Review: ‘Deseret’

Narrator: Fred Gardner.

Narrator: Fred Gardner.

Vet experimental filmmaker James Benning’s feature “Deseret” is an unconventional documentary look at nearly 150 years of Utah territorial history. While far too specialized in approach and appeal to invite commercial exposure, visually sumptuous pic would look good on any fest or repertory schedule, and will unspool at Sundance next month.

Benning holds to a rigid scheme here, one that ought to exhaust viewer patience quickly but doesn’t: His visuals are a series of stationary-camera shots (landscapes, buildings, industrial sites, with human subjects rarely seen) , each held for a few seconds. Voiceover narration (read in a neutral tone by Fred Gardner), meanwhile, is drawn entirely from contempo articles in the New York Times. They chart minor and major events from earliest settler days to the present.

These snippets etch a colorful, deliberately loose chronology of Utah as home , cause and exploitable resource. Early news very much centers on Brigham Young’s Church of Latterday Saints — and its resistance to federal law enforcement, a conflict that still rises (albeit less violently) today. Indian wars, the first coast-to-coast rail system, mineral prospecting and such matters give way with the new century to fresh controversies: labor organizer Joe Hill’s death, Japanese internment camps, government radiation tests, Gary Gilmore’s death penalty, toxic waste dumps and so forth. Poor treatment of Native Americans and the Mormon majority populace’s extreme conservatism remain prevalent motifs throughout.

Benning generally provides little direct correlation between image and voiceover input. Bypass of overt editorializing lets us draw our own lessons from this oft-tumultous saga.

Pic is a lensing triumph in which Utah’s natural beauties dominate, though signposts of human development do gradually encroach. Gorgeous B&W compositions recall classic Ansel Adams photos; when chronology hits the year 1900, they abruptly adopt a ravishing, delicate color palette. Narration aside, soundtrack is unruffled by anything save environmental noises, sans music scoring.




Produced, directed by James Benning.


Camera (B&W/color, 16mm), sound, editing , research by Benning. Reviewed at San Francisco Cinematheque screening room, Dec. 1, 1995. (In Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 80 MIN.
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