LANDSCAPE SUICIDE (JAMES BENNING, 1986)
Upon initially hearing about this film, I was fascinated by it's combination of structuralist film techniques and a narrative looking into the lives of two very different murderers. I was a bit hesitant to watch the film for a while due to Benning's reputation: from what I understand, he has a tendency to make films full of static shots of landscapes with little to no narrative, films that they tend to be long, considering they seem to be structural experiments (most of Benning's filmography averages the length of a normal cinematic feature, an hour and a half).While organizing some of my movies the other day, I re-encountered my copy of this film and decided to ignore my expectations and watch it.
The film ostensibly examines two murderers: 16 year old Bernadette Protti, who killed a classmate for no discernible reason; and the infamous Ed Gein, who, as any horror fan knows, was the prototype for cinematic manifestations of terror ranging from Norman Bates in Psycho to Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However, it's Benning's techniques, and how he approaches his source material, that make the film something exciting.
The film is fragmented into two segments, the first half "examining" Bernadette Protti, the second Ed Gein. Each half is approached in the same manner, beginning with what I'll call a prolonged "establishing" shot. The shot sets the tone for the landscape that each crime is taking place in. Protti's story begins with six minutes of a woman repeatedly practicing her tennis serve, representative of the useless banality of life in the suburbs. Gein's half begins with an extended static shot of a desolate, Midwestern landscape: an overcast sky, dead plantlife-- an emotional void.
Following each establishing shot, Benning shots more static landscapes of various elements of each subculture that the murders are rooted in: the posh suburbs and the Midwestern heartland. Eventually fragmented information, delivered via voice-over narration, begins to hint at the subject matter that the film encounters. After many of these flat, banal shots, the viewer encounters the "meat" of each segment: an interview with the murderer reconstructed from "actual court transcripts."
It is during these icy scenes that the film acquires a very abject and emotional core. Benning's camera stares directly at the subject as they answer questions posed by an interviewer off-screen. The actors playing the murderers are flat and unemotional: to viewers they are virtually inhuman.
Protti proves to be the more interesting subject, as Gein already has a major media presence. If we, as an audience, can assume that the dialogue that Benning's film presents is drawn from an actual transcription, then the flat, impersonal delivery that the actress playing Protti provides perfectly highlights the confusion of adolescence. Protti stares into the camera unable to articulate any sort of motivation as to why she killed her cheerleader-acquaintance, unable to externalize, with language, anything that she is truly feeling. It's terrifying to watch, as Protti is very confused, and, despite the stoicism of the film, it's clear that she is also fairly terrified (albeit not out of grief, but rather of what exactly is happening in her own life, the fact that she has completely lost control).
Following the interview, in each fragment, Benning provides static and dynamic landscape shots, punctuating the landscape inspired trance-state (which is generally accompanied by what is understood as diegetic sound) by including somewhat ironic, yet still abject and remarkably sad scenes accompanied by pop music (in the first half, a teenage girls talks excitedly on the phone while a song from "Cats" plays, in the second half, a latent 1950s housewife archetype dances by herself to Patsy Cline's "Tennessee Waltz"). I get the impression that the banality of each landscape is suppose to draw some parallel to the murders, but the film reads better when we consider the landscape, as it is shown to us, as tainted by the banality of the murders. Shots that had no emotional impact shown before the interview suddenly resonate, and the prolonged nature of each scene inspired uneasiness instead of boredom. It's almost manipulation in a remarkably non-manipulative manner: the film simply offers an objective circumstance in which the viewer can consider the implication of each crime, and landscape.