In ”Him and Me,” at the Film Forum, James Benning, one of our more highly regarded experimental film makers, appears to be looking back over his life, from the 1950’s to the 80’s, recalling it in terms of public events and private sorrows, landscapes, streets, music and colors.
I emphasize the word ”appears” because ”Him and Me” makes no attempt to be coherent in any conventional sense. The film is composed of dozens of sometimes startlingly beautiful fragments of images and sounds, involving people who are never identified, sometimes accompanied by off-screen voices that may take the form of first-person reminiscences or of inconclusive conversations.
Some of the facts that are not in question: the film maker lived a number of years in the Middle West, attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and played an active role in the civil-rights movement.
Mr. Benning’s photography recalls the eerie clarity and brilliance of the work of Raoul Coutard on Jean-Luc Godard’s early color films. There is an especially stunning, uninterrupted pan along a SoHo street focusing on the facades, which is so good in itself that it looks as if it had been commissioned by American Preservation. In another segment, Mr. Benning, in a helicopter, flies the length of Manhattan, which he films in one extended, unbroken take of dreamlike intensity.
In the fragments of ”narrative” scenes there are references to a young man named Dan who died in his sleep, in bed next to his girlfriend, from undisclosed causes. In another sequence we hear a long excerpt from the Army-McCarthy hearings. This is so vivid that it has the effect of making everything else in the film look more inconsequential than need be.
”Him and Me” is an unusually handsome film as well as a bafflement. I’ve no idea what the form means or where it might lead.
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