“Are You Waving The Flag At Me?”—Sly and Prurient Americans at the Berlinale

by Ruairí McCann

Over and over, James Benning has cut-up and contemplated the American landscape; rendering it directly, as a site and tool for confronting the nature of the film experience itself, but also as a metaphor for the dysfunctional society built on top. Both tendencies can be found in his latest feature-length work, the monumentally titled The United States of America (2022), a land which Benning pricks like a pin cushion. The 2nd Benning film with this title—the first being a 1975 film co-directed with Bette Gordon—it runs at 98 minutes and consists of 52 static shots running at 2 to 3 minutes a pop. Each shot depicts a locale in one of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The film is sequenced in alphabetical order, by state, with a preference towards spots off the beaten track. 

The shots themselves encompass a range of textures and topography as wide as that of the country they’re simulating. There’s natural terrain: from mountainous reaches to desert, to more man-made spaces: factories, back alleys, and military complexes. At first, second and third glance, Benning’s images are more realist and distancing, in their minimal, depopulated and largely unmodified character, than those of the other major observers and collectors of All-American landscapes, faces and moods. From the details crafted and gravitas of Fredric Remington, the gothic realism of Andrew Wyeth, the focus on the downtrodden human form found in Jacob Riis and the surreal intrigue of Edward Cooper. Benning’s America is a diverse but denuded terra, where nature is striking but unadorned and the cities are post-industrial heaps and zones of surveillance. 

And yet the film is not academic but playful, in accordance with and despite its strict rules, and often gestures towards the extra-realist qualities of those aforementioned artists. Human beings are largely absent from the frame but when they do appear, they are ghostly presences, emanating tension. A woman walking down the middle of a street, under an overpass crowded by a homeless commune. She is approached from behind by a car which, at near enough the last second, swerves around her. The background of a shot of muggy swampland is riven with the faraway stomp of a hunting party, after some unknown quarry. 

The closest it comes to the Benning/Gordon film of the same name is its soundtrack; an agglomeration of pop and folk needle drops and spoken word passages. The ‘75 film’s soundscape is designedly pell-mell, to replicate the experience of tuning your mind and your radio in and out, channel hopping, while on a road trip, and so metaphorically evoking a diverse, cluttered country. This new film’s tenor is sparser and more didactic. Sometimes it seems to be for ironic effect, like the opening salvo of The Carpenters’ “Close To You” set to a dusty, nondescript scene. More often than not it asserts a left-wing, critical perspective with militant tunage like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. 

The work’s overtly political point sharpens whenever the human voice enters into the equation, collectively denoting a view of America as a nation riddled with paranoia, inequity and violent expectation. This disquiet underpins even the film’s most platonic seeming environments and surfaces with Dwight D. Eisenhower declaiming the industrial military complex and Stokely Carmichael talking about black people’s right to self-defence in the face of oppression. The implication is that a bloody history and present stains and upholsters these plains and backlots, and with a final switcheroo, as about as Wellsian a move Benning is likely to ever pull, also highlighting the American identity as a multi-faceted construction whose qualities are up to the beholder. Be they an unabashed patriot or a concerned and critical citizen like Benning. 

The America of Klondike Annie (1936) is a trail leading to a huckster’s utopia embraced, rather than a dystopia that’s incrementally, bitterly exposed. The film straddles the pacific coast, from San Francisco to Alaska, buoyed by the powerful buttress that is Rose, AKA The Frisco Doll, a nightclub singer turned outlaw on the lamb turned committed evangelist. Throughout these flaming camouflages and transformations, she remains a woman of enormous confidence, wit and sexual prowess, and so naturally, she’s played by Mae West.

West’s career exploded in the 1920s, first as a variety performer on the Vaudeville stage then as a playwright and star on Broadway. Her productions and performances centred on her persona of unabashed sexual confidence and agency, a repertoire of barbed double-entendres and rambunctious narratives which exemplified a sex-positive femininity and dealt with certain taboo subject matter like sex work and homosexuality openly. This combination made her extraordinarily popular, boosted by her frequent dalliances and exploition of controversy and censorship which reached its fullest extent when her 1927 play Sex landed her an obscenity charge and 8-day prison stint. 

Klondike Annie was produced in 1936, 4 years after West inked her first motion picture deal with Paramount and moved to Hollywood, and was made during her waning years as a first-billed star. Two years ago, there was the implementation of the censorious Hays code, which brought to an end a brief but potent ‘pre-code’ era of greater laxity on depictions of sexuality, violence and general unruliness for American cinema. Director Raoul Walsh also found this period fruitful. An All-American rascal and man of the people, in and out, it allowed him to make such bawdy, panoramic masterpieces as Me and My Gal (1932) and The Bowery (1933). 

Under this more severe regime, this Walsh and West collaboration doesn’t gel as well as it possibly would have just a few years prior. The production was hamstrung throughout, from the script stage with West’s own screenplay, based on her own stage play, Frisco Kate (1921), snipped and altered; filming was beset with numerous inquests for retakes and delays and finally, the film was released in a cut-down 78-minute version—the only version still extant. The opening section, where Rose is the restless caged bird of a sinister, frigid Chinatown club owner Chan Lo (Harold Huber), bears the most gaping of these wounds. Numerous shots and entire scenes were excised—including a murder which motivates the rest of the film.As a result this passage moves, varyingly, slowly and in awkward jolts. Rendering an already gauche setting and atmosphere, with its yellow-faced daubed villain and ‘oriental’ environment, an impressionist flavour. 

Proceedings stabilize once West makes her getaway on a boat headed for Alaska, helmed by Captain Bull Brackett, played with considerable, almost child-like, chutzpah by Victor McLaglen. The film finds its first focus and strength in their non-relationship. They spark well, caught in a play of carrot and stick administered by Rose, a canny, immovable force, and Bull, a tough and lusty bull but firmly on the submissive end of their tug of war. Up to this point, McLaglen had often played the macho debonair, but here he shows one of his best sides; an appealing shambolic nature. A big man laid easily low. John Ford would use this quality amply the same year in The Informer (1936) and in future roles as one of his favourite ‘built like a brick shithouse’ whipping boys. 

Those shipbound scenes are dominated not only by West’s presence but her words, with Walsh seemingly in a supporting role, following the contours of her whip-smart script. There’s a more equal union between the two’s sensibilities when the ship arrives in Alaska, and Rose adopts the identity of a tubular Christian settlement worker, Sister Annie (Helen Jerome Eddy), after she succumbs during the sea passage. An act of survival but also an attempt at retribution for her past ‘sins’ by continuing Annie’s missionary work, though in Rose’s own inimitable style. Her interpretation of religion is improvisatory, energetic and inclusive rather than the stuffy, formal entity, as cold as the climate, that she finds in the gallery of meek churchmice who welcome her at the mission. 

Walsh too seems to be invigorated by the task of transforming this alcohol-fuelled, tattered and disorderly frontier town into a site of proletarian religious ecstasy. The first proper eyeful of the local saloon is like a predecessor of one of cartoonist S. Clay Wilson’s bacchanalian panels. A panning shot hoovering up various bouts of mayhem culminating in a strange, sudden diagonal move, as if the cameraman has gotten drunk off the fumes. With Rose as Sister Annie’s successful first stint at the pulpit, and the tavern’s flea-bitten population variously convinced and coerced into joining her congregation, the film reaches its high point. Particularly in the moving skit, where an old homeless alcoholic, trembling with DTs and both kinds of spirit, is embraced in the everlasting, interlinked arms of his wife, Walsh’s feeling for high melodrama and comedy combined with West’s liberatory, carnal rhetoric. 

Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]

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