Narration read by Hartmut Bitomsky, Benning, Billy Woodberry, Yeasup Song.
As much a truly one-man-band as a feature filmmaker can be, the prolific James Benning has been quietly accruing one of the most impressive and distinctive bodies of U.S. nonfiction cinema around for a over quarter-century. His latest, “Four Corners,” is a typically challenging yet absorbing work that deserves to bring this undersung talent wider exposure, at least on the fest and cinematheque circuit.
Almost any Benning film, however, will instantly clue the viewer in to why the helmer will probably never see wider commercial-arthouse or broadcast exposure. His trademark style is to hold on stock-still, blackout-separated, often exquisite individual shots of landscapes, natural or otherwise — humans observed, when observed at all, from a noninvasive distance — while voiceovers are read that may relate directly to the settings shown or may cross-reference another story thread already introduced. Use of music is minimal, live “ambient” sound often as spare as the whistling wind.
If all this sounds like a recipe for watching-paint-dry tedium, well, Benning’s austerity might be just that for some viewers. But his camera eye and subtle juxtaposition of ideas create a resonance that’s often far from dull, “experimental” as it is in outline.
Most of his films have dealt with American history and landscape. “Four Corners” idiosyncratically uses scrolled thumbnail bios and a single representative canvas from four visual artists (Claude Monet, Alabaman primitivist Moses Tolliver, a Native American canyon-wall conjecturally born in 142 A.D., and Jasper Johns) as “chapter headings” that kick off separate segments of precisely 13 shots investing one location each.
Three are sites near the titular New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah intersection, their variously decades — or centuries — spanning voiceover sagas invariably dealing with the tragic impact that ill weather, Spanish conquest, intertribal conflict, the U.S. government and/or latter-day poverty and alcoholism has had on Indian tribal survival. The fourth place is the Milwaukee neighborhood where Benning was raised amid working class German-Americans; now it is a grim African-American ghetto where one prolonged shot of juvenile b-ball players briefly shows a drive-by shooting in the background.
All these shards of complex information are very cleanly laid out, albeit with little relation to conventional overall narrative structuring or overt, subjective thesis-making. Nevertheless, pic ultimately conveys a good deal more about the disposability of life and cultural tradition in U.S. history than many more hectoring docus.
“Four Corners” actually manages to make palpable the vast timetable of topographical and ethnic migration history, as well as the more densely dramatic , familiar history of actual recorded human personalities and events. The immediate viewing experience, however, is meditative, serene, even elegant. Lensing and other tech aspects are top-notch on what must have been a minuscule budget.