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Four Corners

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by James Benning.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

I've been brooding a lot lately about the way in which many of the best movies around have been ravaged by "narrative correctness." This is the notion fostered by producers, distributors, and critics--often collaborating as script doctors and always deeply invested in hackwork--that there are "correct" and "incorrect" ways of telling stories in movies. And woe to the filmmaker who steps out of line. Much as "political correctness" can point to a displaced political impotence--a desire to control language and representation that sets in after one despairs of changing the political conditions of power--"narrative correctness" has more to do with what supposedly makes a movie commercial than with what makes it interesting, artful, or innovative. Invariably narrative correctness means identifying with the people who pay for the pictures rather than with the people who make them.

Last year we had reviewers stomping on Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy and Tim Burton in Mars Attacks! for daring to move beyond their more lucrative formulas to try something different, though their crimes were crimes of subject and tone rather than of storytelling. This year filmmakers are more prone to be castigated and punished for perceived deficiencies in narrative fluidity. Chen Kaige's Temptress Moon was a triumph of style and mood over story until Miramax decided that story was more important than either mood or style; it recut the film and added reams of explanatory titles--all to the end of clarifying the muddled plot. Now clear, the plot proved just as dull as it had been, but the hypnotic visual rhythms that had made the film special were destroyed. (It flopped anyway, so everyone lost.) Editor Walter Murch performed a similar, if far more sophisticated, job on Robert Duvall's remarkable The Apostle (slated to open here next month, after showing in its original form at festivals in Toronto and New York). In both versions plot is the least interesting aspect, but after many reviewers complained--unjustifiably--that at 150 minutes it needed to be trimmed, Murch was called in to reduce it by 17 minutes. Once again visual style was sacrificed to narrative clarity. The characters and performances might have been enhanced in the process, and the results are arguably more commercial. But the awesome feeling for extended, multifaceted events in the long-take original has been diminished for the sake of individual incidents and bite-size plot points. Meanwhile, American and Iranian critics have been clamoring for Abbas Kiarostami to remove the sublime ending from his magnificent The Taste of Cherry--even after it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes--presumably because the ending adds complexity and nuance to an experience they'd rather see simplified. (So far, Kiarostami has acquiesced in this mutilation at only a few venues in Italy, and he and the film's U.S. distributor have assured me it won't happen here.)

Finally, consider the overall critical reception of Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Eastwood has amply demonstrated in the past that he's a masterful storyteller when he wants to be, so you might think that when he experiments with something new critics would be curious about what he's after--especially since he has more commercial clout than Chen, Duvall, and Kiarostami combined and therefore doesn't have to mess with test marketing or distributors like Miramax. Think again. With few exceptions, the critical community has been content to declare his new movie devoid of interest because it fails to conform to a model of narrative correctness. Mood, atmosphere, style, performance, social analysis, and moral ambiguity never come up, because if a story isn't told a particular way to achieve a familiar effect, the movie can offer nothing of consequence.

As an experimental filmmaker from the get-go, James Benning can be regarded as exceptionally lucky, because nobody, including critics, has the power to muck around with his work. But then most critics are too busy chasing after sequels and remakes to even try to keep up with Benning's oeuvre, though if they did they'd have a hard time, because his films are rarely shown (some have never even made it to Chicago), and because none of them is available on video.

We're lucky that Benning has chosen Chicago for the world premiere (apart from one screening at the California Institute of the Arts, where he teaches) of Four Corners--his ninth feature and one of his strongest--and that he's showing it at an optimal screening facility, a private apartment in Wicker Park that's becoming public for the occasion. (The film will be shown Wednesday, December 17, at 7 and 9 PM on the fourth floor at 1550 N. Milwaukee; Benning will attend both screenings.) We're also lucky that Four Corners is so far removed from narrative correctness that the narrative police won't come anywhere near it, even to record their disapproval. This leaves the rest of us free to enjoy it without any sort of interference--a utopian setup even money can't buy.

A landscape artist who used to teach math in high school and is preoccupied with history, Benning combines all three interests in Four Corners through a singular structure that makes these concerns interdependent. The title site--the place where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet--was also featured in Jon Jost's experimental feature Uncommon Senses (1988), which linked it to the geographical center of the United States: "A...place like the quadrant of Four Corners, designated by the happenstance of politics and geometry to symbolize, to represent, to stand, it seems, for some ineffable something: somehow, here, at the 'center of the nation' one anticipates a revelation, that the metaphysic of nationhood would stand stripped, turn physical, palpable, something one could get one's hands on." Philosophically, Benning's project is fairly similar, but his means of carrying it out are quite different.

Like Jost, Benning shares the all-encompassing ambition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and Jack Kerouac to tackle this country as a whole, geographically as well as historically--one reason Benning and Jost have both made films recounting cross-country journeys (Benning's North on Evers and Jost's Uncommon Senses). In Four Corners the emphasis is on historical breadth more than geographical completeness, but the use of the Four Corners area points to a related aim to take in as much as possible. Image and text inform each other in a powerful way throughout the film, because there's an interesting formal relationship between the way Benning constructs images and the way he recounts history--favoring landscapes that are blocked off in discrete layers, describing the means by which various racial and ethnic groups have displaced one another (which constructs narratives composed of various historical layers).

Math structures the interplay. The film presents us with four scrolling texts about the lives of painters: Claude Monet, Moses Tolliver (a black laborer from Alabama who turned to painting after an accident crippled him), an unknown Native American artist born around 42 AD (her name, Yukuwa, and biography are inventions), and Jasper Johns. All four of these texts are composed of the same number of letters and spaces, and each of them is followed by an extended shot of a work by the painter who's just been described: Monet's Poppy Field in a Hollow Near Giverny (1885), Tolliver's George Washington (1989, modeled loosely on Washington as he appears on a dollar bill), an authentic Native American rock painting Holy Ghost (dated approximately 100 AD), and Jasper Johns's Flag (1955), a painting of the American flag. Each shot of a painting is accompanied by a long text--each read offscreen by a different speaker, including filmmakers Billy Woodberry and Hartmut Bitomsky, as well as Benning--that recounts the history of a particular place in America in relation to individual lives as well as collective migrations. Each of these shots is followed by 13 briefer shots with ambient sound of the place that has just been described: Chaco Canyon; a Milwaukee neighborhood (where Benning grew up); Mesa Verde; and Farmington, New Mexico. To complete the mathematical formalism of Benning's structure, each of the four texts is composed of the same number of words. And bracketing all of the preceding are two long shots accompanied by music: at the beginning of the film, a shot of a bonfire with ambient sound and "Song for the Journey," a traditional Cherokee chant performed by Little Wolf Band, a contemporary Navajo group; and at the end of the film, a shot of a Hopi pueblo at First Mesa with ambient sound and "I Sang the Blues," a number recorded circa 1970 by New York rap progenitors the Last Poets.

One thing I like about Benning is that he knows how to look at things, places as well as paintings. Except for his opening shot of the bonfire, which is probably handheld, he keeps his camera stationary, preferring to allow us to take our time with a landscape or painting and get to know it as we would a friend. In this respect he has a lot in common with European filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, whose 1989 Cezanne shows a comparable power and humility in confronting art and nature. And like them, he's interested in tracing what might be called historical deposits--social as well as geological--in paintings and landscapes.

How, one may ask, are these paintings and these places supposed to be related? In a way, the whole complex experience of Four Corners is bound up with this question, and some of the answers provided are more satisfying than others. The fact that both kinds of sites are described and historically grounded before they're seen, and the fact that they're never seen and described at the same time, calls to mind Hollis Frampton's 1971 masterpiece Nostalgia, which creates a similar staggered effect between photographs slowly ignited and burned on a hot plate and spoken descriptions of the photographs that precede them. It's politically and conceptually bold of Benning to give us such a wide range of painters and paintings and ask us to consider them as part of the same historical continuum. All four painters might be regarded as influences on his own art, but he selectively excludes himself as an artist from this group of four individuals, even as he includes some of his own personal history in Milwaukee as part of a much larger historical narrative.

Benning, reading offscreen, describes himself as part of the white German-American community that had migrated to Milwaukee and was eventually displaced by black families, occasioning much racial strife (he participated in a civil rights demonstration in 1967 and was beaten unconscious by other poor, white kids as a consequence). This points to a complex, nuanced sense of history that isn't content to divvy up the settlers into heroes and villains. (We also learn, among many fascinating details, that Milwaukee had a socialist mayor for half a century, beginning in 1910, at the same time that "labor leaders desired to keep Milwaukee white and discriminated against blacks through exclusionary clauses.")

Less satisfying--not so much politically incorrect as politically and historically muddled--are the scrolling texts about the lives of the painters, at least as they register in relation to the other elements in the film. We learn when and where Monet was born, what his father did, something about his abbreviated military service, his subsequent love life, and his children; but what any of this has to do with Poppy Field in a Hollow Near Giverny, which he painted after the events of this narrative, isn't even remotely clear. The grim story of Moses Tolliver preceding the shot of George Washington is a good deal more coherent in relation to Benning's overall project, because it reminds us of some of the themes in the longer historical narratives; the same thing could be said, though to a lesser extent, of the invented life of Yukuwa preceding Holy Ghost. But when we get to Jasper Johns's biography prior to the shot of Flag, the dry inventory of facts seems just as meaningless and arbitrary as the events leading up to the Monet painting. Why, for instance, is it important for us to know about Monet's sexuality but not about Johns's? Why are we told something about the military service of both painters but nothing about their painterly influences? My point isn't to impose a program on these two biographical sketches but simply to find one. I suspect the reason I can't may be that Benning views the art of Monet and Johns as transcendental and ineffable, while his grasp of what happens to landscapes and people living in them over time is much more material. Or maybe he was just hamstrung when trying to figure out how to fill in all the blanks of his grand design. Either way, he tends to isolate all four of the paintings from any history other than that of the artists who painted them, and the history of each painting stops at the time it was painted--how it did or didn't find an audience or become part of history isn't addressed.

According to the usual critical protocol, Four Corners is a nonnarrative film (despite the fact that it's chock-full of stories, most of them fascinating and all of them easy to follow) and Temptress Moon, The Apostle, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are all narrative films (despite the fact that their stories are the least significant things about them). It's a merchandising problem for artists and audiences alike. One of the more lamentable offshoots of this strangled terminology is that it forces artists and audiences as well as critics to wrench some of their natural instincts out of shape.

In most so-called narrative films it's normally assumed that story is a conveyor belt taking goods (stars, production values, special effects, explosions) to an audience, so it follows that when the conveyor belt breaks down nothing can be delivered. (According to this argument, it's wrong to enjoy Maggie Cheung or an explosion in a stupid story that makes no sense--though millions do every day.) In most so-called nonnarrative films it's normally assumed that the absence of a conveyor belt allows us to notice and appreciate things in a less compulsory manner, as if we were standing in front of a painting--which implies that we aren't being conducted on a tour through time and space.

Both assumptions are rule-of-thumb postulates that are broken by creative people--artists and audiences alike--every day of the week. In the case of Four Corners, all sorts of interesting stories are being told--in the scrolled titles, in the offscreen narration, in the beautiful landscapes and precious glimpses of everyday life that Benning acutely frames, and even in the music. But the most interesting story of all is the one each viewer winds up telling in the course of combining, juxtaposing, and synthesizing all these stories. The same thing happens in the best commercial movies--some of which prefer to use stories as clotheslines rather than as conveyor belts, and most of which tend to gain something when they allow us some freedom in our responses. Any tour through time and space worthy of the name is likely to have moments when standing still is as important as moving, when thinking is as important as feeling--at least if we assume that movies can be worthy of thought or reflection.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.

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