2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
No parking between signs:
on Sadie Benning’s Flat is Beautiful
and early works
by Burlin Barr
"I start to feel more different now — even in this room with 800 million other faces." — from If Every Girl had a Diary
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": finding a voice in the early videos
"I’ve been waiting for that day to come when I can walk the streets. People would look at me and say. That’s a dyke. If they didn’t like it, they’d fall into the center of the earth and deal with themselves." — from If Every Girl Had a Diary
"The world outside my bedroom window was brutal and needy." — from Girlpower
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:
"I realized how crazy everyone is, and
I realized what a small part I play in it.
A girl I know got hit by a drunk driver.
Her leg was broken and twisted like puddy.
It would be so easy to die.
A friend of mine got raped by a black man
Now she's a nazi racist skinhead.
You're easily trapped when you have an excuse.
My neighbor is selling crack
as my neighborhood dies dies."
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,
"I guess to be alone is to know yourself for you and not who you're with; and I like that."
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.
Flat is Beautiful: signs, texts, bodies
"It was at school, with my father, and in my own culture, that I felt most alone." — from Girlpower
Orientation in one's own changing body, one's mental world, and one's social body lies at the heart of Flat is Beautiful. The video is unique for Benning in that it is presented in the third person and is fictional (Benning's previous film, Judy Spots, shares these characteristics, but it is far briefer and less developed). The video relies heavily on actors (her first work to do so), even as it includes animation sequences (these are reserved for scenes of dreaming and day-dreaming), as well as many of Benning's trademark lyrical sequences which render the different environments (interior and exterior) that Taylor exists in. The video is unique among her works in that it renders the lyric immediacy of adolescent experience within a more distanced third person narrative, creating a dialogic text that at once maintains a distance from Taylor's world while also immersing itself closely into the details of Taylor's day-to-day experience. After creating so many video works that document adolescent anxieties with a palpable immediacy, one might wonder why Benning returned to this material a decade later. The fact that Flat is Beautiful was made by someone well beyond the adolescence both expands and limits its range. All of the earlier works offer remarkable and fresh examples of self-assertion, which include expressions of angst, anxiety, discomfort, or rebellion. Flat is Beautiful offers a candid picture of a stage in a person's development, which might include angst, anxiety, rebellion and discomfort, but the work isn't guided by the expression of those feelings. The video focuses not just on a harsh or sublime immediacy but moves toward an awareness of a person's development and changing experience over time.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the work concerns how Benning deals with the problems that emerge around the use of actors. Throughout the video, Benning uses non-professional actors, all of whom wear large, simple hand-made masks, thereby rendering the face as a graphic image rather than as a biological feature. The use of these masks emphasizes the constructed nature and provisionality of identity, and certainly contributes to the gender ambiguity that pervades the video. From the very opening of the work, we see Taylor circulating in an environment rich with conflicting prescriptions concerning race, class, gender, and sexuality. The presence of the masks immediately links each of these terms with the notion of masquerade, and it renders the notion of identities and orientations as an ongoing negotiation between perceived essences and performances. One scene of the work, for example, shows Quiggy (Taylor's gay housemate) preparing to leave home for the day and grooming in the bathroom, which entails essentially drawing on his face (mask). It is a striking image in that it links the face (one strong locus of identity) with the act of writing or drawing. The face has become text.
Flat is Beautiful presents Taylor as first and foremost circulating in a world of texts. The opening montage presents simultaneously a social and textual world, offering images of children on a playground and showing an environment rich with text in the form of signs, labels, and instructions. One of the first images presents the alphabet in the form of a grid painted onto the asphalted surface of the school playground. This grid calls to mind something akin to a surface for a game of hopscotch, but it also is reminiscent of simple charts which appear in schools for teaching numbers and letters. Much of what follows in the video speaks to a concept perhaps most succinctly phrased by filmmaker Hollis Frampton: that we learn to read in order to read instructions.
Following this early image of the alphabet are a number of image/text constellations which Taylor passes by on an ordinary, daily walk home from school. This sequence is an example, par excellence, of Benning operating in a lyric mode and rendering Taylor's social milieu. The video unambiguously emphasizes these texts, banal as they are. It doesn't emphasize any one more than the others, but presents instead the certainty that they are both plentiful and inescapable. These come in the form primarily of written signs on storefronts, billboards, and buses: Burger King, Cynthia's Hair Care, Jerry's Auto Body. One sign reads "Hang Tough Milwaukee--we can do it together," while another states, “Bag Groceries for a Living”. Upon arriving home, Taylor remains in solitude, and we follow Taylor through a series of regular and somewhat humdrum activities that we can only assume Taylor undertakes everyday: heating up something to eat, watching television, drawing, daydreaming. But here again, Taylor, in the privacy of home, is subject to a barrage of instructions and texts: from microwave oven consoles to food boxes. Mr. Coffee is in full view while Taylor heats up a Hungry Man dinner in which even the food is compartmentalized.
Taylor always is confronting signs and labels that offer advice, imperatives, prohibitions, and instructions: "checks cashed," "pay utility bills here," "no loitering." The world around Taylor — both public and private — is constantly being stabilized through these constellations of text and image, and most of these labels involve some designation of gender. If the hopscotch-like grid holding the alphabet offers a framework of open possibilities, then the video's final image — the façade for the ABC Locksmith — offers just the opposite: a fully interpellated world in which labels and signs are locked severely into place. These two images, which serve as bookends to Benning's work, also reveal the basic terms of Taylor's world — a movement from open possibility, to a social and sexual climate in which terms and identities remain fixed. But, the video also presents us with a figure (Taylor) who creatively resists these categories, and alternately much of the video presents a social world that is strictly trying to maintain its labels, but finding it impossible to do so.
Here, I must admit that it's frankly difficult to offer a summary of these first sequences, because I find myself in need of a pronoun. Taylor is androgynous and facing a crisis of sexuality and gender, and the video has never marked Taylor as male or female. Up to this point, the video has offered a narrative in which sexual difference is not a driver (that in itself is an unusual feat in the cinema — even in experimental works such as Benning's). Importantly though, we have seen gender codes attached to other minor "characters" in the story — be they burger joints, prepared dinners, salons, appliances, or car shops (Burger King, Mr. Coffee, etc). But Taylor's crisis is best exemplified in the following scene, when, just having completed her Hungry Man dinner, s/he gets a call from a friend at school, Julie (with whom Taylor is infatuated):
"Julie: Taylor, it's me Julie. your girlfriend (with a slight sarcastic tone)
Julie: That's what everyone is telling me
Julie: You're not a boy.
Taylor: What am I then?"
Julie: You're a girl stupid
Taylor: No I'm not
Julie: Then what are you"?
That question ends the conversation, as Taylor nervously kicks his/her foot in silence. To Julie’s first assertions about her gender, Taylor responds, “No I’m not,” and denies being a girl. But more importantly, Taylor pauses after Julie's final question. Taylor seems to be more comfortable as "not a boy" than as a "girl", and it is as if Taylor is positing, or certainly grasping for, one or more new genders: boy, girl, not a boy, and not a girl.
We are eight minutes into the video when Taylor discovers that she is having her period, and spectators of the work are offered the so-called "stability" of knowing Taylor's sex. Yet, for me as a viewer and for many other viewers of the video, this knowledge comes as a bit of a disappointment — an overt narrowing of a heretofore rich and open field of narrative possibilities. I do not mention this as a critique of Benning's work.
On the contrary, with this abrupt narrative turn this video highlights the preponderance of narratives which require an overt stabilization of gender identity and sexual difference. I use the term “narratives” here in its broadest sense, to include not only fictional and non-fictional texts, but also micro-narratives — the kinds of stories affixed to commodities and institutions that guide individuals through their day-to-day activities. So the menses scene comes as a narrative shock that calls attention to extrinsic norms concerning narrative coherence and gender stability. But it also forwards many narrative concerns that Benning has set up in the first minutes of the video. Taylor's response to the discovery signals a sense of alienation from and resigned acceptance of her own body. She holds her head in her hands and says, "I don't know what I'm going to do." The statement resonates in different registers. Is this her first period? Does she not know how to care for herself? Or, after her conversation with Julie in which she denied being a boy, a girl, and a not boy, she now is confronted with an inescapable biology, and her response is one of uncertainty and disappointment. The video then offers a brief montage of the bathroom — the sink, the light switch, the towel rack — as if Taylor, in a state of uncertainty, is taking in her surroundings. Taylor's mother arrives home at this moment and without acknowledging Taylor, she begins watching television and eating junk food, oblivious to anything Taylor may be going through. Taylor then matter-of-factly places a napkin in her underwear (as if it were a familiar activity), mutters "dammit," and after a pause, in an exasperated, impatient, and bothered tone says, "Oh god."
This is not the only scene of bodily awkwardness in the video. A love scene involving Taylor's mother and her new boyfriend is embarrassingly sustained and awkward, as it shows the two clutching and tussling on the couch, pulling apart, and then coming together again (a scene that Taylor appears to act out with dolls at another point in the video). Taylor's gay housemate, Quiggy, expounds at one point on the insufficiency of his physique. These moments in the video affirm that discomfort in the body are not unique to adolescence, but that adolescence is the gateway to a host of conflicting concerns regarding sexuality, body image, and desire. Taylor, as I discuss further below, has her own set of anxieties about bodyimage, as she imagines having or yearns for masculine physical qualities which she does not possess. In Girlpower, Benning talks about this dynamic in a more diaristic mode:
"When I was a kid. I took my shirt off, imagining I was just as sexy and as powerful as when Matt Dillon did it for the centerfold of Teen Beat magazine. I rode my big wheel down the street pretending I was Eric Estrada, rushing on my motorcycle to save the life of some girl who desperately needed to be rescued."
By shifting into the third person, Benning is able to present unease with the body as part of a broader social discourse and not strictly as an individual psychological state. Taylor's scene of menses presents simultaneously a sense of both surprise, alienation, and familiarity; Taylor's body appears to be hers and not. And this tension is duplicated in the film with other characters and in other scenarios. It plays out especially by use of the masks, as the actors wear oversized, cardboard constructs. The actors (many of which are children) appear to move comfortably in these masks, even as the masks present spectators of the video with a profound effect of alienation. Although the playground scenes involving the children are narratively insignificant (since nothing "happens" in those scenes), they do offer an acute awareness of body and they present an unusual combination of both physical gracefulness and gawkiness.
There is one scene of blissful physicality in the video: Quiggy's sexual rendezvous with the mailman. This sexually graphic scene counterpoints the awkwardly amorous scene between Taylor's mother and her boyfriend, and these two scenes are the only examples of adult sexuality in the work. Quiggy's scene conforms to none of the mass-mediated images of sexuality to which Taylor is exposed, whereas the scene with her mother does. These two scenes are also noteworthy in that they both violate the structural logic of the video that is, for the most part, centered on Taylor, and which offers us images, sounds and events that she witnesses. Why present events that Taylor doesn't see? Primarily, it shows how adult behavior (whether in the form of sexual liaisons or of watching television and eating junk food) remains part of Taylor's environment. Although much of the video appears to offer Taylor's point-of-view, it rarely is presented in the structure of a look. Taylor remains a passive witness for much of the work, although there is a prominent shift in roughly the final third, when she expresses impatience and anger with her father and when she seeks out Quiggy to affirm and validate her emergent lesbianism.
In the first half of the video, at the very least, she is a sponge taking in numerous conflicting messages from her environment and she telegraphs these messages even as she is trying to create her own script. The love scene involving her mother (Peggy), isn't witnessed by Taylor, but it is structured into the video so that it is unambiguously folded into Taylor's world:
Taylor occupies a space of subjectivity that lies somewhere between witness and participant. In my reading, the video joins other works (such as Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7) that present a transformation in agency. Just as other writers and artists have asked, "what happens when the woman looks," Benning is asking "what happens when the child looks," or when the teenager looks, speaks, and listens?
In the first parts of the video, Taylor frequently is rendered as little more than an ear or an eye — overhearing, witnessing — and not directly addressed unless it is in the form of instruction or with a tone of impatience. For example, she overhears her mother talking on the phone, but her mother rarely speaks to her. This state of liminal subjectivity is sustained in part by the fact that Taylor is the object of various shades of parental neglect. After waking from a nightmare early in the morning, she calls her mother for comfort and companionship, yet her mother's efforts at verbal consolation are infantilizing and clearly do not connect with Taylor. During the course of the video, Taylor has two conversations with her absentee father (who is divorced from Taylor's mother). He likewise, exhibits no understanding of Taylor's personal interests or her developmental period, and simultaneously condescends to her while pretending to speak to her as an adult peer.
Both parents speak to Taylor in a way inappropriate for her age, both worry obsessively about money (further exasperating the intense class-consciousness which combines with the other forms of often paralyzing self-consciousness to which Taylor is subjected). When Taylor does begin to "look" and "listen" in a new way, it takes the form of acts of resistance and, more importantly, of positive assertion. She rebuts her father, but she also turns to Quiggy for advice. On her own initiative, she speaks with him concerning her attraction for Julie.
So Taylor’s comment in her telephone conversation with Julie (discussed above) is crucial: she states, “No I’m not.” It's the first statement of resistance in the video. Although, the first section of the video strongly emphasizes the fact that Taylor is always reading and always confronted with texts, Benning also foregrounds a number of image/text combinations that propose conflicted or alternate models of reading, that offer broader options for social and sexual identity, and that open the door to subtle acts of resistance. Presented by Benning in the form of static shots of signs, store fronts, or facades, these texts don’t exactly say, “No I’m not,” but they do reveal cracks, faults, and contradictions in the idealized identities pervasive in mass culture.
Several images, for example, offer starkly conflicted renderings of the notion of "home." One is a mural painted on a public space depicting a domestic interior, and the other is the exterior of a dilapidated house. Taylor passes both of these sites on her daily walk home from school. Both of these sites have been marked. The mural offers an artistic rendering of a living room — it presents an idealized, even fantasized, space that has been marked over by graffiti. The house — inaccessible, boarded up and abandoned — also has been graffitied. Benning's video calls attention to the entire surface in these images — capturing together both the original façade and the markings which have accumulated on and refashioned the original. These transformed surfaces, which reference the notion of "home," are clear analogues to Taylor's own sense of home, which also has been fractured and re-cast. Benning presents us with a large number of such image/text combinations depicting the histories that have been literally scrawled across different surfaces.
The emphasis is on the effect of palimpsest and the creation of a layered and de-centered image. The image of the living room, for example, has not been “defaced” by the grafitti, rather, the “face” has been added to and changed. It’s true that the original “ideal of the home” has been eroded, but it becomes clear that that is just the point. These images embody, in very concrete ways, the layered nature of such concepts as “home.” And as Taylor tries to feel at home in her own living space and in her own skin, she must undertake a form of archeology to sift through the accretions of feeling and meaning that she is constantly seeing, reading, and responding to. In short, to come to terms with the layered and fluid aspects of her psycho-sexual world, Taylor improvises and plays with various components of her identity and her environment. She constantly marks them, changes them, and places them into unexpected combinations. As Freud writes of child’s play, the child
“creates a world of his own, or, rather, re-arranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him. . . . he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it.”
We witness this sense of play and improvisation in several scenes which feature Taylor alone in her room. We see her daydreaming (dreams which the video screens for us), playing video games, and interacting with dolls and other toys. This sense of play — even play with the very commodified objects which may limit and contain her subjectivity (such as Barbie dolls) — can in fact become a form of resistance or questioning, as she tries out unlikely combinations to test the possibility of taboo relationships and of breaking through prohibitions of race and sexuality.
Her play also expresses ambivalence about subjects she is supposed to be enthusiastic about. She produces a drawing of two lovers that clearly echo an image she has seen on television, in which gender difference is clearly marked. But in her drawing, she adds almost as an afterthought the curves that bestow femininity on one figure. Another brief and fascinating sequence shows her acting out an exchange between a Barbie doll and a Mr. T action figure. Taylor holds Mr. T and Barbie close together, as if they are locked in a passionate embrace. As the dolls kiss and tussle ( a clear re-enactment of her mother's amorous behavior), she melodramatically voices the following dialogue between them:
"Barbie: Oh I love you.
Mr. T: You’re so ugly, how can you do this to me.
Barbie: Because you love me.
Mr. T: No I don’t. I hate you. You’re so ugly, I can’t stand it. Get out of my face now. I have a new love.
Barbie: Darling, who is your new love? Please love me. I don’t know what I’d do without you. You have so much more money than me."
It’s a strangely conflicted scene in which we see Taylor both at the mercy of and trying to break free from social prescriptions of beauty, attractiveness, femininity, masculinity, race and class. The substitution of the seemingly brutish and black Mr. T for the more socially accepted Ken, the fundamental questioning of Barbie’s beauty, the helplessness of Barbie in the face of rejection, and the concern about being self-sufficient all combine to show how Taylor is being pulled contradictory directions.
Her daydreams, which entail fantasies of romantic connection with Julie, reveal similar qualities of clarity, originality, and confusion. One sequence emphasizes classic features of masculinity, such as strong muscles, which Taylor believes she must possess in order for Julie — a girl — to be attracted to her. Taylor, in part, believes she must possess the most highly circulated masculine characteristics — in body and self-presentation — in order to attain her fantasies. But Taylor is surrounded by conflicting models of gender identity, and she seems at least intuitively aware that these stories about masculinity and femininity do not form a coherent whole which one can easily emulate.
Taylor, in fact, has been surrounded with multiple contradictions and almost laughable attempts to stabilize meaning around a set of supposedly shared ideals. This image of a fantasy shining car, follows an image of a much less spectacular, real one, parked beneath a sign reading “Alive with Pleasure.” Similarly, an image of a worn-down store front, which advertises European Design, encapsulates a vivid contradiction between — on the one hand — aspirations for upward mobility and good taste, and — on the other hand — social immobility and kitsch. The video is quite relentless in its attempt to show the extraordinary cultural saturation to which Taylor is subjected, and which emphasizes a combination of sexual stability, financial stability, and subsequent happiness. This stability of identity remains, however, a fragile construct, as ephemeral and transparently fabricated as the aforementioned gleaming and cartoonish automobile. These images foreground how cultural and individual fantasies may overlap or radically clash.
There are many fantasy spaces in the video, some generated by Taylor, some emerging from mass culture, and some handed down from family and friends. Most emerge from a combination of these sources. This space of fantasy is another important milieu for Taylor, just as important as any of the physical spaces that the video renders. We witness her feeling both safe and uneasy with these fantasies, and also we see her coming to terms with the certainty that some of these fantasies are fraudulent or untenable. In my viewing of the video, I note that the work invites us to look through the cultural fantasies into their ideological underpinnings. Benning already was working in this direction in A Place Called Lovely, where she states,
"My grandmother always wanted me to be like one of those sweet little whitegirls, who was some people’s dream of what was right in the world. That scared me too."
Benning's dis-ease with a presumably benevolent wish demonstrates a deep suspicion of cultural fantasies anchored in predispositions concerning race, demeanor, sexuality, gender, and class — all of which are subtly called into question in Flat is Beautiful. Taylor's environment is suffused with these fantasies and narratives, some of which she resists, other of which she seems to absorb. While sitting quietly in her room, Taylor plays a boxing video game that pits a black opponent versus a white one, and she watches monster trucks on television (neither of which are stereotypical activities for a young girl). And, surrounded by posters of Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Kung Fu fighters, Taylor overhears her mother listening to a television talk show concerning a transsexual who is confronting his family. He states,
"There are people who feel they are trapped in a different body. I feel like a boy; I never felt like a girl. I felt like a freak.”
The talk show host responds: “why didn't you ever go for help?” This person’s dilemma (which mirrors many of Taylor’s anxieties) is transformed into a media spectacle. Taylor wanders through a maze of such messages in public and private spaces — in fact, there is little or no break between these two realms, since we witness all of these messages as they are piped into her home as spectacles or brought into it in commodified form. As previously stated, the bedroom is the privileged physical setting in most of the works, but this space is filled and permeated with images, texts, objects, and sounds. As cited in the epigraph of this essay, Benning states in If Every Girl had a Diary,
"I start to feel more different now — even in this room with 800 million other faces."
Taylor does, however, “go for help,” although not in the form that the talk show host may have implied. Taylor comes to some position of comfort by moving beyond the idealized bounds of the nuclear family, when she interrupts Quiggy's bath to speak with him about sexual desire. In their brief, awkward conversation Taylor quite simply, but circuitously, asks Quiggy what he would think if Taylor had “a girlfriend the way he has boyfriends.” Their conversation, though brief and almost without content, offers sufficient verification of Taylor’s physical, psychological, and emotional inclinations that she seems comfortable in her skin and mind.
After this exchange, she doesn’t feel like a “freak,” and can further improvise with the materials around her to fashion an identity that departs from — even as she borrows from — the inflexible and contradictory certainties of identity offered by mass culture. One of the simplest depictions of Taylor comes after this encounter, near the end of the video, when she sits quietly and intently playing a video game which perfectly renders her position of near social powerlessness and limited agency. The game involves a simple, flat, featureless figure navigating through a narrow maze that opens up before it--never opening to a long view, but at least opening up to simple new options. The figure moves inexorably forward through a maze of corridors and small rooms. The virtual space and movement of this game mirrors any number of public or private navigations that Taylor undertakes on a daily basis.
It’s important to make note of one of Benning’s principle technical innovations in this work and to consider how it successfully contributes to the video’s subject matter. Flat is Beautiful is shot using both 16mm film and Pixelvision. By shifting from one medium to the other, Benning combines the fascinatingly grainy quality of Pixelvision with the clarity of 16mm film, thereby calling attention to the graphic quality of all of the images and resisting the apparent transparency of photographic realism. The use of Pixelvision utterly prohibits something like a “glamour” shot, a prohibition that is fundamentally important to this work. When the Pixelvision camera captures the glossy and glamorous poster of Madonna that adorns Taylor’s bedroom wall, the result is an image totally void of content. We see only a pose and a body; we can recognize a genre of objectification, beauty, and glamour but can’t experience the image as a commodity. Through Pixelvision the poster frankly looks absurd, and is exposed as a product. It no longer serves as an icon for conveying ideals of beauty or sexuality but conveys empty form.
Multiple resonances surround the title of the video, and they all have emerged, at least indirectly, by looking at and listening to specific sequences. "Flatness" is pervasive in the work. Many aspects of the film are visually flat and rendered as single depthless plane: the masks worn by the actors, the storefronts rendered to us head-on from a single unmoving camera position, the screen images from Taylor's video games, and the posters in her room. The video's short, yet striking, animation sequences involve flat hand-drawn images. In effect, much of the environment of the video is presented as a flat plane, and this narrowness of vision directly corresponds with the limitations on Taylor's view of her surroundings. These limitations are both imposed by outside sources (the conceptually flat images of gender and sexuality perpetrated in the mass-media) but also sympathetically correspond to Taylor in a developmental sense. She is on the cusp of profound physical, psychological, and emotional change, but cannot yet see the "depth" of the transformations she is beginning to experience. The title also resonates with the body politics of the film, especially in the scene in which Taylor, while drawing a picture, adds on curves to the female body. As a "flat" tween, Taylor does not yet identify with the mass-mediated images of womanliness, which don't mirror her body in any respect.
As a final note on the work’s formal texture, I call attention to the fact that in most shots of this video there’s something to read, and very few frames of this video are without some kind of interaction or tension between word and image. The video also includes several animation sequences that combine photographs, drawings, and written text, with no image type ever assuming a position of primacy. They are always overlapping, and working together or against one another — in effect, defacing one another.
Benning appears to have gone out of her way to disrupt semiotic hierarchies and to eradicate the clarity and assurance so often created through photographic realism. To view this work, is (much like Taylor’s own experience) to engage in an archeological sifting of image types and to be confronted with different systems of representation in various states of emergence, stasis, and even dysfunction.
I conclude by referencing another image from the last sequence of the film. Here we have an image of what’s perhaps best described as broken language. The captions no longer work. We can read a history in this image — it's easy to see, at least in part, what the signs once said. But we can't understand it entirely. And yet this image of gaps, losses, and eroded or diminished meaning is perhaps one of the most compelling in the film. We can perhaps regard it as an analogue to Taylor, as it embodies the history and possibilities even of a young 11-year old child. Taylor already has been chipped and battered so-to-speak, but she also is learning to re-imagine and re-write her scripts. She already is a ruin; but at the same time, she’s a new being slowly emerging into a new kind of present.
1. Released in 1998 and available from Video Data Bank, which distributes all of Benning's early works. Flat is Beautiful runs 50 minutes.
2. Quote by Kim Knowles (University of Edinburgh, UK): “Reading the Cinema: Text as Image in the Films of Hollis Frampton and Peter Rose,” The Language of Images: An International, Interdisciplinary Conference on Text and Image, March 29-30, 2007 at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, CT.
3. Here Taylor would relish the words of John Cage who playfully stated, “There are not just males and females, there are 80 kinds of males and 175 kinds of females” quoted by Carolyn Brown, Chance and Circumstance (NY: Knopf, 2007), p. 520.
4. Having taught the work several times, I've seen more than a few students indicate disappointment after this moment of overt stabilization.
5. Freud, Sigmund, “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,”in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay, Norton, NY (1989) p. 437.
Videoworks by Sadie Benning
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