Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

A sense of place

UNITED STATES: A portrait of today’s USA through immaculately composed shots of landscape, cityscape and the spaces in between.
Director: James Benning
Producer: James Benning
Distributor:
Country: USA

Making the most of James Benning’s new film, The United States of America requires a kind of commitment. You have to agree to engage with it by bringing something of your own: presence, a sense of slowing down. You have to align a sense of inner quiet with the screen, let go, and just be there – almost like in meditation. Otherwise, you only see a slideshow, a sequence, which means missing what the film truly has to give.

The United States of America, a film by James Benning
The United States of America, a film by James Benning

Visual poetry

If you are looking for narrative, you won’t find it here, but the film tells a story that works just like poetry. The meanings and the metaphors in the film are sometimes obvious, but mostly not. Mostly it’s up to the viewer to engage in a slow act of contemplation so that ‘the story’ – not in a traditional sense – can be revealed. In that state of contemplation, one can truly connect the dots, juxtapose images that reveal contrasts, grasp the big picture.

The film is a sequence of two-minute – or a bit under – static shots of all 50 US states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, shown alphabetically. They mostly depict the land, open space, vast nature, with a handful of shots taken in cities. They capture the country like pieces of a puzzle, each having a feeling of its own but coming together only as a whole in an image that is more a feeling, a sense of the United States.

Individually, the shots are not truly representative of the states they depict. Some are what you’d expect – like palm trees in Hawaii, but others are clouds, like in Ohio and Tennessee. But the truth is that once you sink into the journey Benning proposes, you don’t expect representative images. The sense of place aligns with one’s inner sense of presence, and so the meanings and the feelings come up through what the shots are, not what one could expect them to be.

In that state of contemplation, one can truly connect the dots, juxtapose images that reveal contrasts, grasp the big picture.

Minimalism

The appearance of people is minimal, distant, in the background. They don’t steal the focus. They can be seen, but they’re just an insignificant part of what is shown – like in the shot of Grand Junction in Colorado in which humans are tiny dots passing in the background, real but unimportant. Perception is shifted in this sense – in Benning’s film, it’s not people defining or owning the place, giving a sense that these landscapes and by that the country itself is larger and mightier, and more enduring than anyone passing through.

But people’s presence is felt to a different and more powerful effect, through the shots pointing to US’ natural exploitation – the mining industry in Minnesota, pumpjacks in Oklahoma, the oil refineries in Louisiana – these images not only add that sense of human presence but also suggest the effects these have on the environment.

The United States of America, a film by James Benning
The United States of America, a film by James Benning

Layers of meaning

Benning adds another layer of meaning through the audio played intently over specific states – archive recordings clearly touching on America’s biggest and somehow definitory problems. We hear Malcolm X’s interview heard over cotton fields in Mississippi; a Christian sermon over Nebraska, an interview about the genocide of Native Americans over the landscape, in Utah; and a speech about the military industrial complex and its dangers, in Delaware – with a suggestive shot of a large mansion. They make the sum of deep long-term or historical issues, completed by some tangible in the everyday yet hidden in plain sight, as the contrast between the shot in California, depicting people living in tents under a bridge and the financial district in New York, or the yacht and the boats seen in Key Biscayne in Florida suggests.

Each image adds to the next through each shot, and at the end, the sum of all of them adds to a lyrical but not idyllic understanding of the United States. Watching this film makes for time spent on what is more than a visual journey. It is a true experience that leaves you with a deep sense of place. The US covers millions of kilometres, and its realities are so complex, yet Benning manages to distil it all in the film, leaving a lasting powerful feeling.

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Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca-Olivia Nita
Bianca is a freelance journalist and documentary critic. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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