited allowance of time, we cannot see how the landscape looked in any given past moment (for example, three years prior, when a murder was committed in Orinda, CA, or thirty years prior when it happened in Plainfield, WI), nor can we look ahead to know how it might change within the following decades.1 Orinda is cloudy, recently rained on. Plainfield is covered in snow.

Landscape Suicide (1987) is bifurcated into the “stories” of two killers — Bernadette Protti (Rhonda Bell) and Ed Gein (Elion Sacker). We witness a re-enactment of each killer’s interrogation, and a domestic diorama of the victim’s life. As with the sequence of tennis serves, there are momentary black screens interpolated throughout both questioning scenes, as if the camera were blinking, a respite in order to process the horrific details of what’s being admitted.

Though the film came over a decade before Benning (nearly) abandoned spoken language (beginning with the first part of his California Trilogy, El Valley Centro), his modest filmography had already been building from its genesis on the concept of “looking and listening,” the eventual title of one of the courses he taught at the California Institute of the Arts. It’s also unquestionably a key intersection in his work between earlier tendencies to involve people on-screen and later tendencies to almost exclusively present locations devoid of people. There are vast chunks here of merely observing this slice of small-town Americana, to which the interrogations play as counterpoints. In either half, the same structural elements are employed, albeit re-sequenced.

Prior to becoming a filmmaker, Benning studied and taught mathematics, and though his primary field of activity changed, his interest in numbers never waned. While this is already apparent from titles like 11×14 (1977), Ten Skies and 13 Lakes (both 2004), Twenty Cigarettes and Two Cabins (both 2011), it remains a palpable part of his on-screen schematic approach as well. If we think of Landscape Suicide as a math equation, the solution becomes clear — no matter how you rearrange the order, the values remain constant. The images themselves are simple, but what they suggest is not; violence tied to a country unable to face its own history, and thus unable to confront its present.

The film is largely impersonal, save for two handwritten inclusions: “pain” in the first half, and “place” in the second. Both seem to have been written by Benning. How pain is tied to specific places, sure, but if it seems an obvious note, it’s also an often overlooked one — much in the way that mass shootings in the United States have become normalized over the decades, as if there were nothing anyone could do about it. Benning posits his question implicitly — what is it about these particular environments that provoked human beings to behave this way? Can issues of intimacy be traced to our physical surroundings? Or, put more plainly, has the industrialization and abuse and brutalization of the land and natural resources had a negative effect on our psyches? Doesn’t it make people feel a little more alone when each family lives in an entire house of their own? And do conservative “family values” push some to seek intimacy in all the wrong ways? Does capitalism persuade us to try and “own” others just as we “own” land, property, cars, and turntables? How could a nation built on theft and genocide ever beget anything other than more blood? Like people, geographies are composed of their past traumas.

Even if one doesn’t notice the tennis balls changing in the nearby bag at the film’s open, we are quickly offered a second chance at figuring it out: after 20 takes of two serves each, Benning cuts to a view of the court, where a scattered 66 tennis balls lie. Two new serves enter the frame, before settling into the bright yellow graveyard.

[1] This idea of change over the years was revisited and amplified in Benning’s own remake, One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later (2005).

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.