Edition Filmmuseum's two-DVD release Deseret/Four Corners - spine #87 for the German purveyor of rare silents and contemporary films - continues their series devoted to maverick American-indie-filmmaker James Benning. Over the past forty years, the Wisconsin-born, California-based Benning has done contemplative, formalist quasi-documentaries which gaze at the American landscape in all its beauty and ugliness. Filled with static, long-held shots and tight, down-to-a-single-frame editing, his work is characterized by tightly structured concepts which call back to his background in mathematics. For Benning fans who had to make do with watching these films on YouTube or via questionable downloaded files, having Deseret and Four Corners in a good, director-approved edition like this is a blessing.
As the booklet accompanying this set states, Deseret (1995) and Four Corners (1997) date from Benning's "lengthy cycle of landscape/portrait films," a period which lasted until the director switched from 16 millimeter film to digital in 2007. Both features are intended to be part documentary/part contemplative art piece on the American West and the amorphous ideas that define the region. Picture Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas minus characters or plot, and that gives some indication of Benning's mise en scène.
Deseret (1995; 78 minutes)
Four Corners (1997; 76 minutes)
Edition Filmmuseum's Deseret/Four Corners comes as a Region 0 PAL release, which may not play on many Sony-made American home video players (like mine, unfortunately). They are playable on personal computers equipped with a DVD-ROM drive, however. The discs are housed in a standard-width transparent hinged DVD case with a separate printed booklet.
Photographed on 16mm stock in black and white (for Deseret) and color, these two films are both presented in a relatively clean state with the original 4:3 aspect ratios intact. Grime, specks and other artifacts are a constant but not too distracting presence with both. Ironically, the newer Four Corners has a more degraded appearance with muddy colors, inky dark levels and a lack of detail. While some minor restoration was made on Deseret, the set's booklet notes that no restoration was performed on Four Corners.
The simple Dolby 2.0 soundtracks included with both films have their shortcomings with the aged source material and the limited dynamics of mono. Since Benning's work mostly consists of ambient environmental sounds, however, they suit their purpose well with the clean sound having no significant instances of damage. Both discs also include optional German subtitles.
The Deseret disc includes a 15-minute Interview with Benning from the 1996 Vienna International Film Festival. The brief clip has Benning fielding questions on Deseret from the audience, discussing the genesis and methods behind the film. The package also contains a nice 20-page booklet with a critical essay on Benning written by Neil Young (the film historian, not the rock star). The booklet text is printed in German and English.
Deseret/Four Corners serves as a diverse sampler for the '90s-era works of experimental filmmaker James Benning (check out Christopher McQuain's review of Benning's California Trilogy for more). While I would solidly recommend 1995's singular, absorbing history lesson Deseret, 1997's Four Corners ends up being a vaguely conceived, arch, arty disappointment. Rent It.