Real-life top… four. As well as another six I don’t/won’t have time/energy to write about in time for the (hypothetical) 15th-of-the-following-month deadline I’ve set myself:

Shôhei Imamura [dir] A Man Vanishes [Eureka/Masters Of Cinema DVD]

Asier Mendizabal [Raven Row, 8 December 2011 – 12 February 2012]; Marcel Broodthaers Bateau Tableau [Campoli Presti, 21 January – 17 March]

Georges Simenon Act Of Passion [NYRB Classics pbk]; The Train and The President [Melville House/The Neversink Library pbks]

Robert Walser Berlin Stories [NYRB Classics pbk]

Joyce Wieland screenings [Tate Modern, Friday 20 & Saturday 21 January]

Working Papers: Donald Judd Drawings, 1963–93 [Sprüth Magers London, 13 January – 18 February]

[1] James Benning [dir] American Dreams (lost and found) / Landscape Suicide [Edition Filmmuseum 2xDVD]
The first in what Edition Filmmuseum promise is a series devoted to the work of James Benning. Which is cause for celebration – as much of a fixture on the festival circuit as Benning is, his earlier films are very rarely screened, in the UK at least. Edition Filmmuseum describe these two mid-80s works as representative of Benning’s earlier “autobiographical text/image collages” – a description I’m obliged to accept, having seen none of his films prior to 2004’s Ten Lakes and 13 Skies. It feels like something of a luxury to have these on DVD, though neither is, I suspect, very significant. Landscape Suicide does, however, seem to bridge quite neatly the earlier part of Benning’s career with the style he’s refined over the past few decades, dominated by lengthy, unedited shots of landscapes, filmed with a static camera.

The 53-minute American Dreams (lost and found) (1984) ruminates on some familiar mid-century American political and racial history, juxtaposing stills of memorabilia relating to baseball player Hank Aaron with scrolling handwritten text, increasingly disturbing in tone – which, it eventually becomes apparent [spoiler alert], is lifted from the diary of Arthur Bremer, who shot and paralyzed Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. The soundtrack blares out pop songs, cheesy radio ads, recordings of news broadcasts, politicians’ speeches, and so on.

Running for 92 minutes, Landscape Suicide (1986) concerns itself with a pair of murder cases – a cheerleader stabbed by her classmate in 1984 in the wealthy Californian town of Orinda; and a woman killed by Ed Gein in Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1957. Benning takes the two in turn, approaching the material facts from a variety of angles. Each of the film’s two sections is dominated by a reconstruction, of the schoolgirl’s police interview and Gein’s courtroom trial respectively, both flat and affectless in tone.

Spliced around them are sequences of footage filmed from a moving car, as a fundamentalist preacher rants on the radio; investigations of police and autopsy reports, panned across or typed up on screen; and a couple of misjudged scenes in which an actor playing the murder victim is shown dancing or relaxing in a bedroom as pop songs play.

Apart from the laboriously obvious, Benning has nothing much to impart about these murders and what they might signify about American society. Gein’s testimony ends with him describing his childhood memories of his mother butchering animals they’d hunted. It’s followed by a scene of man gutting a dead deer and carrying its carcass away, leaving the innards sprawled bloodily on the snow. Sociological analysis is clearly not a strong point.

Less moralistic and much more effective are the sequences in each section of fixed-frame, static shots of landscapes and suburban streets, typically 20-25 seconds in duration, mostly devoid of human presence and any sound other than the ambient. They show a now distinctive and familiar visual style in early, embryonic form. As they build a metronomic rhythm, you can almost feel Benning’s stylistic gaze coming slowly into focus.

[Postscript #1: if you plan to order this from Edition Filmmuseum – as you’ll have to, given that neither Lux nor the BFI Filmstore are stocking it, be sure to contact them before placing your order to say you want it sent by regular airmail. If you don’t, they’ll automatically send it by courier. And not just any courier – the dreaded DHL, who will return the DVD to the vendor should you have a day job to go to and can’t be at home at 11.30am Tuesday to take delivery. Whereupon Edition Filmmuseum will have to send it again, by airmail this time, meaning the whole process will take about three weeks and cost you something like £42. Just saying.]

[Postscript #2: this year’s AV Festival is a veritable Benning extravaganza, with a screening of Nightfall, as well as Milwaukee/Duisburg and (another!) version of One Way Boogie Woogie presented in installation form.]

[2] Dara Birnbaum [South London Gallery, 9 December 2011 – 17 February 2012]; Early Video In The US screening [South London Gallery, 25 January]
As much as I love this gallery and was looking forward to this show, it was at best questionably staged. The large main space was entirely given over to a really tedious recent 4-screen installation (something about Schumann and pianos), with a handful of spiky mid-70s pieces crammed into three small rooms upstairs, and most of Birnbaum’s best works siphoned off into a one-off evening screening. That said, Attack Piece (1975) was threatening fun: two screens on facing walls, relaying blurred, grainy b&w stills – one of footage of Birnbaum filming and photographing some male collaborators, the other their shots of/at her.

As worthwhile was a linked screening of 70s works by Birnbaum’s video art contemporaries, which included Joan Jonas, Lynda Benglis, Chris Burden’s TV Commercials, and a droll mid-70s Baldessari piece, The Italian Tape. I wasn’t aware that Charlemagne Palestine made films in the 70s, but apparently he did – in Running Outburst (1975) he exhausts himself by sprinting around a loft space littered with teddy bears, camera on shoulder, hum-grunting loudly all the while. Highlights were several witty short films by the previously unknown to me LA-based Cynthia Maughan, cleverly playing on female anxiety, and filled with sight gags, droll noir spoofs, and self-deprecating puns. Not forgetting some uncomfortably intense footage of the first staging (in 1973 in Naples) of an obscure Vito Acconci performance, Reception Room. A hospital bed is positioned against a gallery wall, with Acconci lying face-down on it, half-wrapped in a bed sheet, rolling repeatedly from side to side as a monologue – personal confessions and sexual anxieties – plays loudly. All the while, half a dozen stolid, flat-capped Neapolitan bourgeois sit in a ring of chairs around the bed, watching impassively as Acconci’s hairy, pimple-covered arse becomes more and more visible.

[3] Jean-Luc Godard [dir] Film Socialisme [New Wave Films DVD]
I saw this at the London Film Festival in 2010, replete with “Navajo” subtitles, but missed it on its very brief commercial release last year, for which it apparently had “English” ones. The DVD offers both, and while the latter allow a more informed attempt at decoding, they remove many – though not all – of the elements of confusion. Which is less conceptually appropriate, given that Film Socialisme is concerned with disconnections and misunderstandings of every kind. It’s most obvious at the structural level – the film’s rhythm is persistently fragmentary, characterised by lurching cuts, detours, and a variety of sidetracks and distractions. Similarly, communication is a problematic, compromised exercise. Quite literally, in fact – conversations are overlaid and mixed together, or overlap between scenes; unidentified voices chime in confusingly; pensive dialogue is continually undermined by jarring non sequiturs; and sudden cuts induce awkward shifts in visual register.

Godard’s focus wanders as erratically and fascinatingly as ever, covering the politics of representation (lots of shots of people taking photographs or filming) and familiar leftist agit-y rhetoric (colonialism, imperialist war, money), as well as addressing – or at least cryptically alluding to – several other themes. A few of which would be: the deleterious effects of changes in modes of cultural distribution; the damage done by technology to human interaction; and the untrustworthiness, or our inability to trust, art or language or information. All of which feed into another key theme of Film Socialisme: the monopolisation of culture, identity and social experience by capitalism and its media.

The first part takes place on a cruise ship, an irreconcilably mediated capitalist environment, serving up lurid distractions and synthetic communal activities, against which a set of characters muse distractedly on WWII-era cover-ups and conspiracies. The second is set in a petrol station in rural France, run by a family whose mother is standing as a councillor in local elections. Which is why a camera crew is on hand to observe all their activity – as are a donkey and a llama, for no obvious reason. The discussions between the parents and the children, particularly the father and daughter, depict the two generations as loving yet unable to relate to each other, with profoundly different ideas about politics and the failings of France as a nation. A despairing, curmudgeonly coda reinvestigates the string of politically resonant locations which the cruise ship visited (Egypt, Palestine, Hellas, Naples, Barcelona, Odessa), collaging paintings, drawings, etchings, news reels and excerpts from films into an often impenetrable rumination on the death of the image, and the complex relationships between politics, war, culture and art.

Predictably, the aphoristic postulations come thick and fast, most of them cherry-picked from the writings of a select handful of philosophers and theorists (Derrida, Benjamin, Arendt, Sartre and Bergson are some of the names mentioned in the credits). A few of my favourites:

[4] Bill Arning et al Stan VanDerBeek: The Culture Intercom [Contemporary Arts Museum Houston/MIT List Visual Arts Center pbk]
“Despite his significant presence and influence during his lifetime, VanDerBeek’s work failed to posthumously maintain the attention of those museum curators and art historians whose job it is to shed light on the sources of our contemporary postwar visual arts culture,” posits one of the essays packing the middle section of the catalogue for this laudable exhibition of the work of Stan VanDerBeek, which showed in Cambridge, MA and Houston, TX between February and July 2011. The essays are sandwiched in between two 60-page blocks of photographic documents of VanDerBeek’s work, which offer a handy chronology of the development of his practice, in its form and content so obviously important that it’s a mystery why he has been relegated to the margins of art history.

VanDerBeek is known primarily as a filmmaker (see Re:Voir’s excellent if hardly comprehensive Visibles DVD), though this was just one strand of his intensely interdisciplinary and multivalent output. He studied at Black Mountain Collage from 1949–51, after which he graduated from painting to witty collages and films (meshing animation, found footage and stop-motion) which acerbically critiqued consumerism and politics. Bills were paid by window displays for department stores, including one in collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg in 1961, and work on kids’ TV shows for CBS. From there VanDerBeek’s focus expanded, and a succession of bold experiments followed, all of them exploiting new technology – that the technology itself now seems so quaintly anachronistic might partially explain why the work’s significance has faded, but shouldn’t detract from its undeniable power.

Movie-Drome (1963-65) was an early multimedia environment, a dome-like structure inside which multiple films could simultaneously be projected; VanDerBeek wanted to create a global network of them, swapping transmissions via satellite – a “culture intercom”. He supplied projections for the 1965 premiere of Cage’s Variations V for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; created late 60s multi-screen gallery installations which he termed “movie murals”, and Poemfields, animations of type and striking, colourful graphics patterns generated with IBM punch card technology. 1970’s Violence Sonata was screened simultaneously on two different public TV channels; the suggestion was made that viewers place two screens next to each other. Cine Dreams (1972) was an 8-hour work staged in a planetarium, with the audience encouraged to fall asleep, the hope being that they would collectively dream. In the late 70s and early 80s (before his untimely death in 1984), VanDerBeek staged a series of projections of images onto clouds of steam.

Lurking in the catalogue are some fascinating primary source materials: interviews, magazine articles and original writings. Its half dozen essays provide historical context and useful, often juicy biographical information – how about Birth of the American Flag, a film made in 1960 in collaboration with Claes Oldenburg, starring Lucas Samaras and Carolee Schneemann, filmed at Rudy Wurlitzer’s house in upstate New York? They locate VanDerBeek in relation to developments in expanded cinema (a term he is said to have coined, along with – purportedly – ‘underground cinema’) in both Europe and the US, and unpick key characteristics of his practice and personality – his embracing of technology, both cautious and enthusiastic; his teaching activities; his yen for collaboration and fascination with electronic networks and connectedness; and the strains of utopianism and nuclear anxiety which ran through his practice. It effectively conveys the flavour of what must have been a striking exhibition, in equal parts belated retrospective and long-overdue rehabilitation.