First Look: James Benning by David Schwartz

Listen to James Benning discuss his recent film Easy Rider as part of last month’s First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.

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Still from Easy Rider by James Benning. Image courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image.

This podcast is presented in partnership with Museum of the Moving Image, where James Benning participated in a Q&A with Dennis Lim following a New York premiere screening of Easy Rider during the Museum’s First Look 2013 showcase on January 12, 2013. BOMB will be publishing more podcasts from MOMI’s First Look series in the coming weeks.

David Schwartz I am very pleased that James Benning is here. We’ve shown his films here before including American Dreams, a wonderful film about Hank Aaron and Arthur Bremer, an amazing movie. We’ve shown his other films here, but this is the first time that he has been here in person, so I am really glad that this series gives us the occasion. This is an incredibly prolific time in his career; he has been producing a lot of work recently, and this is just one film.

I just want to introduce our programmers: Dennis Lim is here, he is going to be conducting the discussion afterwards with James, and Rachael Rakes our assistant curator. They’ve done an extraordinary job putting this series together. (_applause_) So now without further adieu, please welcome James Benning. (_applause_)

James Benning Thank you. This isn’t Dennis Hopper’s film. Some people were in line and thought they were buying tickets to Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, but this film was inspired by that. It is part of a two-part series that I did, I also remade Cassavetes’s Faces before I made Easy Rider. A few times now I’ve shown both of those films together as a double feature. So perhaps at some point you’ll be able to see Faces also. I think the experience that you will have today, if you’ve seen Easy Rider you’ll have one experience, if you’ve seen it recently you’ll have another experience, and if you haven’t seen it you’ll have a third experience. It’s a film that somewhat relies on another film, a film that it is based on and then it doesn’t rely on it at all. Hopefully it stands on its own.

Dennis Lim So I’ll start with a few questions for James and then open it up. I thought maybe you could start by telling us about your relationship to the Dennis Hopper film. What does it mean to you?

JB Well, it’s actually a larger question. I will give the longer answer. I started making digital films about four or five years ago, and before that I made 16mm films for about 40 years. Once I changed to a new format, it allowed me to be perhaps more playful again, as I was when I began to make 16mm films. And because of that, I started to think about my own film archive, or my filmography as an archive, and that I could look at older works and re-digitize them by projecting a film on the wall and copying it with my digital camera and remaking some earlier works. I did that to begin with. One of the films I remade was a film that used two faces in it from a short little three-minute film that I made for the Henry Mancini television program back in 1973. The two main characters in that film were a prostitute and a junkie, and because of that, it was never shown on television. So I thought I would rework that film, copied those two faces and took the last two seconds of the film of the two faces and stretched them each to 12 ½ minutes. I made a 25 minute film out of two faces. When I finished that I thought I should make the ultimate faces film, which is to remake the film Faces. So I did that where I recopied close-ups from Faces. My Faces is only close-ups of faces. I like that film quite a bit. It’s the same length as Cassavetes’s, so its two hours and 15 minutes. My film is silent except for two little pieces of music in it. It is an extremely demanding film to watch. This film is very easy compared to that film. And I really like that film a lot, but it seemed like it wasn’t really my work.

For some reason it really reminded me of a Douglas Gordon film. So then I thought if I make a second remake I can bring that into my filmography and could make some sense. I thought of the other classic film from the ’60s being Easy Rider, and Easy Rider was the first film that I saw that actually played music in it that I was listening to, so that was rather exciting to me. When I first saw it I thought I liked it, but I thought the way the hippie commune was portrayed was rather one-dimensional and that these guys were really a bunch of Hollywood brats that were making a film that was going to make a lot of money making-believe they knew what that counter-culture was all about. So I kind of half-bought the film and didn’t buy the film. Nevertheless, it became a classic and its in the top 150 films picked by the American Film Institute, which I probably wouldn’t agree with, but it is an important film, be it good or bad. It’s a different kind of filmmaking than I do. I don’t make entertainment, and that can confuse audiences when they think they’re going to see the kind of entertainment that the original provided. I was very interested in looking in the background of Easy Rider to look at all the places that they pass by that was really my concern.

DL The famous tag line of the original Easy Rider: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

JB And that is true because they never looked. It’s just a couple of selfish guys that have no politics whatsoever. They prove Malcolm X’s manifesto that drugs are anti-revolutionary. They are a couple of disgusting guys, but I was partly like that, too.

DL I’m wondering if you think that applies to your film. Certainly the looking for America part might in terms of what did you find?

JB Some of the things in Easy Rider that I actually had a difficult time with was mainly black poverty in the South and the way that the original Easy Rider somewhat projects the West as being good and the South as being bad. All Westerns are this way also. There is this prejudice against the South. The restaurant scene, Hopper told the extras that played the bullies in the restaurant that these bikers were coming through played by those guys and that they had just raped a white woman outside of town. So their reaction to them is to a story that really doesn’t exist in the film. So it is a baiting of a prejudice, and they fell right into the trap. It is easy to create stereotypes. When I decided what images I would make about the South, I thought, Well they pass by this rural black poverty, but somehow I didn’t want to introduce that into my film. I thought it was more about things decaying and falling apart and less about race than about class in a sense, so I backed away from showing that particular image although for a while I was very much wanting to. To show the shotgun houses that exist still in parts of Louisiana.

DL Can you talk a bit about the trip that you took? Was it one trip? Did you do it in the order of the film? I know that these Easy Rider pilgrimages do actually exist.

JB A lot of them are documented on the Internet, that bikers go on this trail from Los Angeles to Monument Valley. What happens in the original film is that they don’t film in Texas at all, as the story goes they weren’t allowed to because they had long hair, but I don’t believe that’s a true story. For some reason they didn’t film in Texas so it jumps from Taos, New Mexico, where the jail cell is in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and it goes right to crossing the Mississippi River and into Louisiana and finally into New Orleans and then outside of New Orleans where my shots are in the exact place where the film happens. So that’s the trip. The original film starts in Mexico, but they didn’t shoot Mexico, they shot a cantina outside Taos, New Mexico because they were going to Taos to film the commune. But the commune was getting so much attention in 1968 that they didn’t let them film there because they didn’t want to have more attention drawn to them and more people coming through. So Hopper rebuilt the commune in Malibu, a canyon. When I went to shoot Mexico, I didn’t shoot Mexico because they didn’t go, but I didn’t go to Taos, New Mexico. I found something in California that looked like Taos, New Mexico.

In a sense, some of the thing is lying. The other place where I cheat is when one of their bikes has a flat tire and they stop at a ranch in Arizona. And I represent that with a shot of a horse and a shot of my bike. What happens in that scene is that while a rancher is shoeing the horse, they are fixing the tire, so there is this cross cutting that nails home the point between a horse and a bike. So I used that in my film. Then they have lunch with them on the porch, and that was a movie set in Arizona that has been since ripped down so I couldn’t film there. I created my own virtual movie set. The house that you see is actually Lyndon Baines Johnson’s boyhood ranch outside of Johnson, Texas with a cactus field from Arizona digitally put in the foreground so I create a digital set. I cheat in the same way they did. They didn’t use a real ranch and neither did I. I do, kind of, but it’s contrived.

DL Your remake of Faces is the exact same length as the original. Were you as strict in the durational aspects of Easy Rider?

JB For both of the remakes, what I did was, I copied the original film with my digital camera and brought it into Final Cut Pro, and then made a splice at the beginning and end of each scene. Then for Easy Rider, I replaced each scene with one shot. They might have used two shots like in the commune scene that is 17 minutes long. They might have used 30 shots, but I just use one. The lengths of all my scenes are determined by the exact lengths of those scenes. In Faces I would take a scene, like the third scene has three people in it, and I used a stopwatch to add up the screen time each character had, and I would have to average that time if more than one person was in the frame. I determined that Gina Rollins is in that scene half the time and the other two characters are in it a fourth of the time. I would find a close up of Gina Rollins, be it a second long or three seconds long, and stretch it to the length of screen time she had. If the scene was 20 minutes and she had half of it, then I would have to stretch the three seconds to ten minutes. They each have the exact amount of screen time in each scene. In both of these remakes, I was very much interested in using the actual structure of the original film to determine the structure of my film

DL This idea of remaking something or retracing or reframing it, you talk about in terms of how digital has enabled you to do that and these two paired films Faces and Easy Rider. It seems that this is something that you’ve done in other aspects of your work. You remade One Way Boogie Woogie and—

JB My own film and then I stole the soundtrack from Richard Dindo’s documentary, his film about Che Guevara, The Bolivian Diary.

DL But would you see this as sort of a similar exercise as to that or other things you have done? You rebuilt the cabins of Thoreau and the Unabomber, and I know that you’ve been copying paintings.

JB I’m very interested in replication and what I learn from replication. Kind of connecting interests that I have through replication. I learn a lot about painting by copying paintings, different paintings.

DL What did you learn from this particular exercise of Easy Rider?

JB I think what I really learned the most was about place itself. How place has a place. I was very interested in the different ways of looking, even though the two characters want to do that, they really just want to go to Florida after they made the big score. Like people driving their RVs when they retire. They are really capitalist pigs. I wasn’t interested in that. I’m not interested in capitalism or the Christian religion. The original film is really anchored in Christian religion comparing the whore and Mary, which I do maybe more dramatically in my film.

I mimic some of their interests, but my interests were more about place itself. I have different ways of living; you see a squatter’s shack that’s very derelict very early in the film that’s a building in the desert. In 1946 there is some kind of land legislation where you could squat on land, and if you built a house the minimum size you would get five acres of land for a $35 filing fee. There are a lot of those houses still left in the Mojave Desert where people did that and it didn’t work. There was no way to make a living out there. I was interested in this hope those squatters shacks had to begin with and then you see the ruin of an Anasazi building in the film also. Those big houses were built from around 800–900 AD. It references really strong culture that existed in the Southwest among Native Americans. You see a pueblo at one point; the Pueblo Indians’ ancestors are probably the Anasazi. Then you see a gas station and different kinds of buildings, commercial buildings, and they are all derelict in a sense. And finally an antebellum slave mansion, a gasoline cracking plant representing the giant industry of gasoline that happens around New Orleans, they pass by the frame as it’s in the background. I was very interested in looking at these different ways of living from ancient time to the present. Things that worked and didn’t work. When you see that mansion you think of its connection to slavery, this abuse to make money. Those are the things I guess I knew about, but it reinforced my ideas about those things

DL I just wanted you to talk about one more think before opening it up. One more question about the formal aspect of the film—the tension between sound and image is always crucial in your work. Can you talk a bit about how you decided to use sound in Easy Rider?

JB When I made the film, like I said, I put it into Final Cut Pro, which meant I also put the soundtrack into it. Then as I made the film, I would just bring the new scene into the scene where it belonged, replaced and got rid of the old one, but I’d keep the soundtrack, and then I brought in the sync sound with the shot that I had done. So, I had the ability to take parts of the actual soundtrack of Hopper’s film and mix that with my film.

Most of the time, it’s my ambient sound with occasional pieces of dialogue—where I take dialogue somewhat out of context and just use little parts of the dialogue that I thought were the most loaded and interesting. A lot of the stuff I wasn’t interested in. I wasn’t interested in the drug talk. I’m very much against drugs because they are such a anti-revolutionary action. I somewhat play that down, although I play a little bit with it with Hopper, when he thinks he sees something, a hallucination thing.

In the graveyard scene, I shot that purposely silent and that soundtrack is just from the movie. There’s no manipulation with that. I think my drug scene is much more trippy than the actual one. (laughter) It’s very haunting.

DL What about music? There’s less music in your version, but the songs that you use are very haunting, and the use of them is very pointed, all female singers.

JB I wanted to rescue it from this male point of view that the original had. I also was very interested in thinking about what is the counter-culture today? In a sense, I thought it was being defined really by music, but it wasn’t so integrated as the counter-culture in the ’60s that was completely than co-opted by capitalism, and turned into a product almost immediately.

The first song is my daughter’s, and she’s an artist. Her song was created in an art culture, and I was interested in that. The second one, Suzy Soundz, is a street musician from San Francisco, and she just plays on the street basically and goes as both the Space Lady and Suzy Soundz. I think a remarkable cover of that song. And then Chan Marshall is an independent singer who’s broke through, but this is off of her covers album and I think it’s quite wonderful. The last song is by The Sibleys, who are a brother and sister group that were home schooled by their mother. I met them when they were 15 and 17. Their mother runs a bar in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the middle of nowhere, Wonder Valley. They were home schooled there and formed a band. People come out to hear them play from many miles away, but they’re very humble people. They’re self-taught. I think they hope for what America can offer. I found America there.

DL Okay, let’s take some questions.

Audience Member (Question inaudible)

JB He’s asking about the second shot in the film when the airplane passes over. He’s referring to 11 × 14 (1977), which is true. My first digital film has airplanes landing outside of the airport in Düsseldorf. It is referencing my own film work. Like I said, when I made Faces, it seemed to be not part of my filmography, so when I made this film, I also wanted to reference shots in previous work. RR is referenced in the shot by the Colorado River. There’s other ones, too. The industry stuff reminds me of One Way Boogie Woogie, etc. They’re on purpose for sure.

Audience Member There’s a very, very brief shot towards the end before you go to New Orleans. Is it an image from the movie, Easy Rider? Is it your shot?

JB When Hopper made the film, he edited the first few cuts of it. He had like 20 flash-forwards in it. That’s the only one that existed at the end of the film. It’s in the exact location as it is in the original film because I didn’t replace that scene. That’s the only scene that I used from there. However there’s also three stills in the film. One is the “I Love God,” which is a still of the jail wall in the original film, and they pan by it. I just took a still from them panning by it, and the same thing with the brothel scene in New Orleans, the painting of the nude woman and then the Jesus and Mary. Did you notice the Jesus is in the corner? Those are also still from a pan by that I liberated that image from.

And I kept the famous flash-forward of them dying, that connects Mary, the prostitute, and death, connecting.

Audience Member What was the scene covered by the water that took so long?

JB That was the commune scene. Water is talked about in the scene. You hear actually, in my film you hear a piece a dialogue that says, “The water in that river is so cold,” or something. In the end of the commune scene, they cross the river to go swim in quarry, if you remember the original film. So there are quite a few shots from the original one, but I wanted to represent it with one long river shot for a number of reasons. One, when I watched Easy Rider in 1968, I had also read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha at that time, and it’s about what the river can teach you if you pay attention to the river. So I really wanted to make this river image. I wanted to make it quite long because I want you somewhat, hopefully get through that image. Dennis Hopper probably suggests how you really feel, “Are we going to get out of here?” (laughter) Which is kind of a joke, because half of the audience leaves during that scene. The other reason why I wanted to do that shot, what you’re witnessing in that shot, is the turning of the Earth. The light comes across the frame, there are trees casting shadows across the frame, the sun isn’t moving. The sun doesn’t go around the earth, you all know that, right? The earth actually turns. It gives the illusion like it’s going around the Earth. In the shot you see the light move and that’s due to the spinning of the earth, so I’m actually documenting the rotation of the earth. I mean the elements that are in this film, earth, fire, water, wind, those kind of things, that’s what life is about. That’s my favorite shot in the film. I really like the way the light so subtly changes and near the end lights up the fool’s gold that’s under the water. You actually see gold sparkling underneath, which is not gold at all.

Audience Member For the river shot, did you run the camera for just that amount of time?

JB For the river shot I knew I had to shoot at least 17 minutes. I had the length of that shot. With digital filmmaking it doesn’t cost anything, I probably made an hour shot, and then I chose the 17 minutes within that hour that I liked where the light changes in the most subtle way. Most of the scenes, I just made quite longer so I knew I had more than enough and then I could choose apart of that shot to position into the film.

Audience member (Question about scene at gas station)

JB That’s actually in the original film. They had picked up a hitchhiker, and they go to get gas and the hitchhiker is putting the gas in the bike that has the money hidden in the gas tank, if you know the original film. Hopper, who does a beautiful job of staying paranoid through the whole film, gets very antsy about that. I grew to really like Dennis Hopper. I don’t think he was acting, however. (laughter)

And I couldn’t stand Captain America. He was just too, too … whatever he is. Anyway, they drive off and cut back to the gas station, but not quite as a close up, and there’s a young—probably 12 years old—Mexican girl looking out the window kind of longing to go with them, and I always thought that was a weird shot. My friend who is about 19, she looks younger, though, I wanted to do it closer up. I wanted to make a portrait within this film. I told her not to have any expression, just look, and that the situation would create a certain meaning in the film so that’s what that’s about.

Elisabeth Subrin by Gary M. Kramer
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