Landscape Suicide (1986)
“When I visited Plainfield, I couldn’t get a sense of the murder. But the feeling of a collective guilt still lingers.”
James Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1986) begins with a three minute sequence of a tennis player (Eve Ellis) practicing serves. Benning shows us just the player, standing at the edge of the court, doing her routine in a near-mechanical fashion. We do not see where the serves land or if the balls are being collected by someone off screen. After these three minutes, Benning cuts to the view of the other side of the court. The turf is full of tennis balls lying in a random pattern. Though only expected, it is an enigmatic moment in the film, for it is the first change of setup in the movie. This banal sequence does two things. One, it habituates us to the rhythm and the mode of discourse of Benning’s film. It announces to us that the major events the film deals with and their consequences will largely be kept off-screen. Two, it acts as an abstract to one of the major questions of the film – Does the sum of human actions, however insignificant individually, have an effect on the environment they live in? We are products of our environments, naturally, but is our environment a product of our actions too? Following this prologue, Landscape Suicide presents itself in two parts, each one investigating a homicide, connected by an unseen narrator who, having heard of the incidents through newspapers and magazines, presents the movie from the perspective of an outsider.
The first half of the film revolves around the murder of a teenager by her classmate Bernadette Protti in 1984 and unfolds primarily through an extended interrogation sequence, as would the second half of the film, of the accused teenager. This long sequence is shot using a static camera, with no shot-reverse shot structure, that fixates itself on Protti’s face for the whole sequence. She is visibly shell-shocked and trying hard to muster up words to answer the questions. Apparently, Benning constructed the sequence based actual courtroom transcripts and had Rhonda Bell, who plays Protti, bring them to life. David Bordwell describes here how sometimes telling, and not showing, can be much more rewarding in film. That is exactly the case here. What Protti tells here isn’t as important as how she tells it. The whole sequence is more significant as a collection of gestures than as a document of confession. This is great delivery we are taking about here. It is a part which requires you to shed your vocabulary, be completely inarticulate (even more than The Dude!) and, yet, describe everything in fine detail and Bell does a remarkable job. Even with this barely coherent piece of monologue, it becomes clear how Protti’s image, perhaps characteristic of her age group during that period of time, amidst her peers is more important to her than any morality and how petty peer pressure and the rat race for celebrity status can cause even the most sane to lose balance.
The second interrogation sequence is that of the infamous Ed Gein, who, as we all know, has been the inspiration for characters like Norman Bates and his successors. This conversation, in complete contrast to the Protti interrogation, is completely formal and well worded. Gein, played to perfection by Elion Sacker, looks like a very reasonable man. He sticks to the question and answers then with utmost poise and a clear, flat, fearless voice. The painstakingly detailed and often hilarious session tries to pin down Gein based on his self-confessed aversion for blood, but, with machine like passivity and utter soberness, he parries tricky questions and stays impermeable. One might even end up labeling him innocent were one to assess him based on this interrogation alone. Both the interrogations come attached to two “set pieces” that seem tangential to them. Each interrogation is either followed or preceded by a montage of landscapes from the hometown of the central protagonist – Orinda, California for Protti and Plainfield, Wisconsin for Gein – and a vignette from the private life of a resident, possibly the victim, from that town at that period time.
At first sight, the landscapes of these towns seem anything but indicative of the horrors that have taken place in them. The places we see, both Orinda and Plainfield, are as serene, unpolluted and quiet as towns and suburbs can ever be. But after a few minutes, the unanimous absence of people becomes a bit unnerving. It seems as if people are deliberately hiding from each other, trying to mind their own business and to distance themselves from anything that can potentially pop them out of their mundane routine. The narrator notes, strikingly, at one point: “When I visited Plainfield, I couldn’t get a sense of the murder. But the feeling of a collective guilt still lingers”. And there seems to lie the major weakness of most of our justice systems. These institutions have gotten used to “weed out” people such as Ed Gein and Bernadette Protti as anomalies in a flawless society, much like the way the narrator’s daughter tears out the pages describing the Protti murder from the Rolling Stones magazine in order to avoid reading depressing news, instead of tracing out and correcting the reasons behind the birth of all such Ed Geins and Bernadette Prottis. That is not to say that the reason behind the Gein murders and his penchant for “taxidermy” was only the animal violence he was exposed to everyday since childhood. But subjecting Bernadette Protti, who is clearly more a function of social status than of mental imbalance, to the same treatment as Ed Gein denotes nothing less than a complacent, if not irresponsible, justice system.
Landscape Suicide is a symmetric film. Between the five minute long prologue and epilogue, the last three “set pieces” of the film mirror the first three. While the Protti section is followed by the landscape montage and the household sequence, the Ed Gein section is preceded by them. In a way, Landscape Suicide also acts as an examination of the narrative property of cinema. We are first given Protti’s version of what happened verbally and then the images of the locations they took place in. One is thus able to situate the now-coherent account into its proper geographical location and conjure up, more concretely, the visual equivalent of Protti’s account. On the other hand, the locations of the incident are given before the oral account in the case of the Gein murder. In this case, one tries to reconstruct the incident by simulating the events being described within the locations already familiar. Benning resolves the “how” of the incident into “what” and “where” and asks us to put them back together to find out “why”. In essence, Benning divorces genre cinema from its exploitative nature by splitting up its action into words and locations. With some effort, one should be able to stitch up all the elements of Benning’s film to obtain a teen-slasher and a psychological thriller.
Additionally, Landscape Suicide is also about the act of remembering and reconstructing the past. It is an investigation about the possibility of retrieving the truth using every tool available. In both the interrogations, it becomes clear that the barrier to recovering one’s past is one’s own memory and, then, the language used to verbalize that sensory commodity. Throughout the Protti interrogation, there is a war between the sounds of her speech and the sounds of the typewriter that records her speech, with the latter seemingly trying to grab each one of her words and derive the literal meaning from it (this, somehow, reminds one of last year’s wonderful film Police, Adjective). Benning’s point may just be that our spoken and written media are incapable of translating actual experiences to words. It is evident that what Protti’s words mean are far from what she means. Throughout the two interrogations, Benning blacks out the screen regularly and adulterates the soundtrack with stray sounds, as if underscoring the incapability of the cinematic medium to capture or reproduce experiences and feelings in their entirety.
However, Benning does offer an alternative here. His use of a static camera throughout the courtroom scenes is noteworthy in this regard. Benning accustoms us to the space the camera stares at by eschewing conventional cinematic grammar for conversations and avoiding shuffling between setups anywhere in the film. At one point during the interrogation, Protti leaves for the bathroom. Instead of cutting to a new view point or providing an ellipsis, Benning lets the camera be as it was when Protti was there. It’s a moment that is reminiscent of the cut during the opening tennis sequence. The absence of a human figure before the camera is so unsettling that one can actually sense the change that the milieu before us has undergone. If history is indeed a study of changes through the ages, the only way to document it is to document the changes. In Benning’s film, this change is recorded in terms of changes in natural and man-made landscapes, which are also, perhaps, the closest in resembling the human memory in the sense that they, too, morph gradually over time owing to the cumulus of all human actions – both beneficial and detrimental. And it only follows logically that cinema should pay keen attention to landscapes and topographies if it ever wants to revive the past and reconstruct history as it was, free from corruption by conscious human intervention and oversimplification by the rigidity of our languages.