Most of the videos feature a combination of voice and written text. Here, three stills, from Living Inside that form part of the phrase “My neighbor is selling crack.”
The camera slowly pans across these words.
The text is usually handwritten and remains part of the environment that Benning is rendering.
Benning’s videos are populated with objects that help her to render her surroundings or that comment on or act out ideas presented in voice-over and written text.
The dolls from Jollies allow Benning to express and to act out forbidden lesbian desire.
The snow globe from A New Year provides one example of how Benning uses simple objects that work in counterpoint with ideas and motifs in the video. The snow globe is a self-enclosed world that references both entrapment and a fantasy world to escape into.
All of the videos use extreme close ups of the body, especially the face. These two images of the eye from Me and Ruby Fruit and It Wasn’t Love are representative of images from many of the early videos.
The extreme close ups tend to draw attention to a sensory relation with—or basic orientation toward—one’s surroundings, creating an often haptic quality in the videos.
These images of an ear ...
Windows feature prominently throughout the videos. These two images from Living Inside show the window as little more than an aperture or a brilliance.
The windows dually reference a sense of entrapment and the possibility of escape.
Images of companionship and...
Two stills from It wasn’t Love show Benning as femme...
... and butch. In this video Benning comfortably and playfully takes on a variety of gendered performances.
by Burlin Barr
Of the many works that experimental film and video artist Sadie Benning completed during the 1990s, Flat is Beautiful  [open endnotes in new window] certainly is the most ambitious and sustained. Like Benning's shorter, earlier works, Flat is Beautiful offers a remarkable and multi-layered depiction of interior life, dealing with private fantasy as well as life inside the home. In fact, much of the video takes place in the bedroom of the principle character, Taylor, a youth of eleven or twelve years of age. Benning shot many of her early video works in her own bedroom, lending them an air of both comfortable protection and oppressive entrapment. These qualities certainly pervade Flat is Beautiful, as Taylor, poised between childhood and adolescence, tries to make sense of the conflicts between myriad desires — socially prescribed ones as well as those arising from Taylor's own psycho-sexual biography. The line between these two realms is, of course, fraught, changing, and uncertain, and Benning portrays this world of queer (or not) adolescence with all the richness and originality that Douglas Sirk brought to his depictions of ambivalence and forbidden desire in the melodramas of the 50s.
In this essay I discuss Flat is Beautiful in the context of Benning's earlier video works — a complete listing of which is appended to this essay. By looking at the video in the context of Benning's other works, I survey some of the methods, motifs, and videographic textures that extend throughout these fascinating and rich videos. All of the earlier works are short forms (between 6 and 20 minutes in length), and they share a highly confessional, diaristic, and often emotionally raw quality, as they feature Benning speaking to and performing for the camera in a variety of ways. The earlier videos combine voice-over with the presentation of handwritten script, creating a sense of dialogue or multi-vocality within a divided or conflicted persona. The voice's immediacy works in counterpoint with the handwritten text, which is visually assembled at a slow pace as the camera pans across the words.
In visual terms, these early video works are filled with simple artifacts and detritus from everyday life, as Benning presents and manipulates household objects, toys, and printed materials. Benning effectively transforms these objects into simple installations or works them into brief performances that play off of her spoken and written musings in both direct and indirect ways. Music plays a similar role, as it comments and expands on moods, ideas, or concepts that have emerged in Benning's spoken or written texts. Several of the works, especially It wasn't Love, feature elaborate musical soundtracks that all but dominate the tone of the work. In summary, these videos combine voice, writing, elements of mise-en-scene, and music to create short film poems or diaristic expressions.
For the most part, these works were shot with a Fisher Price Pixelvision toy camera, which recorded images and sounds onto audio cassettes (Benning's three later videos — including Flat is Beautiful — contain footage shot in 16mm film as well). The quality of image produced by the Fisher Price camera (due to both the simplicity of the lens and the medium of recording) is both coarse and pixilated (hence the name), yet Benning uses this "limit" to great effect in depicting the private and personal life of an adolescent or young adult. Images shot with this toy camera appear very "near-sighted"; correspondingly, Benning creates a visual world that hovers between intimate closeness and a visual narrowness bordering on myopia. Yet, this nearsightedness is not one of intolerance (in fact, most of the videos launch polemics against social and sexual intolerance — a result of Benning's perception of her own social liminality). Rather, the exploration of a girl's private world helps to render the multiple dynamics of emergence and/or inwardness that so inform adolescent and young adult life. These works are rife with examples of emergence:
Flat is Beautiful is almost entirely devoted to a presentation of Taylor (the tape's main character) as an emergent subject: as someone attempting to come to terms with him/herself in a world of racial, class, and sexual prescriptions and prohibitions.
In summary, spectators of these videos are asked to engage with them in a variety of ways:
"Crawling the walls":
At one point in her fourth video, If Every Girl Had a Diary, Benning casually states "It's only been a year ago that I crawled the walls." As stated earlier, the private space that Benning renders frequently assumes claustrophobic and oppressive qualities — reinforced by the depthlessness of the pixelvision image and the persistent use of extreme close ups.
Her first video, A New Year, briefly features images of a snow globe as it is shaken up and the simulated snow flurry encircles the two figures housed in the tiny sphere. It is a compelling image and perfectly illustrates how Benning uses simple objects and elements of mise-en scene to great effect as the object resonates with other ideas and motifs in the video. At times this resonance can be straightforward as it simply reinforces a stated (or implied) idea or feeling. At other times these elements of mise-en scene become supercharged with meaning. In this case, the snow globe is an isolated chamber that resonates strongly with the sense of entrapment and domestic confinement, but it carries other overtones as well. It also resembles an ideal setting, a protected fantasy space — a space to escape into. The text of the video (there's no spoken voice in this work, only a very spare handwritten script) certainly references two poles of experience — public and private — and both poles appear to be simultaneously overwhelming and confining. The script below constitutes the majority of the handwritten text, and brief as it is, it unfolds (in conjunction with numerous images) over 4-5 minutes of the video:
This brief text invokes, first of all, a broad public sphere ("I realized what a small part I play in it"), a neighborhood, as well as an unelaborated sense of the local — which also is a space of violence, sexual violence, and racism. Yet, the video "takes place," so to speak, in the privacy of Benning's bedroom, where she encounters an outside by means of a television (which is screening a game show at the beginning of the video) and newsprint. In this first tape, then, we are introduced to what remains perhaps the most important and persistent quality of Benning's works. Pervasive throughout her works, she emphasizes the rendering a strong sense of milieu.
The settings or milieus don't just provide a context for narrative action; they are the tapes' primary material. From the bedroom, to the shared family space, to the schoolyard, to parking lots and porches, to fantasized spaces, to named cities, to a larger and more generalized public sphere, Benning painstakingly presents these spheres of activity and ponders her (or her characters') place in them. The videos centrally concern the question of orientation in these physical spaces, social spheres, and psycho-social terrains. Although most spectators correctly recognize Benning's videos as exemplary meditations on the subject of sexual orientation, I maintain that the videos together concern multiple orientations of identification and desire. They present these multiple orientations as a dynamic process and an ongoing work, rather than a fixed state that one discovers and then lives.
I take up this point more extensively below when I more closely examine Flat is Beautiful, yet the problem of orientation is present from the first moment of the first video. Through the use of pervasive extreme close ups, the video places a pronounced visual emphasis on eye, ear, nose, mouth (teeth, lips, and tongue) and hands, thereby calling attention to a basic sensory interaction with the environment.
The camera is often uncannily close to its subject. Glimpses of an entire face are either non-existent, or both brief and rare in the early videos (there is no sustained shot of an entire face until the fourth video). The early tapes especially tend to eschew the creation and centrality of narrative or character. Rather, they offer a montage of image and sound that presents an often richly layered environment, consisting not only of clearly identifiable objects but also presenting more abstractly texture, sound, shape, and light. These videos are emphatically made in a lyric mode with their presentation of an "I" or quite literally an "eye" (a frequently repeated image) — a thinking, feeling, reacting subject — present in a dynamic space. Many of the sequences which crosscut between the body and the environment create an intensely haptic effect, and the foregrounding especially of the visual and tactile senses places the spectator at times in an almost infantile position — with attention directed to texture, light, and shape. In this regard, the videos focus on orientation and disorientation in a physical space. Questions of social and psychological orientation follow.
There are other recurrent motifs (be they acoustic, visual, or conceptual) that extend throughout the works, from the earliest videos (created when Benning was 15 or 16 years old) to Flat is Beautiful (completed a decade later). Windows, for example, appear in almost every work and to different ends. In the earlier videos, the window appears as little more than a rectangular aperture: a brilliance; a white shape surrounded in darkness, identifiable as a window but also appearing as a strong sensory and graphic element. In these early videos, the window, appropriately, operates in a profoundly liminal space, assuming both semiotic and sensory value. It frequently reads as a longing for escape, as a yearning for an outside, but it also seems to anchor a closed and confined space with brightness. The windows pull toward the within and the without. If, in the early works (such as A New Year or Living Inside), the window works solely as an aperture, in later videos we actually see past the window and focus on objects in the exterior world.
This movement from inner to outer is facilitated through other aspects of the video works as well. The first four tapes (though they mention different individuals) are entirely in the first person — signaled by voice-over or hand-scrawled text which the camera pans across. Even the written text — appearing on school notepads, money, or sometimes a transparent sheet suspended in the room — remains part of the environment and linked to the body, and text never assumes a non-diegetic, exterior, and privileged space as is often the case with intertitles. Later videos are in first person but often dwell at length on another's presence: A Place called Lovely, for example, concerns a bullying acquaintance named Ricky Lugo, and It wasn't Love involves a liaison with an unnamed woman. Only with Judy Spots (1995) and Flat is Beautiful is there a categorical shift to third person, in which a fully-formed character replaces the "I" that so dominates the earlier films. Benning's fourth video, If Every Girl Had a Diary continues the highly personal and confessional mode established in the first videos, but there is a new self-awareness present here — evident in the title itself, which refers to a sense of comfort and empowerment in finding one's voice. At one point in video, she states,
Here Benning is being less reactive and more reflective — expressing a level of comfort in her own mind. Through the course of these videos, Benning as well as her characters (as she slowly shifts from diaristic to fictional modes) begin to express increased comfort, and even pleasure, in their own minds, with their bodies, and as part of a social body.
It wasn't Love begins with a unambiguously blissful sequence in which two young women stand before the camera — embracing and dancing. This work clearly concerns two individuals and their bond rather than a single lyric speaker. In telling the story of an unsanctioned attraction, it begins to demystify and deconstruct master narratives about love and desire, even as it is utterly devoted to a narrative about love and desire. The video, moreover, shows Benning comfortably and playfully performing different gendered roles. A phenomenal sequence from It wasn't Love perfectly combines the almost infantile near-sightedness of many of the early videos with a broader field of experience. The narrator states that the two young women "make out" in the parking lot of a fried chicken restaurant. The visual sequence that accompanies the scene of kissing involves extreme close-ups of Benning sucking her thumb with the lens of the camera cupped in the palm, very close to Benning's mouth. It is a both disorienting and erotic sequence that dually refers to an infantile oral pleasure and adult sexuality. With Flat is Beautiful, Benning dwells at greater length on the transitional and liminal moment of adolescence, as we see Taylor becoming more comfortable and more confident in her/his mind and body.