Deseret (1995)

Director: James Benning

I don’t know much about James Benning, other than that a lot of his work seems to involve landscapes has certain structuralist qualities as well, though he apparently denies actually being a structuralist as such. But both of those tendencies are pretty easily discerned in this, which seems to be regarded as one of his best (it’s on the 1001 movies list). It’s kind of a celebration of the centenary of Utah’s admission to the United States, albeit a pretty backhanded one in some ways; over a period of 18 months Benning shot a whole bunch of both rural and urban landscape footage of Utah (which was originally called “Deseret” by the early Mormon settlers at the end of the 1840s, and was the name they wanted to enter statehood with but Washington refused to accept it for some reason), which he then cut and timed to the narration, exactly one shot (of whatever duration) per sentence, with one shot between each “paragraph” of same (there’s your structuralist element, I suppose). This narration is taken from various New York Times letters and articles and the like from 1852 up to 1992, each boiled down to a few key sentences (I think one bit is only a single sentence, while the longest was probably the vituperative obituary of Brigham Young, and the whole thing charts a fascinating history of the state, from the early antagonism between the union and the Mormons, to showing how the union eventually let them in, how Utah obviously tried to be a good part of the team and assimilate into the greater good of the whole country, but also the considerable problems they faced in doing so—the federal government basically using Utah as a bit of a test site for nuclear weapons, chemical warfare, etc, and a dump for toxic waste and the like, but also the church’s own problems with things like racism (only allowing blacks into the priesthood in the 1970s after spending decades denying black people’s spiritual suitability; excommunicating their only Native American priest), dubious right-wing political connections (particularly with those psychos at the John Birch Society; LDS church president Ezra Taft Benson—who served in government under Roosevelt—seems to have been particularly close to them) and, of course, the polygamy thing (some of the church’s members being more vehement about their right to practise it than others). Quite intriguing to watch and listen to; I may actually invest in the Filmmuseum DVD, which I presume will be better than the YT copy I got (watchable but of clearly illegitimate provenance).

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