Marrying the spoken word with imagery for the first time in more than a decade, James Benning extends his palette with the cumulatively stunning “Stemple Pass.” Like most films from this usually purely visual experimental artist, this is a sui generis creation that, in its own oblique way, explores profound ideas about nature, America, time, technology and film itself, among other things. That, or it’s just four static half-hour long shots of a mountainside, accompanied by a voiceover offering glimpses into the mind of Ted Kaczynski, the notorious Unabomber. Either way, this extraordinary work will find a place at select fests and galleries.
Thematically connected with two of the helmer’s recent films — “Two Cabins” and “Nightfall” — as well as a book, “Stemple Pass” derives from a larger project that saw Benning reconstruct from scratch two historic cabins in the Sierra Nevada mountains — one built by Thoreau (described in “Walden”), and one in Montana where Kaczynski lived like a hermit from 1971-95, waging a one-man war against scientists and airlines via homemade bombs.
The eerie resonances between the two men, both highly educated recluses with a profound reverence for nature, have been remarked upon ever since Kaczynski’s deranged yet lucid manifesto was published anonymously in the New York Times and the Washington Post before he was arrested. He is still serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for the murders of three people and the maimings of some 23 others. (A droll line in the credits clarifies that his permission was not sought for the making of the film.)
Each of the pic’s four “chapters” offers a high-definition, static-single-shot view of a mountain scene, with the reconstructed Kaczynski cabin partly visible in the foreground; although the camera position remains the same, each shot unfolds during a different season, starting with spring.
At the beginning of each take, Benning’s own voice is heard reading, sometimes falteringly, for about five minutes, mostly from Kaczynski’s journals, starting in 1971, when he first moved to the cabin to live alone off the land. Later, infuriated by sound pollution from motorcyclists and snowmobiles, and the destruction wrought by loggers, he recounts missions to sugar gas tanks and vandalize neighboring cabins, actions that gradually escalate into his campaign of terror.
Although Kaczynski’s writings and the snatches of interviews excepted here are in themselves fascinating and highly disturbing to listen to, the pic casts a much more complicated spell by compelling auds to experience the world through Kaczynski’s eyes as they sit gazing, for 25-minute stretches, at the minutely scrutinized landscape. A sense of meditative calm descends on those patient enough to stick it out, so much so that the distant sounds of cars and planes do indeed begin to feel like vile intrusions on the sounds of birds, insects and rustling leaves.
Although much of Benning’s work is available online now, this is the kind of filmmaking that achieves its full potential only in a cinema, where the immersive spectacle of the bigscreen, proper amplification and the rustling of other viewers becomes an integral part of the experience itself. “Stemple Pass” is intended for an intensely rarefied audience, but for those willing to open themselves up to Benning’s alchemical experiments, such art is pure magic.