Latest Benning films show new strengths

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James Benning is a filmmaker on the go. One of his trademarks is a keen delight in movement, often with the camera poked out a car or train window. Another is a willingness to stop the action dead, for minutes at a stretch, and absorb the ambiance of some everyday place. Taken together, these habits give his work a mixture of fluidity and solidity - always at odds with each other, yet somehow sharing the screen peacefully. Although he considers himself a storyteller as well as a traveler, Mr. Benning is less successful at weaving sparse, cryptic narratives into his peripatetic movies. This weakness stood out during the four-week retrospective of his films that opened the latest season of the New American Filmmakers Series, a regular event at the Whitney Museum of American Art here.

So it's heartening to note that Benning's latest major works take a new approach to narrative. Here he doesn't sneak bits of story into otherwise formal and laconic frameworks. Rather, he places the narrative right up front - letting it dictate mood and structure, just as movements and locations did before.

The result is a new kind of Benning film, carrying a heightened emotional charge that suits the troubling, real-life subjects he has chosen to deal with.

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The unseen protagonist of ``American Dreaming'' is Arthur Bremer, who injured Alabama governor George Wallace in a 1972 assassination attempt. ``Landscape Suicide'' also focuses on tragedy: the impulsive murder of a California schoolgirl by one of her classmates, and the crimes of a psychotic killer in the Midwest. (The latter case inspired the notorious ``Texas Chainsaw Massacre'' movies, and Benning's anguished treatment of it makes an effective antidote to their childish exploitation.)

In exploring these subjects, Benning shows a sadness so deep it's almost palpable. As if his civilized nature won't let him grasp the enormity of such things, he gazes at them with a fixed concentration that recalls the reveries of his earlier films. But now he gives literal meaning as much weight as poetic allusion. The cranky phrases of Bremer's diary crawl across the screen throughout ``American Dreams,'' and large portions of ``Landscape Suicide'' consist of words taken directly from court proceedings and a confession.

Benning's response to this material seems a mixture of incredulity and grief - and, at least in the teen-ager's case, compassion for the ruined life of the killer as well as the lost life of her victim.

In the manner of his earlier films, Benning illuminates his subjects with shots of objects and places and also with carefully selected sounds. The backdrop for Bremer's diary is a parade of old baseball cards (making a too-obvious point about the right sort of way to get attention in the world) and the sound track is peppered with bygone rock-and-roll hits. ``Landscape Suicide'' scrutinizes the locations as well as the perpetrators of crimes and reaches its highest emotional pitch when it dwells on an idealized schoolgirl lounging in her bedroom as a delirious inspirational song fills the air.

Benning has treated sad material before, as in ``Him and Me,'' a 1982 work. In formal terms also, his new pictures can be seen as logical extensions of early experiments like ``Honeylane Road'' and more fully realized pictures like ``8 x 11'' and ``One Way Boogie Woogie.'' But never before has he communicated so forthrightly or so forcefully.

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