Nov 24, 2014
Like most people, I am, to a certain extent, intrigued by murderers and serial killers, especially in regard to their psychological makeup, but I also cannot stand phony films like overrated cinematic artisan David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and Hebraic hack Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002) that glorify bat-shit crazy ‘manhunters’ and more or less portray them as ‘misunderstood geniuses” whose ostensible ‘Übermensch’ image somewhat absolves them of their aberrant actions. In short, I hate when films, be they big budget Hollywood trash or otherwise, attempt to less than cleverly manipulate me into feeling a certain way about something, especially when it is in regard to something as sensational as serial killers, who, along with black gangster thugs, Jewish white collar criminals, scatological Semitic frat boys, and scheming morally retarded whores, have became the ultimate cinematic antiheroes. Thankfully, I recently discovered what is arguably the most objective film ever made—be it fictional or documentary—on coldblooded murders and serial killers, Landscape Suicide (1987) directed by experimental sub-underground auteur James Benning (Him and Me, North on Evers), who is a rare, truly proletarian America avant-garde voice that does not need buckets of blood, tedious torture-porn scenes, or even a single murder scene to make a chilling point about manhunters. Described as a ‘minimalist’ and ‘structuralist’ by various reviewers and film theorists, Benning seems like a fellow who has never seen a single Hollywood film, let alone a horror flick, and has no interest in entertaining anyone except himself. Certainly no trust fund brat or autistic art fag, the filmmaker grew up in a rough German-American working-class community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where sons were forced to fight their cousins, so it is only natural that the auteur would direct a film about fellow Wisconsin Amero-kraut Ed Gein, whose father was of German extraction and whose beloved mother was the progeny of Prussian immigrants. A man whose works have been heavily influenced by American realist paintings and photography, Benning's Landscape Suicide attempts to conjure up the atmosphere and physical environment that might have inspired Gein, as well as suburban California teenaged killer Bernadette Protti, who brutally stabbed to death her ‘friend’ Kirsten Costas in 1984, to kill. An avant-garde quasi-docudrama where the viewer is forced to act as an investigative reporter and sightseeing tourist in being confronted with two ‘classic’ murders that are as American as apple pie that took place about 30 years apart, Benning’s demystifying doc is like a living postcard featuring excerpts from court transcriptions as specially chosen by the director, who seems to place a special premium on the killer’s sexual hangups and mental illnesses. Psycho killer Americana in static 16mm form, Landscape Suicide is apparently the director’s most ‘accessible’ work to date but I doubt that it would appeal to a single one of the sort of true crime fanboys that have serial killer calendars and sport Jeffery Dahmer t-shirts; yet, due to its ‘idiosyncratic’ and quite pathological structure and style, I would not be surprised if someone told me the film was directed by an actual serial killer. A work of seeming cultural pessimism and cynicism directed by a man that seems to hate the suburbs and sees rural Wisconsin as a cultural and spiritual void inhabited by the radio broadcasted noise of carny-like evangelist preachers and the malignant spread of pop-‘culture’ TV trash magazines like Rolling Stone and yellow journalism newspapers, Landscape Suicide ultimately makes murder seem like a temporary relief from the banality of American life.
Beginning in a rather banal fashion with a couple minutes of a woman playing tennis by herself that concludes with a shot of dozens of tennis balls lying on a tennis court, Landscape Suicide immediately gives the impression that life in the suburbs, as unbelievably banal and bourgeois as it is, is no way to live. From there, an off-screen narrator reveals that on June 23, 1984, a 15-year-old high school girl from a suburb in Orinda, California was stabbed to death on her neighbors' front porch by a teenage suspect that was “chunky but not fat with shoulder-length light brown hair driving a gold or yellow older model Pinto that appeared to be in poor running condition.” The suspect was the girl’s would-be-friend Bernadette Protti, who killed her classmate after she rejected a ride home from her. As revealed by crime case records featured in the film, Protti had a “low frustration tolerance despite a higher than average intelligence” and “despite often misleading, overt heterosexual behavior, there may be evidence of unusual suppression of her sexuality.” Stabbing Costas with an 18-inch butcher knife five times in front of at least one witness, Protti, who apparently “suffers from an inferiority complex” and “lacks remorse” in regard to her crime, was thought to have not committed premeditated murder due to “the lack of sophistication in the execution of the crime.” In the ‘docudrama’ section of the Protti segment, a one-time actress named Rhonda Bell that looks more like victim Costas than her jealous executioner, portrays the teen guidette killer in a fashion that totally reeks of mundane mental derangement. Among other things, Protti seems hopelessly self-absorbed and only agrees to talk after the off-screen interviewer assures her that, due to being underage, her name won’t be leaked to the press. As to how a teenage girl can deal with being a killer, Protti stoically states that she is, “really good at blocking it out of my mind and still am […]…it doesn’t feel real.” After killing her comrade, Protti took her dog for a walk as if nothing had happened, stating of her incapacity to accept her dirty deed, “after, I was trying to get out of it by not saying it was me but I really feel it wasn’t me. It was weird, it was the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had. It was exactly like I was watching it. I was hurting her but…then I was thinking, I wonder what happened to her…and that’s when I got home. I didn’t know if she was dead or alive.” Although decrying “popularity” and “friends” as stupid, Protti attempts to blame her actions on “inferiority” problems as a result of not getting on the cheerleading team or being accepted into the yearbook club. When questioned about whether or not she has any lesbo tendencies, Protti flatly denies it in a fashion that seems somewhat suspect. After the interview, an off-screen narrator portraying Protti’s mother reveals that everyone wanted to “strangle” Costas’ killer, but they had a change of heart when the real killer was discovered.
Like with the Protti case, the friends and family of Ed Gein were rather surprised when they discovered he was a ‘cross-dressing’ necrophiliac killer that liked to wear rotten vaginas over his seemingly virginal genitals. When he was asked by a fellow named Wilimovsky why he painted one of his victim’s vaginas with aluminum paint, Gein replied, “It was getting a greenish color. I put the paint over to the see if that would preserve it.” Gein also had no problem revealing to Wilimovsky that he castrated his own cock, hence why he draped a putrid postmortem pussy over what remained of his pecker. In what is probably the most glaringly and inexplicably ‘anti-realist’ segment of the film, Gein is portrayed as a rather robust and swarthy little man named Elion Sucher who looks more like a donut-addicted Israeli pawnshop owner than a deranged Germanic dude from rural Plainfield, Wisconsin with murderous mommy issues in a docudrama scene depicting the killer’s Feburary 20, 1968 court testimony in the Waushara County Courthouse in Wautoma, Wisconsin. While confessing to killing a woman named Mary Hogan who disappeared from her cabin in 1954, Gein does not own up to killing Plainfield hardware store owner Bernice Worden on November 16, 1957 despite the fact that her mutilated and decapitated corpse was found hanging in his shed upside down, with the victim’s torso being “stretched out like a deerskin.” Like with Hogan, Gein took a special interest in Worden because she superficially resembled his mother, whose death in late 1945 inspired him to dig up elderly female corpses and engage in “insane transvestite rituals” with them. In a rather cynical yet rather effective conclusion to Landscape Suicide that some might find to be in poor taste, a hunter commits an unsimulated butchering and disemboweling of a deer in a fashion quite similar to how Gein carved up and hung Mrs. Worden. I just hope Benning was not attempting to make some sort of heavy-handed PETA-approved “meat is murder” message in what ultimately makes for a grotesquely fitting conclusion to a darkly understated film. Indeed, I think this final scene emphasizes the brutality of cold rural midwestern living and the fact that slaughtering and gutting a deer would probably not be all that different from doing the same to a human.
Out of all of the films I have ever seen, the only one that comes even close to resembling the ‘aesthetic’ essence of James Benning’s Landscape Suicide is South African auteur Aryan Kaganof’s experimental feature Ten Monologues from the Lives of the Serial Killers (1994), which takes a similar ‘avant-garde docudrama’ approach in featuring actors reciting the words of infamous killers like Edmund Emil Kemper, Ted Bundy, and Charles Manson. In its obsessive use of static shots of picturesque rural America and art fag style use of mixed media, especially magazines, the film also begs for comparison with the collage-based quasi-doc works of queer auteur William E. Jones, like Massillon (1991) and Finished (1997). Additionally, Landscape Suicide would certainly float the boat of fans of crippled American filmmaker/film theorist Stephen Dwoskin (Dyn Amo, Central Bazaar), whose approach to documentary filmmaking is at least equally thematically and aesthetically subversive, as if both men could not make a ‘populous’ film if their life depended on it. Indeed, for all those that have seen all the Gein-inspired films like Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho (1960), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Alan Ormsby’s Deranged (1974), Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and the horrid In the Light of the Moon (2000) aka Ed Gein, Benning’s flick is like a kick to the skull in slow-motion, as a work that not only deconstructs the Gein movie mythos, but demands that the viewer meditate on the most mundane aspects of the criminal case, which was clearly the director’s intention. Indeed, as the docudrama comes to an end, an off-screen narrator recites the following words from a girl that grew up in Gein's town, “I was 14-years-old when Bernice Worden was killed […] I was walking home from […] junior high school when I saw the headline on the Milwaukee Sentinel: 'Cannibalism in Wisconsin.' Mrs. Worden’s heart was found in the soft pan on the stove, but cannibalism was never substantiated,” thus highlighting the senselessly sensational tactics of the media on what was already obviously a sensational story. Of course, Landscape Suicide does the opposite of the newspaper headline by dwelling on not only the mundane nature of murder, but life in general as depicted in the various long still shots of landscapes and seemingly endless scenes of people engaged in everyday ‘suburban’ activities like playing tennis and talking on the phone. One also cannot forget that the film features a shot of a Rolling Stone magazine featuring ostensibly pretty, fake Hollywood actors John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis on the cover, as well as an intentionally humorous radio sermon from Jerry Falwell where the good reverend bashes Carl Sagan, thus underscoring the fact that American (anti)culture is as cold, barren, and inhospitable as its landscapes. In that sense, Benning’s film is as authentically ‘American’ as imaginable, as a work where the landscapes are the true characters and the void is penetrable. Indeed, after the watching the film, I was not asking myself why Protti and Gein did what they did, but why there are not more people like them. Of course, like everything else, in America, murder is committed more so for monetary reasons, with people like Protti and Gein being the exceptions, hence their interest to people. For fans of Herzog's masterpiece Stroszek (1977), which was also shot in Gein's hometown Plainfield, Wisconsin and inspired by the Bavarian auteur filmmaker's interest in the German-American serial killer (notably, Herzog intended to dig up Gein's mother's grave with documentarian Errol Morris, but the latter chickened out and never showed up), Landscape Suicide also makes a splendid and somewhat sinisterly scenic companion piece as a strangely visceral yet paradoxically oftentimes boring work that attempts to enter the real ‘heartland’ of America that Hollywood has always seen fit to ignore.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 7:17 AM
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