Interview: James Benning on The United States of America
This article appeared in the March 24, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The United States of America (James Benning, 2022)
In 1975, James Benning and Bette Gordon, two graduate students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, took a pair of road trips to New York and Los Angeles. With a 16mm camera mounted in the back seat of their car, they intermittently filmed their journeys, capturing images of the American landscape as news broadcasts and Top 40 radio hits drifted from the speakers. The resulting 27-minute film, titled The United States of America, was Benning and Gordon’s third and final joint directorial effort; not long after, Benning would release his twin landmarks One Way Boogie Woogie and 11 x 14 (both 1977), positioning him at the forefront of the American structuralist cinema movement, while Gordon would pursue the narrative route and eventually direct the influential independent feature Variety (1983).
Now, almost a half-century later, Benning has revisited The United States of America with a feature-length remake of sorts. In this new film, the 79-year-old artist expands the central conceit of the original into a systematic portrait of the nation, presenting a series of 52 static shots of every state in the country, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, in alphabetical order. From the desolate plains and verdant farmlands of the Midwest to the manicured lawns and urban expanses of the coastal metropolises, the images present a wide view of the United States in all their faded glory. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a selection of canonized pop and rock songs alternates with speeches and musings from artists and activists about the sociopolitical struggles that continue to plague the country. No mere index, the film opens up a space for the viewer to consider the nation’s many contradictions, while simultaneously demonstrating the impossibility of defining or depicting its essence—a point put over by an end title card revealing that the film was shot entirely in California. Much more than a sly joke, this conceptual sleight of hand is a useful reminder that America, for all its surface-level similarities, is a vast canvas upon which new histories can still be written.
In March, a few weeks after the film’s premiere in the Berlinale Forum, Benning and I met up in Los Angeles to discuss the film’s pandemic-era origins, his longtime interest in remakes, and his underestimated sense of humor.
I’m curious about the starting point for this project and how it evolved as a remake of your earlier film. Obviously you made it during the pandemic, but did the circumstances dictate the scope and logistics of its conception?
The idea came to me when the first film was shown on the Criterion Channel early in the pandemic. It got a lot of attention. So that’s what made me think I’d redo it. But from the start I knew I wouldn’t travel to make the film—even if there wasn’t COVID, I wouldn’t have been able to go to 52 different places. So that became a little game for me to play. Knowing California so well and having traveled so much throughout the U.S., I thought I could match up the places pretty convincingly. The whole idea of defining the U.S., because it’s so vast and so different—any kind of description of it will fail. So I thought this was an easy way to fail. But as I made the film it also seemed like I was looking at places I had already filmed. So it became a film about my own films as well.
I just recently watched the original for the first time myself, and looking back over your and Bette’s filmographies, I realized that it came just before you both started making features. Do you have any memories of its making and how you two conceived of it at the time?
Part of it was that we just wanted to take a trip. We were both in graduate school, and so just before spring break, over a long weekend, we drove to New York—that was the first loop. And then over spring break we made the longer loop to California and back.
For the first loop to New York City, the route on the way out of Madison was south of the return route; in fact, at one point on the way back, we even went into Canada to see Niagara Falls from that side. The same thing was done on the Madison-to-L.A. loop. The way out was more southern (for example, through Dallas), and the way back was more northern, through Nebraska. Then, when editing the film, we cut the shots going from the east to the west of the U.S., but we would jump between the southern and northern routes.
The film was made in 1975, as Saigon was falling, and we used radio programs—both news and music—to give it the feel of 1975. I knew I wanted to have a bit of that in the new film, so I added some music and texts from certain people that I really admire.
What was your and Bette’s working relationship like at the time? Did the division of labor on that film influence how you conceptualized making the new film on your own?
For the first two films we made together, we divided the labor quite equally. But it was at a time when I would get more credit than she would. That’s why when we made I-94 (1974)—the second of our three films—we made a conscious effort to divide the labor equally: we both appeared in the film, and we each made half of it and then put it together.
For The United States of America, since it was a travelogue film shot while we drove together, the filming aspect was equal. My work ethic while we were editing was probably a bit stronger than Bette’s, so I ended up doing most of the sound work. She was there, but I was working hours and hours, and she didn’t really want to do that—and I don’t blame her! [Laughs] That made it more difficult to make it half-and-half, but the important parts were certainly shared: the concept, the shooting, and [deciding] what would be in the film.
Can you talk about the idea of remaking other films? You’ve done it a number of times, both with your own films and other people’s. Where does this impulse come from?
I think it came out of my desire to learn how to paint, which came after I had bought some property in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I tore the house apart and put it back together to make it kind of my own. I wasn’t sure what I would do in the middle of nowhere, so I thought I’d learn how to paint. I started by copying, mainly the paintings of Bill Traylor, but other outsider artists as well, like Mose Tolliver. As I did that, I realized that my motive to learn how to paint was one thing, but the actual activity made me feel much closer to those people that I had admired. For instance, Traylor was a huge man with big fingers, and he was able to do some things that are very delicate. I was having a hard time doing something as delicate as he did. I also found that if I didn’t put the image on the page exactly like he did, then it lost its power in negative space. Because of those observations, I was able to learn about him more—what he was about and all that.
So that began my idea of copying. I then did the Two Cabins (2011) project, where I remade Thoreau’s cabin and Ted Kaczynski’s cabin. And again, I understood the sense of space of those cabins much better from the actual reproduction of them than [I would’ve from] just reading about them. So I realized that I could learn things that I couldn’t learn any other way by reproducing them. It also became a kind of fun game to see what I would do with a reproduction—how it would change and what I would add to it.
How does that relate to remaking your own work? Are you trying to pursue something different as it relates to the earlier films?
I think so. It’s the idea of trying to remember what was actually done to begin with, and then seeing how I changed between that time and the time I’m remaking it.
Is there something specific about The United States of America that you wanted to revisit or reimagine?
My main idea for this film was to set up a problem that is almost insolvable, which is what America is at this particular time. You will always fail at that kind of exercise.
How did you map out and match up each shot with its corresponding location?
Well, there’s all the obvious things: I wanted to have different seasons and different topographies—deserts, mountains, things like that. But I know California really well, having lived here for 30 years and having made a lot of work here. I’ve also traveled around the U.S. a lot—I’ve been in every state. But I also spent a lot of time on Google Street View to really match things up, and to make sure my memory was correct. For instance, the sunflowers in “Maine” were near a railroad line in California, and the soundtrack picked up a train going by in the distance. I knew there were sunflowers in southern Maine, but I didn’t know if they were near any train lines, so I literally looked online for sunflowers near train lines. I was that obsessive about trying to match this with that.
But I also broke that rule—for example, when I used the statue of the farmer in California for Washington, D.C., I did that because they have all these monuments in D.C. of what I would call—I wanted to say failed presidents, but I guess all presidents have failed in some ways. [Laughs] In any case, I thought I’d rather see a statue of a working person being represented in our nation’s capital. And I was also interested in giving Washington, D.C. its voting rights by calling it a state—Puerto Rico too.
Were there any particular states that proved hard to match?
No. I think there was always something I could find. Though some people think certain states got cheated because they got, like, a cloud instead of something else. But I think that’s not being cheated at all—they’re actually representing all of Ten Skies (2004)! They’re being singled out in a positive rather than negative way.
But all different kinds of decisions are being made in the film. For instance, for Wilmington, Delaware, I wanted to shoot an old neighborhood that would represent old money, but also a neighborhood that would be coded politically, because there are so many people in Wilmington who are lobbyists raising money for whatever they represent. So I used Ronald Reagan’s home in Sacramento. He didn’t live in the Governor’s Mansion, but rather in a nice old home that represents old money.
That’s one of the few shots that, after realizing what the film was doing, I thought could tip a viewer off to the conceit.
It’s funny, at the screening this past weekend in Los Angeles, someone from Delaware came up to me and said, “I was sure that was Delaware. That looked like a house in the town where I grew up.” [Laughs] I was very pleased with that.
The Florida shot is one of my favorites. That pastel-colored building looks so much like what I think of as mid-century Floridian architecture.
What’s strange is that the building in that shot was designed by the same people who built the apartment building that recently collapsed in Surfside, Florida. That was a coincidence. I obviously made that shot before the building collapsed. But when I saw the news about the collapse, I thought, “That looks a lot like the building in my shot.”
Let’s talk about some of the dialogues and speeches we hear. Is that something you knew you wanted to include from the start?
For sure. It’s in the original film in the form of the radio. But I’ve done it in my other films as well. The Eisenhower speech and the reading of “Revelations” by Gregory Peck [from The Omen, 1976]—I used those in my film RR (2007). I was kind of playing back to the concerns of earlier films.
Specifically, I chose speeches by Stokely Carmichael and also John Trudell, the American Indian activist, because I met both of them when I was younger—Carmichael when I was about 22 or 23. I was very inspired by him. And then I met Trudell in the early 2000s, when there was a film about him that his [partner] produced. I was lucky enough to spend an evening with him. I was very taken with the Native American philosophy that runs through his everyday speech.
What about the music? Like in the original film, the song choices seem fairly pointed. How did you go about pairing certain songs with certain shots?
Well, I knew I wanted to use the Minnie Riperton song [“Lovin’ You”], since that’s in the original film—I think it plays three or four times. That was the #1 song in the country at that time; it kept playing on the radio as we drove. For this film, I use Karen Carpenter’s song [“(They Long to Be) Close to You”] to open. She’s such a tragic American figure, and had such a beautiful voice. It plays over the Alabama shot, which is probably somewhat out of place. I also use the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land,” but I knew that that would be a cliché to use if certain stanzas weren’t dropped from it. So I use the very potent stanza where he talks about the “No Trespassing” sign and private property—I thought that should be included in the film.
Some places I use for music-related reasons: Hibbing, Minnesota, because that’s Bob Dylan’s hometown, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, because of the Lucinda Williams song “Lake Charles,” which is a song about somebody who likes to go to Lake Charles and ends up committing suicide there. It’s very ironic because Lake Charles isn’t a lake at all—it’s an industrial area that’s very polluted.
I can’t not ask about Alicia Keys’s cover of “Imagine.” You spoke about clichés before; I feel like using Keys’s version sort of sidesteps what would have otherwise been a clichéd song choice.
Yeah, and I purposefully cut it off at a certain point in the lyric, which kind of destroys the cliché. It sets things up with “Imagine all the people,” but doesn’t continue with “living life in peace.” We all know what comes next, but then it isn’t there.
That sort of plays into the film’s mix of melancholy and humor, the latter of which is one of the more under-recognized aspects of your work.
That’s really true. Artists are often afraid of humor. And then when people write about my films, they want to shy away from it, too, because somehow [they think] humor demeans the work. But I don’t believe that at all. I think things are funny. And sometimes you don’t make them up. Like the shot of the horses in the film that are staring at the camera. They’re motionless except for their ears, which move a little bit. They’re completely hilarious, but in a very sad way. Or the racetrack shot, with just five cars in the race, and one car getting further and further behind. It’s kind of a pathetic race, even though the audience really seems to be enjoying it. I think that’s hilarious.
The biggest laugh at the Berlin screening was when it’s revealed that the film was all shot in California.
Nobody laughed at the L.A. screening, but maybe they were afraid to because I was in the room. [Laughs] I asked them, “Why didn’t anyone laugh? It’s pretty funny at times.”
That said, it’s not a film I made to fool anybody. I think it’s an important statement about how we can create what we think the U.S. is, and take it as real, even when it’s completely false. I think any construction of meaning for the U.S. can only be false, because how can you include everything? There’s always a contradiction.
Jordan Cronk is a film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema screening series in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in Artforum, Cinema Scope, frieze, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sight & Sound, and more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.