James Benning’s 1995 masterpiece Deseret screened at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, and Benning himself attended the screening. After the screening, I asked him about the extent to which he sees cinema as editing: the compression of time from an inexorable linear continuum into a matter of hours. Benning replied by saying editing, especially Eisensteinean modes of montage, contains innate fabrications; that it hinders accuracy and truth. The Benning of late has focused on an observational, verite form of filmmaking. His Ten Skies (2004) entirely comprises ten ten-minute worm’s-eye-view shots of the sky; his Nightfall (2012) consists of a single 98-minute take.
Deseret balances Benning’s contemporaneous obsession with languid stillness and observationalism with his desire to contract social history into a palatable structure. In this way, Deseret can be seen as the fulcrum around which Benning’s career hinges.
Visually, Deseret is a series of static shots of the Utah landscape. The shots, discontinuously cut one shot after the other, are accompanied by voice-over narration. The narration comes from stories about events occurring in Utah written for the New York Times from the mid-1800s to the 1980s, which are read aloud by Fred Gardner without manipulation or tampering. Without imposing his own paradigm on the work, Benning lets the narration and images speak for themselves. The history of Utah presented in Deseret can be seen through both a positivist and pessimistic light, and in this regard, Benning achieves the level of objectivity ostensibly espoused by journalists.
The narration outlines everything from the birth and dissemination of Mormonism to the genocide of the Native Americans to the effects of nuclear testing and energy on the Utah citizens and environment. Every shot in the film plays for the same length as one sentence of heterodiegetic narration; if it takes 43 seconds for Gardner to read one sentence, then the corresponding shot extends for exactly 43 seconds. What becomes noticeable herein is the developing terseness of the film. The shots gradually get shorter and shorter, representing the changes in conventional journalistic writing across a period of over a century.
Journalism, a profession and art form rapidly diminishing in the digital era, has become increasingly condescending to its audience of late, and Deseret presciently exposes this. In a hyperreal world consumed by ‘click-bait’, infotainment and a constant saturation of easily digestible news media, journalistic writing is becoming more and more dumbed down, inhibiting accuracy and acuteness. Indeed, this echoes the anti-intellectualism associated with conservative America. I am a journalism student, and many times I have been told to write as though my audience is aged 12. Each generation throughout history seems to lack the attention-span of the previous generation, and thus Deseret ruminates on the ephemerality and rapid progression of time.
Benning thus exposes an apocryphal history of Utah; a history written in the present by for an audience as geographically and philosophically removed from the area as possible – New York liberals. If, however, the history was written in the present by stereotypical conservative hicks living in Utah, the history would be just as partisan and unreliable. Often the Mormons are portrayed as perniciously evil, but occasionally they are conveyed as sympathetic. Deseret engages with postmodernist conceptions of the impossibility of truth by representing his ideas as objectively as possible, as a layer of auteur-responder distance washes over the film.
For example, image and text predominantly appear to be incongruent, with the lines from the New York Times seeming to have little or no thematic resonance with the images portrayed. The images are not designed to interpolate the viewer a certain way, and, apart from the narration, there is no nondiegetic sound. This heightens the impact when narration and aesthetic correspond. Hearing accounts of massacred Native Americans layered over pictures of atavistically beautiful Native American paintings on rock forms is tragic, but is certainly never saccharine.
The sheer temporariness of fabricated man-made history compared to the stoic timelessness of the barren land is striking, and Benning brilliantly evokes this. Shot on 16mm film, the images possess a grainy austerity and vivid depth of focus, with minimal movement in the diegesis and no movement of the camera. Halfway through the film, in the early 1900s, Benning shifts from a banal low-contrast black-and-white to a rich technicolour, demarcating the date when the font of the New York Times masthead changed; an ironic twist considering this miniscule change does not symbolise progression, but rather signifies the burgeoning banality of journalistic writing.
Testing, but never dull or boring, Deseret represents the best that contemporary experimental film has to offer. Visually gorgeous and thematically provocative, Benning’s film is a masterpiece that defies categorisation but demands to be seen by a wider audience.