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'You Think You've Been There':
A Conversation with James Benning about Easy Rider (2012)  

Alison Butler


James Benning’s films have always been difficult to classify. Although structure is a major concern in most of them, they are not structural films; despite their preoccupation with landscape and ecology, they are not environmental tracts; some can be described as documentaries, although the layering of text, image and sound, and – since his conversion to digital – the use of compositing often tips them from fact into fiction. Benning’s recent ventures into found footage filmmaking (with Youtube Trilogy and Faces in 2011 and The War in 2012), and now his 2012 remake of Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), have been seen as radically new departures in his work, but in fact they foreground a practice that he has engaged in since the 1970s: replication. This takes various forms in his films, including appropriating texts and objects, recycling or referencing bits of his previous films, and making works that revisit earlier works or experiences. Revisiting and recycling can produce complex temporal schemes that combine the historical time of a place or object with the time spent by Benning in observation, exploring the capacity of film, as a time-based medium, to reconstruct or even retrieve the past time registered by landscapes and artifacts (most notably in casting a glance [2007]). His art projects beyond filmmaking have revealed his love of American folk art, in the copies he has made of pictures by Henry Darger, Martín Ramirez, Bill Traylor, Mose Tolliver and others, and in the craft skills he employs, including building and quilting.


Benning’s practice of copying as a way of making and learning is not the pastiche of the postmodernist, but the apprenticeship of the folk artist, for whom originality sits side by side with eccentricity. The notion of the ‘outsider’ knits together Benning’s admiration of these artists with his interest in oppositional politics, counter-culture and criminal psychology. Near his home in the Sierra Nevada mountains he has built two cabins, replicas of those inhabited by Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond and Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) in Montana, creating a dialogue between the transcendentalist and the terrorist. As in his film American Dreams (1984), the simple act of juxtaposition creates surprising resonances between a hero and a psychopath. And, just as the first person discourse of American Dreams allows spectators to read the diary entries of the failed assassin Arthur Bremer as if they might be the intimate thoughts of the filmmaker himself, so Benning has an oblique personal investment in Kaczynski’s story: both men were born in 1942 and both began adult life as students of mathematics (there but for the grace of god …). Copying and comparing are generative logics in Benning’s work, ways of making things, but also ways of situating himself, as an artist and as an American, as a figure in a landscape.


Benning’s Easy Rider is a film that takes stock, measuring change over a period of more than forty years. Retracing the journey made by Wyatt and Billy in 1968, the film pays attention to the landscape in the first instance, noting the changes that have taken place, but also looking and listening in a way that Hopper’s film does not. Working with digital editing software, Benning uploaded the original film onto a computer and replaced each scene with a single shot. With no actors, his film stars the original locations or equivalents chosen for practical, aesthetic and critical reasons. The soundtrack mixes ambient sound from these locations with samples of the earlier film’s soundtrack, creating acoustically haunted landscapes. The semiotic reduction that results from replacing each scene with a single shot allows certain themes and motifs to emerge more prominently than in the original film, as well as enabling Benning to place his own interpretation on the bikers’ journey and its conflagrant end. The road movie joins a long American tradition, running through 19th and 20th century literature and the Hollywood Western, of favouring traveling over settling. As Thomas Wolfe and Nicholas Ray would have it, ‘You Can't Go Home Again’. Benning picks up on this cultural and historical dichotomy and, in our conversation, criticises the bikers for their ingratitude to their hosts and their lack of respect for the commitment made by those who put down roots. A prominent system in the film features various dwellings in which people might live, each with its own socio-economic and historical implications. But while Benning may respect community and commitment to place, his camera behaves like a latter-day Huck Finn, continually lighting out for the territory. The only interior shots are quotations from the original; Benning shot no interiors. In the scene at the commune, a restless Hopper says: ‘If we’re going, we’re going, let’s go’. To remain free, it may be necessary to stay outside. This restlessness inevitably raises the most political question for contemporary Americans: the conflict between freedom, as embodied by the open road, and responsibility, particularly towards the environment. Pulling away from the original’s solipsistic concern with sex, drugs and death, Benning confronts this issue in the devastating conclusion of his film.


This interview was conducted at Benning’s home in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in October 2012, and revised in correspondence. After a few general questions, the discussion follows the format of the remake, shot by shot, and is presented in the form of a shooting script.


Alison Butler: Easy Rider is such an important reference point for your generation, and perhaps particularly so for you, given the amount of time you’ve spent on the road as a filmmaker, some of it on a motorcycle and much of it in the West. Scott MacDonald even calls North on Evers (1992) your Easy Rider. So it seems fitting for you to have re-made the film. Could you talk a little bit about what Easy Rider meant to you when you first saw it, and what you think of it now?


James Benning: Well it’s hard for me to remember my first reaction to Easy Rider, that’s over forty years ago. I do remember I was happy to see a film that used a lot of music that I was listening to at the time. This had never happened before. I also remember thinking that the portrayal of the hippie commune seemed to be bit one-dimensional, perhaps even cliché, and I do definitely remember being saddened by the killings. I also hadn’t done a lot of travelling up to that time and it somewhat awakened a wanderlust in me. I moved every year for the next twenty years. Today I don’t have a whole lot of respect for the film. It just keeps moving, never really looking deeply into anything, never trying to find any real alternatives. It’s very Christian and capitalistic … the big score and the easy way out. Two things I’ve never been interested in. Except for that beautiful speech on being free, the main characters are completely apolitical. The film verifies Malcolm X’s manifesto that drug use is anti-revolutionary. And for a film made in the late 1960s about the counter-culture, it’s a bit shocking that the word Vietnam is never mentioned.


AB: I watched it again recently, and was surprised that a film I’d remembered as vital and energetic now seemed listless and lacking in hope. And their dream is such a small one, they really just want to make enough money to retire in Florida. I saw a documentary on television about Americans who sell up and live in their RVs – it’s a lifestyle, they all meet up at campsites. Maybe that’s what Wyatt and Billy would be doing now if they’d lived.


But your film doesn’t obviously base itself in this kind of critique. It starts with a structure, and the ideas emerge from that. Maybe we should follow this pattern and you could begin by explaining the system of the film, its organising principles?


JB: I used the same organising strategy for Easy Rider as I used for my remake of Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968): that is, I made each of my films the same length as the original films with the same amount (and length) of scenes, respectively. For Faces I copied close-ups from Cassavetes’ film and replaced each scene with these close-ups matching the amount of screen time each actor had for each scene. In Easy Rider I replaced each scene with just one shot made at the original location. So rather than glean material from the original film (like I did in Faces) I made my own shots for Easy Rider. Many times I filmed things that were merely passed-by in the original film, things that had been relegated to the background. By doing this I focus more strongly on place and less on the narrative.


AB: One of the striking characteristics of the original film is its use of travelling shots, which makes it involving for the viewer, who is effectively taken along for the ride. How did you think about the different meanings you would generate by replacing these travelling shots with static shots?


JB: They used a lot of travelling shots to give you a feeling of movement along the road. I was more interested in doing static shots, so you could look longer, study things more. I wanted to anchor into place itself – the idea that place has a place. So you feel a place rather than just passing by it, so you can almost taste it. You have to look over time to understand. I believe strongly that all learning is a function of time.


AB: In your shots quite a lot of things pass by – a number of vehicles move laterally through the frame, as do some pedestrians – so the passing by is still happening, but it’s not the camera that’s doing it.


JB: I’d probably disagree that there’s a lot of things moving past, but occasionally something moves through the frame that allows you to understand that people are passing by, moving through the landscape, which makes you even more aware that you’re not, that you’re static, watching. In some places, like in the restaurant scene, where I show the outside of the restaurant and you hear the dialogue coming from the inside, at times, cars pass by outside, obliterating some of the dialogue, disrupting the narrative. I like the fact that the people passing by are of course totally unaware of the narrative they are disrupting. We are always passing by narratives we are unaware of.


AB: Did you follow the same itinerary as the original film?


JB: Well of course they didn’t shoot it in chronological order and neither did I, so there’s a route that the film suggests, and then there’s the route they took when making the film. The first shot is supposed to be in Mexico and it’s actually in Taos, New Mexico, so that probably was shot when they were doing the scenes around the Taos Pueblo on their way to the commune; although, actually, the commune was not shot in Taos, it was shot in Malibu Canyon, California, so their locations are sometimes not where they say they are – there are some lies. But they do go to particular places, like LAX, Panamint Valley – the valley just to the west of Death Valley, where they go to pick up the motorcycles, then they cross the Colorado River and there are particular landmarks, Sunset Crater, Monument Valley, the Taos Pueblo, St. Louis No.1 Cemetery, etc., and those I covered in my film. I made some of the same decisions they did – I didn’t go to Mexico to shoot Mexico because they didn’t, but I didn’t go to Taos to shoot Mexico like they did, I went to a place in California that looked like Taos that looked like Mexico. So I took some liberties, but I did go to Monument Valley, New Orleans, and the very last shot in my film is exactly where the original film ends. I cheated a little bit because I also shot in Texas, which they didn’t. As the story goes, they weren’t allowed to film there because they had long hair. I don’t know if that’s a myth or if it’s true, but I wanted to shoot in Texas because I think today if you have long hair you can film there (although I don’t have long hair), and the people there were very accommodating. I shot a Texas Longhorn to identify it as a Texas shot. You can find them in California too, but they’re noted for being bred in Texas.


AB: In some ways, that produces quite an important revision of the original film. The scholar Barbara Klinger wrote an essay on Easy Rider in which she argues that, although the film appears progressive and critical of the prevailing ideology of the time, it actually reinforces nationalist discourse by idealising the South West, in many of the ways it has always been idealised in Westerns, and locating everything that’s wrong with America in the South, effectively demonising the South; overdevelopment, exploitation, racism, bigotry, it’s all positioned in the South. (1) For someone like me, a foreigner who doesn’t know anything about the Southern states, Easy Rider had a really powerful effect, it’s the source of many of my ideas about the South and – along with Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988) – the reason why I’m slightly afraid to go there.


JB: It’s dangerous to assume any Hollywood film is actually portraying anything as it is, so a lot of people around the whole world identify things about America through Hollywood films that are completely wrong. I agree, I mean the South at that time was racist, but so was the North and maybe in a more insidious way, because it was liberal people there, who made believe they weren’t racist and acted otherwise. But stereotyping is easy to do. When making the original Easy Rider, Hopper told the local people acting in the restaurant scene that the bikers had killed a white girl on the outskirts of town to get them riled up, which of course isn’t part of the Easy Rider narrative. Stereotyping of the South, or really any kind of stereotyping, is based on partial truths, but if one spends more time paying attention to those kinds of prejudices they break apart rather quickly. I’ve met a biker that teaches math at a halfway house for Mexican ex-gang members, a Mormon that wrote a thirty-page narrative poem about living off the land, a rich businessman that built houses for Habitat for Humanity. Well, you get the idea.


1. Barbara Klinger, ‘The Road to Dystopia: Landscaping the Nation in Easy Rider’, in Steve Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds), The Road Movie Book (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 179-203.



AB: The soundtrack of your film combines recordings from the locations with the soundtrack of the original film, but not all of it – it’s noticeable that a lot of dialogue, in particular, is missing. You’ve sampled the sound rather than reproducing it all. Why did you take this approach?


JB: I wasn’t interested in recreating the actual narrative that was in the original film. A lot of it I find kind of corny and false. But, by choosing the parts of the narrative that are most potent, I am able to elevate those ideas, or at least focus on them more thoroughly. I also wanted to deconstruct the narrative so that it would relate to my first feature-length film, 11 x 14 (1977), where I wrote a very precise narrative script and then followed only parts of it, creating truncated narrative spaces, used mainly to hold formal elements in place and to also bring about narrative involvement with the audience, that is, the blanks have be filled in.


AB: How do you expect the spectator to read the relationship between sound and image – as if it’s one space, or two spaces, or two times?


JB: That’s an interesting question, because I’m going to have a different answer depending on whether the audience is aware of the original film or not. If they are aware of the original film, then the dialogue helps connect my film back to the original, causing a direct correlation between the two films – so there’s an added question of narrative and memory. If you don’t know the original film, then the way the sound and image connect is different, it’s more about trying to make some narrative sense from the skeletal narrative I provide, and how that connects to my images. In this case, you may start to perceive the ambient sound more strongly, in the way it affects the image. You might be more aware of it, because you won’t be distracted by the original narrative. Memory in this case is also something different, it’s about what you bring from your own life, your own narratives, not the specific narrative of the original film.


Maybe a better answer is that, when I make something, I never consider audience. I’m not really thinking about how the audience will watch something. I set up problems for myself and then try to solve those problems, and hopefully an audience will be interested in what I am interested in. For me, audience consideration is dangerous. If I would think about audience I probably wouldn’t push my films as far as I do. I’d feel bad about making people uncomfortable confronting a new language, and nothing would move forward. The language of cinema would remain stagnant. I don’t mean to sound arrogant with that answer, but I think it’s important for me to make problems for myself and then put those out into the world, and either they work with an audience or they don’t.






AB: The film begins with this shot of a junkyard in a desert town, under a blanket of cloud. Tell me about the location …


JB: The first shot was made just north of a small chemical town in the California desert called Trona. Just north of where I made this first shot is where I made the third shot, which is also in the original Easy Rider. It’s where they pick up the bikes near the Ballarat ghost town, deep in the desert. Using the same framing as in the original, I made a shot of the small road that crosses Panamint Valley, the one they drove their bikes down. On the way back from making this shot, when I was driving back towards Trona, I looked off to the east and saw a junkyard, and thought, oh, that looks a lot like Mexico. The opening shot in the original film takes place in a cantina that’s connected to a junkyard, so this place seemed perfect. I like it a lot because it’s a little more wide-open and you have more of a feeling of desert. The sensation of place is very strong.


AB: There seem to be some similarities between the mise en scène of the original opening scene and your equivalent shot, in the colour in particular. Did you make any attempt to reference compositional elements in the original?


JB: I was aware of the particular look of each scene, but I wasn’t looking for anything exact like specific colours, it was more a kind of feeling. It seems to fit the opening scene well, but there’s a kind of mystery about what’s going on (because I use the dialogue from the drug deal), but it’s off-screen and it’s very low in volume. Nevertheless, the colours do match closely.



2. EXT. LAX – DAY.


AB: Drugs are much less prominent in your film than in the original. In the previous shot, where they’re buying them, there is some dialogue about it, as you say, but in this one, where they’re selling them, there’s no reference to it at all.


JB: Here, I was somewhat relying on the audience knowing the film; it’s a very memorable scene, because of the LAX location. If you know the film is a remake, you would definitely recall that scene. But my film is not just a remake of Easy Rider, it also connects to my own filmography. The shot reminds one of a prior film of mine, Ten Skies (2004), and when the plane lands, it looks like a shot from Ruhr (2009), so I’m also referencing these films.


AB: This shot is particularly like the airport shot in Ruhr, in the ways it plays with our understanding of film space, on- and off-screen, and the relationship between film sound and the image. We hear the plane and we don’t know whether, when or where it’s going to enter the frame – and then when it does, it’s incredibly close. In Ruhr, there is a more extended play with the viewer’s expectations, as the same thing happens a number of times, but it’s essentially the same game, about the limitations of the frame, and the way we understand causal relationships as they extend beyond the frame.


JB: Yes, in Ruhr the shot is about repetition and expectation. Here there is no repetition. But the way the sound follows after the plane has passed is quite surprising. If you witness this phenomenon you never forget it. It happens twenty to thirty seconds after a plane has passed, almost like a ghost.





AB: The third shot is really beautiful. The location is taken from the sequence in the original film. It’s recognisably the same place as in one of the shots, but is very selectively sampled. You’ve lost a lot of detail from this sequence, which has a lot of shots, some camera movement, music (Steppenwolf’s ‘The Pusher’ and ‘Born to Be Wild’) and a key bit of exposition …


JB: This is the sequence where they pick up the bikes, Peter Fonda throws his watch on the ground, and they drive down the road. My shot just has the road that they drive down, and if you look at the original film and mine, you can see that the hills in the background are exactly the same, framed the same. The road has got wider in forty-something years, but it’s still very desolate, in the middle of nowhere. The location is adjacent to an old ghost town, on the other side of the mountain range from Death Valley. Charles Manson’s hideout was up in those mountains. He occasionally came down to the store on his dune buggy to get supplies.


AB: This sequence in the original film is very involving, using a mobile camera, zoom lens and music to make spectators feel that they’re being taken along for the ride, whereas your equivalent shot is both sparse and slow, and this has a distancing effect, reinforced by the music you use, which is also sparse and slow, with your daughter Sadie singing ‘You think you’ve been there, you think you know’. You seem to be making the point that the spectator isn’t along for the ride.


JB: I don’t want to simulate the trip, I want to involve viewers with the actual place where the camera is sitting, so that things move by them, like the passing pick-up truck and the navy jet practising manoeuvres. There’s a naval base nearby that uses that valley for war games. I’m interested in how these places are used and by whom. You’re standing on the road and feeling what’s there … and the words to the song are suggesting that maybe you don’t know. We pass by all these places too fast, and now we have some time to look. Time to contemplate, to wonder what’s happening.


AB: But is it not also the case that no matter how hard I look at that image, I still haven’t been there?


JB: No, no, that’s for sure, films are films – but you may want to go there now. That’s a funny thing, that I’m making films that are about perception and about being in a place, yet when you see them you’re with an audience in a dark room, and you’re provided with a stare that’s surely impossible to maintain outside in the real world. It’s impossible to look the way the camera can; the camera is completely disciplined, it won’t look away once I set it there. Because of this discipline, you look closer, but it’s not the experience of being there. I do however think it gives you a metaphor for place, a heightened feeling of being there.


AB: But it opens up the question of how people watch your films, because there is a naïve way that you could watch them, as vicarious experience, like an acceptable substitute for actually going to the place, so with casting a glance, for example, I may feel that, having watched the film, I don’t really need to visit Spiral Jetty, you’ve been there for me. Then there is a more sophisticated way to watch, where you are aware that the camera has been there, the filmmaker has been there, but what you’re watching isn’t an unmediated object or experience, it’s a kind of discourse about being there.


JB: I think casting a glance does it best; it tells you that even if you go there you won’t be there, because if you go there again it won’t be like that, it’s constantly changing, and the jetty is this kind of barometer to measure change. That’s true with all place, right? Time is always working and entropy happens, things collapse and are rebuilt. Reality is never static, it’s always moving. What I’m trying to do with films is provide a metaphor for being there, but also the idea that this is just one view, and that many other completely different views exist. That’s what’s interesting about making a film forty years later in the same locations – some of those places look the same and others weren’t even there, I had to make them up.


AB: There’s a sense in which you’re making them all up – or remaking them all – because of the medium. You’re trying to inhabit a precise point in space and time as fully as possible, but also recording that inhabiting, and it’s like when people take family photographs or holiday snaps, to capture the moment, but they’re not preserving their experience, they’re falsifying it, fictionalising it. We see that all the time in the way that our personal photographs stand in for memories and, in doing so, come to replace them. So I suppose what I’m suggesting is that, as a consequence of making the film, maybe even you haven’t been there!




JB: In the original film, there is a tracking shot across the Colorado River Bridge from the point-of-view of the motorcycles. I chose this camera position because I wanted to show the Colorado River and the bridge from which they left California. That’s really the beginning of the trip for them, that’s where the title Easy Rider appears. And then there’s the railroad bridge right next to it, so I thought, well, I’ll wait for a train and also reference my film RR, consumerism and capitalism.


AB: Yes, because it’s a goods train, isn’t it? This is another example of a scene in the original that has traveling shots and point-of-view figures, to direct the audience as to how they should relate to the scenery (which is what it is), and you’ve replaced this with what David Bordwell calls a planimetric shot, a very frontal, very symmetrical shot with a strong central perspective, very typical of you. (2)


JB: Yes, everything is passing, all the goods are passing by in the train and in the trucks on the highway, and the river’s rolling by. So you’re locked down again, and for me the important thing is place, what is happening to this place. The Colorado River has such an interesting history of being damaged by irrigation, for corporate farming, so for me it’s a very loaded image. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Colorado River was accidentally diverted into a rather make- shift irrigation system in the Imperial Valley, and the river filled the Salton sinkhole creating the Salton Sea. Which is one of my thirteen lakes (13 Lakes, 2004). For the next three years, the Colorado River never made it to Mexico, denying them water for their farming. But even after the river was ‘fixed’, the water we sent to Mexico had such a high salt content level, due to our irrigation use, that it wasn’t of much use for farming. When Mexico discovered oil, they negotiated that the US needed to clean up the water, if the US wanted to buy oil. So, because of this, the river now has a lower salt content. These things, of course, aren’t in my film, but they’re in my head when I’m looking at the river, and watching trains and trucks go by. So, for me, it’s a very loaded shot.


AB: And making this ideologically-loaded shot at the Colorado River re-situates the film’s engagement with the question of what might be wrong with America back in the South West – where we also find what might be right with America, rather than the South, where it is in the original.


2. David Bordwell, ‘Shot-consciousness’, at, January 16, 2007.





AB: Your title, Easy Rider, appears at the start of your film, but then the title of the original film, also Easy Rider, appears here, at the same point into the film that it appears in the original. This stress on structure and timing indicates that you’re more interested in using Easy Rider as an armature for this new work than in paying homage to it. As a journey film, it provides a readymade structure for another journey – is that a large part of what interests you about it?


JB: Yes, the actual trip they took is an interesting one, and not only to me. Many Harley owners have made this trip; some even have websites and post photos they’ve taken along the way.





JB: They try to get a place to stay for the night in Bellemont, Arizona, near Flagstaff, but the owner answers their call with NO VACANCY. That motel is still there, but the sign isn’t. There’s a Harley-Davidson dealership just down the road. They have what they claim to be the original sign but it isn’t, it doesn’t look anything like it. Perhaps it’s from that motel, but it’s not the one in the film. So I did a frame blow-up of the sign from the film and had a sign-maker in Los Angeles make a neon reproduction. I filmed it with the same on and off rhythm that occurs in the original.


AB: So the sign is a remake, too.





AB: The five campfires are a system through the film, aren’t they?


JB: The original narrative is basically structured around these campfires; a lot gets said during them, much of which I wasn’t interested in, so I edited their dialogue quite a bit. I like the idea of how the narrative continues through the campfires. I added up the amount of time taken by the five campfire scenes. It totals seventeen minutes. I then built a fire, and filmed it for seventeen minutes, while it burned down and almost out. The progression of the fire has a narrative of its own, which matches the film’s narrative; as the fire burns down it gets closer to the end, and the talk develops in a similar way, at first about drugs, then something important about America, and finally ‘we blew it’.


AB: So the campfire shots are sequenced chronologically throughout the film?


JB: Yes, it burns down until it’s almost out. When I was shooting the campfire, the wind was blowing and the flames were starting to go a bit out of frame, so I took a shovel about two-thirds of the way through, and I hit the fire to bring it back into the frame. When I did that, a bunch of sparks shot up, and then when I cut the campfire into the film, those sparks turned out to be exactly where Jack Nicholson gets killed, so I thought this is very bizarre, that the narrative I created by fixing the fire coincidentally matched the narrative of the film. I didn’t have to move it one frame, it was in the exact same place.


AB: That’s amazing … There’s something interesting about watching a fire in the cinema, because looking into the flames of a domestic fire or campfire is a kind of primordial pre-cinema. It’s amazing to have a cinema audience spend a sustained period of time just looking at flames.


JB: The very first time the flames come on, Dennis Hopper says in a most delightful way, ‘I want to go to Mardi Gras, get me a Mardi Gras queen’. He says it right at the beginning of the fire scene, and I thought, oh, that’s such a beautiful introduction to these campfires, it’s happy; and if there’s anything Easy Rider lacks, it’s happiness. Even though they weren’t allowed into the motel, they made their own way.


AB: Like real cowboys.






AB: This next shot is also part of a system, I think, consisting of different kinds of dwelling, different houses where people might live and put down roots. I’m interested in the fact that the camera never enters these, as if it’s determined to stay on the open road; but also in the varied ways of life and historical moments represented by these structures. What can you tell me about this one?


JB: This is a squatter’s house. I think in the mid-1940s, throughout the Mojave desert, if you built a house of a certain minimum size, something like 10 x 12, and you made it a permanent, functional house, you could get a certain amount of land, I think it was five acres, for about $35, which was mainly a filing fee – though back then that would have been a lot, but it was still cheap. (3) So people went out and built these little houses in hopes of eking out a living. Probably today 90% of them are either gone, or in ruins, and maybe 10% of those people stayed and added on or built something bigger, though a few are still living in those very little houses, which is interesting. This was one of those houses that had become completely derelict. I built a campfire there – you can see its remains – to make a narrative connection with the fire scene before it. At the very end of the shot you hear their motorcycles leaving, the sound is from the original scene. This isn’t the exact house that they camped by – I had no idea where that was – but it was one of these houses, that is, similar but not the same.


AB: Just as replicas are similar but not the same … Was this system of dwellings something that you intended?




3. See Kim Stringfellow, Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape (Chicago: Center for American Places, 2010).

JB: Yes, I was very interested in portraying a number of houses, or kinds of houses, that are in the original film, mostly that they drive by. This is the first one that we have a good look at. They’re camping next to it, and Peter Fonda walks around and picks up some relics that are left behind, and you see that there was life there at one time. And then, later in the film, they camp at an Anasazi ruin, from around 900 AD. The ruin is still standing, and was the centre point of culture in the South West at that time; in fact, in Chaco Canyon there were structures made out of stone large enough to house 900 people. The Anasazi stayed there until around 1000 AD, and then vacated, building cliff dwellings to the north at Mesa Verde, so they were either running from something or just moving on. After they left Mesa Verde, they probably became the modern Pueblo Indians. So the first house you see is a squatter’s house and the second is something much older that connects to this amazing Anasazi culture, much more sophisticated than the little houses in the desert. The Anasazi built irrigation systems and lived off the land in a place that was very harsh.


AB: So these structures are historical markers?


JB: Yes, those two, and then later there’s a mansion outside of New Orleans, an antebellum house that probably had slaves, and also the black church that I mentioned before, and a number of other structures – the Pueblo at Taos, a gas station in Arizona, some houses in New Orleans’ French Quarter, and a gasoline cracking plant.


AB: The commune is a dwelling as well, although you don’t represent it as a physical structure.


JB: Before they get to the commune, you see the Pueblo at Taos. They drive by it right before. I filmed it using the same angle and framing that Hopper used. The commune they wanted to film at was near the Pueblo. But it was having so many visitors that they didn’t want any more publicity, so they wouldn’t let them film there. They ended up making a replica of it in the Malibu Canyon and filmed it there. I didn’t want to film in the Malibu Canyon, so I filmed a river instead. There’s a reference to the river in the commune scene, a woman says something about the water being very cold. The commune scene is seventeen minutes long, which is the same length as the aggregate of the fire shots, so that fire and water are equally represented in my film.






AB: With these two shots, are you breaking with your principle of replacing each scene with a shot? Is it two shots for one scene?


JB: Yes, I guess that is true – a flaw in the system. Actually, the house, too, is part of that scene, so there are three shots for that scene. This is when one of the bikes has a flat tire and they push it into a ranch yard, and ask the rancher if they can use some tools to fix the flat. Coincidentally, the rancher is shoeing his horse, and they crosscut between the wrenching and the shoeing, two ways of life, two different speeds. They then sit down with the family and have lunch. It’s a really idealised view of life, and they recognise that, but move on. The horse is my neighbour’s up in the Sierra Nevada just down the road from my Two Cabins project, and the bike is mine, shot in my Val Verde backyard. So the locations are wrong, but that’s because I never did find the location of that scene.





JB: The lunch takes place out on the porch. I think it was a movie set somewhere in Arizona that no longer exists. I searched and searched. I really wanted to find it, but never did. Instead, I filmed a field of cacti in southern Arizona and Lyndon Johnson’s boyhood ranch near Johnson, Texas, and then composited the two images together, so at least the bottom half of the frame is in Arizona.


AB: But does this digital creative geography go against your principle of paying attention to place?


JB: Adding the cacti was my attempt to relocate Johnson, Texas to Arizona, where the movie set was. In a way I suppose I could argue that the original ranch was a set, and I just created a virtual set. So, in some sense, my composed ranch is no less fake than the movie set ranch. But no argument is really necessary here, I was just having fun.


AB: You’ve sampled the dialogue from this scene quite selectively, losing a lot of lines about marriage and the Catholic large family, and keeping the discussion of living off the land. Is this an important emphasis?


JB: I also included them saying grace, so there’s a reference to their religion and family structure. I do leave in the line, ‘Honey, will you get a cup of coffee’? – I think that’s an important line, who’s going to get the coffee. But the most important thing I wanted to show is that they recognise – or at least Peter Fonda recognises – that this is an idyllic place, and yet he never makes a right decision throughout the whole film. When he goes to the commune, I think he wants to stay but he doesn’t, and he knows that they’re hurting, and he and Dennis Hopper have lots of money stashed in that gas tank – but they eat their food and leave nothing behind.






AB: This shot is really extraordinary – I don’t even know quite what I’m looking at. The horizon is almost at the top of the frame and the scale of the image is really hard to read, with what look like giant clods of earth and tiny trees …


JB: It’s a lava flow. In the film they ride along the Sunset Crater lava flow and pick up a hitchhiker, who takes them to the commune. That’s the location where they meet him, you can see the lava flow in the background. I wanted to look at a pure landscape that somewhat represented how the world works, showing the kind of force that it can muster, that these disruptive things can happen, like the birthing of a mountain. It’s so mysterious that, when we look at it, we don’t even know what we are seeing. It’s a shot about the mystery of life itself. I often think when I’m out looking at things: what the hell is all this stuff? Obviously, they shot the scene there because of the lava and its mysterious look, but they really don’t look at this spectacular place. It’s just so incredible. Again, I think they don’t look at things because the film has invested itself in a narrative that isn’t about paying attention, or learning – it’s about anxiety and paranoia. And then, afterwards, they advertised that the film is about looking for America, but there’s no looking for America whatsoever, it’s just about the big score. As you said earlier, they’re like people who retire to Florida in their RVs. That’s exactly their desire, to retire in Florida.


AB: I want to return to the issue of the legibility of this shot – it’s really hard to read this as an image of landscape in terms of topography, scale, perspective …


JB: There’s a small tree in the frame about a hundred yards out, but you can’t tell how far out it is, or its actual size, and then there are huge trees way out on the horizon, but you can’t tell how big they are. The depth cues are puzzling. It’s why the place is so mysterious. When I was framing the shot I could see immediately that it questioned perception itself. What can you believe?


AB: And it’s almost more like land art than landscape; found land art, maybe.


JB: Exactly.




AB: This brings us to the gas station. I like the names of these in both films, with their suggestion of qualities that are totally lacking in the oil industry: yours is called Spirit; what was theirs called?

JB: Sacred Mountain. That gas station is no longer in use, it’s a family home now, so I shot a gas station that has been closed and is somewhat falling apart. But maybe it will be fixed; you can’t quite tell if it’s just closed to be refurbished or if they’re going to tear it down. It’s a ‘70s style gas station. Where they stopped in the original film, the station was older, from the ‘30s, but that was forty years ago – so this is about the same age in relation to my film, that’s why I chose it.


AB: I like that the gas station shop is called Spirit Mart, like a reference to the idea of selling out – which is what Fonda and Hopper have already done, right at the start of the film.


JB: Yes, but I don’t think they, as characters or as filmmakers, saw it that way.






AB: This shot comes as something of a shock – a face, in close-up, in a landscape film. It’s especially surprising as your recent films seem to have followed two distinct traditions from painting, landscape and portraiture: Faces and Twenty Cigarettes (2011) are portrait films, and most of your other works are landscape films.


JB: North on Evers, which is older, mixes landscapes and portraits. I really wanted to reference the portrait here. In the original film, the window is much smaller and the shot isn’t so much a portrait, it’s just a young girl looking out of a window, but here I wanted you to see the person, her face, and how she’s reacting. I told her to just do absolutely nothing, just look out the window. I want people to bring their own reading to what she’s longing for. I think it’s quite a haunting shot.






AB: This is an iconic image, in both films, but done very differently – in the earlier film it comes at the end of a pan, with a really lurid sunset and on the soundtrack The Band playing ‘The Weight’, whereas your shot is in full daylight, very squarely framed, very sedate, very quiet.


JB: It’s shot from John Wayne Point, near the visitor’s centre. I spent the whole day there waiting for the most subtle light shifts of the day. Actually, the light changes quite a bit during the five minutes of the shot, but it changes so slowly you hardly notice it; and then there are a few cars driving on a gravel road that look like ants, almost crawling.






JB: And then the next shot of the Anasazi ruin has a rather psychedelic quality.


AB: Did you make this shot at Wupatki Pueblo, where the original was shot?


JB: You’re right, they shot their Anasazi ruin at Wupatki, not too far north of the Sunset lava flow. Wupatki was one of the outstations of the Anasazi, it wasn’t their main location – that’s in Chaco Canyon, where the big houses are, their spiritual centre. I shot there and filmed Arroyo House just as the sun set. It looks very similar to the one in the original film, but mine is a much larger structure. The light changes strangely throughout the shot. That’s the psychedelic quality I was referring to. Chaco Canyon is a favourite place of mine.





AB: You’re interested in the Anasazi and yet you don’t use much of the dialogue that’s concerned with them in this second campfire shot, when the hitchhiker says, in the original, ‘the people this place belongs to are buried right under you’.


JB: Yes, I don’t have any of that, instead I focused on ‘where are you from? – it’s hard to say’. That line is said by the hitchhiker in a real smart-guy way. There’s this tension between him and Hopper, it’s this macho male thing that I wanted to focus on. You’re right, the hitchhiker does talk about the need to have respect for the dead underneath them, which perhaps I should have included, but I thought the image of the Anasazi ruin itself says that – that this is a special culture, that it’s worth knowing.





JB: I thought this might be a hard place to film, as many American Indians don’t want you filming them, or their place. So I thought, if that’s the case, I won’t film there, because I didn’t want to steal a shot where people regard place as spiritual. I was very hesitant to go there, but I went anyway, and it turned out I had to pay a parking fee and a $7 fee for my camera, and then I could film. They had commercialised the place.


AB: Another spirit mart?


JB: Not at all, it’s understandable, it’s a way that they can make some money.


AB: Once you’ve looked at the Pueblo, the thing that really draws your attention in this shot is the wind in the trees. You’ve talked about having fire and water in the film, but you also have earth and air, with the lava flow and this wind. Is the idea of the elements – or the elemental – important in your film, perhaps from the point of view of time, as it puts the human story in a much longer temporal perspective?


JB: Yes, that idea came into play when I was thinking about the lava flow, but that’s also why I’m interested in referencing these ancient cultures. Some of their things are still around, but their history is largely lost; we really don’t know much about the Anasazi culture, much of it is conjecture. As for the elements, of course … earth, wind, fire and water.






AB: This shot stands for the whole commune scene, which also begins with water (the river) and ends with it (the swimming place). Although you’ve explained the practical difficulties with filming the commune, if you don’t know that, the shot reads like a refusal to cross the river and enter the community … Almost as if the camera itself is refusing to go indoors – and it’s notable that the film contains no real interior shots. The river here seems almost like the road – it runs past, carries things away, rather than dwelling … (This is where Hopper says ‘If we’re going, we’re going, let’s go!’) The other thing about this shot is how long it lasts – 17 minutes – and with very little dialogue.


JB: Well, Hopper is expressing anxiety at being in this place … and I’m very aware that some of the audience might be feeling that way, too, having to watch the river, and not quite knowing how to watch it for that long – although I think it teaches you patience. The light is changing because the earth is turning, and you really are seeing a document of that. And the narrative comes in and out. I think you can feel the commune a little bit, even if you don’t know what it is; you can hear the kids playing, grace is said for the second time in the film – it’s rather righteous about sharing food, so there’s this idea of real community. Hopefully, I’m making you feel community in this tranquil river scene. It’s also referring to Siddhartha (1922) by Herman Hesse. I read Siddhartha about the same time that I saw Easy Rider. It was the first book that taught me about time, about flow. Our lives are only understood in memory. If you look at the timeline, the present is just a point with no dimension – it separates the future from the past. We cannot travel in time, we are always at that dimensionless point; the future flows towards us and, as soon as it becomes the present, it is the past. We only perceive through memory. For instance, a blinking light doesn’t blink. It is either on or off. The blinking is understood only through memory, as is movement – any movement or, for that matter, even stillness. If you give in to this shot, really watch it, you will actually experience this idea of time and memory.


AB: I’m quite resistant to doing so, and I’m not entirely sure why … perhaps it’s just impatience, or maybe the modern notion that one must always be productive, even in leisure, so that there have to be tangible rewards for paying attention – the time that is spent must accumulate into intellectual capital. But, in any case, what you give the viewer here is not just the ‘real time’ of the shot, but the synthetic time of the edited film: the sampled soundtrack evokes one time, the image another. This is not the viewer’s own memory, although it may prompt recall; it’s more as if one film remembers – or memorialises – the other. As so often in your films, you are working with a purely cinematic time form that doesn’t quite resemble time or memory as we normally experience them.





AB: This is where the guys get picked up for parading without a permit.


JB: I filmed that in Springdale, California, rather than in Las Vegas, New Mexico, but theirs wasn’t shot in Las Vegas either. The exterior of the jail was in Las Vegas, but the interior was somewhere else – in another nearby small New Mexican town, as was the parade; so it’s all collaged together. I filmed Springdale’s annual rodeo parade in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a small town and perhaps similar to Las Vegas, neither rich nor poor. Small towns like parades. I filmed the whole thing; it was marvellous. About an hour long. It started with police cars and then mounted Marines – the authorities – then there was an unbelievable matriarch with her black horse and white carriage, waving, followed by a Wells Fargo stagecoach. What I didn’t show were rodeo queens holding banners advertising the corporate sponsors – McDonald’s, Bank of America, Pizza Hut, etc., and over a hundred little girls between six and twelve years old, twirling batons, and fire trucks, and old cars, and on and on.


AB: Although I missed a lot of what you did show, because I was looking at the background – at an older woman who drags a huge seat out from her house into her front yard to sit on while she watches the parade. It’s almost a sofa. This kind of eccentricity would never appear in the original film; where there are little fragments of reality, they are never so insistent or so particular.


JB: Yes, this is the background in my shot. I’m glad you noticed that. When shots are held long enough it gives the viewer time to become proactive. You can search the frame for details, discover on your own. In the original film, the parade scene is narrative-driven. The bikers enter the parade and are arrested. The parade is used to represent something provincial, where the bikers are the outsiders. There is no attempt to understand the small town. The narrative does, however, rely on the fear of bikers that still existed in the late ‘60s due to the bad press that the Hells Angels were getting. Today, you see people on Harleys and they are doctors and lawyers or filmmakers, because they’re the only ones who can afford them.



21. INT. JAIL – DAY.


AB: This shot looks like it might be an interior, but it’s not really – or rather, it’s from inside the original film, not from inside a room …


JB: As in Faces, where I appropriated footage from the original film, this is an image taken from Easy Rider, from a pan across the jail cell, showing a drawing on the jail cell wall.


AB: Is it a still? In the original film the drawing is glimpsed very briefly …


JB: I made it a still – it’s just one frame. I really like the drawing, so I wanted to give it time in the film. I think it’s a really great drawing, and the idea of people getting locked up and finding religion isn’t a false notion. It’s something that happens.


AB: It’s also a very weird piece of graffiti; I wondered if you were trying to bring out the strangeness of some of the forms taken by contemporary religious belief, especially in view of its resurgence since the late ‘60s. The music you’ve used here adds to this feeling of strangeness.


JB: For sure. The song ‘Born to be Wild’ is performed by Suzy Soundz, also known as The Space Lady. She’s a street musician from San Francisco. That song is the only piece of music that’s in both films. This is probably the best cover I’ve ever heard – I’m sure it affects the way you read the drawing … It’s a bit from outer space (as I see all religions), but it’s so beautiful too, and it starts and ends with an electronic sound that mimics a motorcycle.


AB: It’s a very feminine rendition of a somewhat masculine song – you seem to be adding female voices to the film with your musical choices.


JB: I was very conscious of trying to liberate the film from its macho point of view, and lately most of the music I like is by women, so I chose what I thought was the best.






AB: The next two shots break your pattern again – not only do they cover a single scene, but there is an analytic edit between them; the second shot gives us a closer view of a portion of the first.


JB: Yes, rules at times must be broken. I really liked the signs on the abandoned building in the background, so I did a second shot just of the building, a kind of detail. That way you can read the political campaign signs tacked on the boarded-up windows, and you can also see a plaque above the door reading, ‘Navajo Textiles’ – which could be a business owned by Navajos, or a white business using Navajo in its name as a marketing ploy, as so many did. When I was in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where these shots were made, there was a county election, and the local paper had an article about all the candidates. I got interested in the election, especially the wife of the last Treasurer, who was run out of office for fraud. His wife was now running for that office and had a budget greater than all the other candidates put together. Probably her husband’s fraud profits. I’m not sure who won.


AB: It must be her poster that has the slogan ‘Experience Matters’. Not necessarily her own experience, though! This building is also a ruin of a sort, isn’t it?


JB: Yes, it was empty. As in a lot of small towns, sometimes half the buildings are now empty and in ruins; young people leave early looking for work and life elsewhere.


AB: The passers-by move very slowly, and several cars cruise by very slowly, too. There’s a real sense of things slowing down, maybe even grinding to a halt, that says something about the economic condition of the small town – as well as being a part of the cinematic slowing down of Easy Rider that your film performs. One of the cars is a police car, which is a lucky catch, given that it’s at this point in the original film that the guys get out of jail – it communicates a rather oppressive sense that the police and the power (or abuse of power) they represent are never far away.


JB: This shot is very near the town square. I filmed there on a Saturday afternoon. Young people cruise the square on weekends for entertainment, to show off their cars, or motorcycles, or girlfriends. It’s another kind of parade, and it takes on the pace of a parade. The motorcycle that you hear at the end of the shot was recorded there. The police car was making its hourly rounds. When I filmed there. the procession really hadn’t yet begun, but by the time I packed up it was in full swing.





AB: This shot of a herd of newly shorn sheep grazing replaces a section of travelogue, with traveling shots of countryside and country people standing by the roadside. Again, you’re stopping to look at something in particular, instead of just passing by. There are a number of shots of animals in the film – maybe more than people, or at least as many – the horse, the Texas Longhorn, the sheep, and they’re given quite a lot of space. Is this a meaningful system?


JB: They’re basically there because I wanted to represent the countryside and how it’s used, for grazing in this case, to provide both food and clothing, and in the case of the horse, how it provides riding pleasure. But I also want to look closer, to see how animals act, to see how much closer they live to the necessities of life.





AB: In this campfire scene, you’ve cut the conversation about how aliens have been living amongst us since 1946 – ‘they are people just like us from within our own solar system’. Was it too funny to leave in?


JB: It was just too narrative and too much talk about drugs. Too boring. The rant about aliens among us by Nicholson is the kind of thing that seems genius when you’re stoned, but really it’s just plain stupid. That’s why I can’t understand the allure of drugs. Malcolm X was right. But I did like Hopper’s excitement when he thought he saw something. It’s funny because he’s been seeing things the whole time, but he never has that excitement. Now when he’s in an altered state and he sees something that’s not recognisable, he gets excited. I really grew to like Hopper, just because he was so paranoid and I don’t think he was acting.






AB: You’ve mentioned this shot already. Again, it equates with one of these travelogue sequences, in which the camera sometimes passes people and animals without pausing to look at them, and they’re not individuated, they’re types: look, there’s some poor people; look, there are Mexicans; look, there are animals. You stop to look at the steer …


JB: And he looks back. What I like about this shot is that the Longhorn steer is chewing grass, and he swallows, and when he does that he puts his head forward and stares more. It’s really just the action of swallowing but, for someone nervous like myself, a few feet away from a large animal, when he did this he scared the crap out of me. I thought he was going to charge.


AB: This is one of a number of occasions where the gaze of the camera is fairly directly returned, isn’t it?


JB: Yes, it’s true. There are the people in Las Vegas, New Mexico, as well, and the girl in the gas station – well, she doesn’t quite look back, but she looks out.


AB: And it’s a powerful look that’s given space.


JB: We are watching her too, you’re aware of that. But in the other cases, you’re aware of being looked at.





AB: What river does this bridge cross?


JB: The Mississippi at Nachaz.


AB: Is it the exact same bridge?


JB: I like to think so, but I’m not completely sure. If it’s not the exact same one, it’s very similar and was probably constructed at the very same time.


AB: This is a moving shot … is it the only one?


JB: Yes, it’s a tracking shot from my car. It’s almost like the bridge is moving past the camera, because the sky looks stationary.


AB: I don’t know if you can be allowed that argument and the one about the river shot documenting the earth turning!


JB: You need to read Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. If I asked you to describe the way the light moves in the river shot, you probably would say during the seventeen minutes the sunlight moves across the frame. This of course isn’t at all true. The sun focuses the light in one direction, and since the earth is turning on its axis, it’s the river that is moving, not the light. So this shot actually documents how much the earth has turned (or how much the river has moved) over its seventeen-minute duration. (The camera is also rotating since it is sitting on a tripod that is fixed to the earth.) With the tracking shot across the bridge, the camera is moving of course, but since the sky is completely blue and offers no cues for orientation, one can easily be fooled into thinking that it is the bridge that is moving, and that the camera is stationary. This is the same illusion that fools one into thinking that the light was moving in the river shot.


AB: I’m not convinced – and I’m starting to feel dizzy …





AB: This is this shot of a Southern church that you’ve mentioned. The shot replaces a montage of views of New Orleans that dwells particularly on the ‘shotgun’ houses in predominantly black areas like the Lower Ninth Ward. I’m interested by your decision not to show this type of housing.


JB: I could have shown a shotgun house, I was going to do it, but then I backed off the idea. When I did organising in Springfield, Missouri, I lived in one, with three rooms in a line, though it would have been hard to shoot a shotgun through it because the front door was on the left, and the back door was on the right, so a bullet would have had to kind of zig-zag through the house.


AB: And why would you want to shoot a gun through the house? I’ve always wondered that. There is another explanation of the name, which is that it was a corruption of an African word that came via Haiti and was misheard or misunderstood. According to this theory, the design also comes from Africa. In any case, with the shot of the church, you’ve opted for an image that is socially and culturally much less specific, and quite hard to read.


JB: The loose boarding on the building is a hint that it’s perhaps in a poor location. But it’s kept up, the grass is cut. There’s a cemetery off to the right with the graves above ground, typical in Louisiana. You can’t easily tell if it’s poor white or black, but it’s not rich.


AB: In choosing an image to replace a sequence, there are instances where you’ve looked for something that distils the essence of the sequence, or communicates its most important characteristic or function; then, at other times, you’ve chosen to pay attention to something that the original film passes by too quickly, like the lava flow. But there are other possibilities too, including choosing images that offer a direct or indirect critique of the scene in the original; but also simply blocking or screening out those meanings. And, in some respects, this is inevitable, as choosing just one image effects such a reduction in signification – one shot is unlikely to signify in the variety of ways that half a dozen or more shots can. This seems to me to be a prime example of this effect – the meaning in this shot is quickly exhausted; it’s not so much ambiguous as incommunicative, and no amount of looking will change that. It is what it is. You’re interested in looking and learning but also, it seems to be, in the simple fact of objecthood – some things just are what they are … I guess this isn’t really a question, but something you might comment on.


JB: I agree. A number of images in quick succession can bring about meaning. Usually the meaning that is presented is just that – it’s presented. It’s determined by juxtaposition, and the meaning is contrived. There is little room for discovery. By presenting one image for a longer period of time, meaning is found by the viewer. Oh sure, I still choose the image and its framing, so part of its meaning is mine. But, by allowing the image to be examined, the viewers can also come to their own conclusions. In the case of the church, there are things to be seen: it’s rural, it has above-ground graves, it’s quiet, a board is loose above the front entrance, there is a small road close by (suggested by the off-screen sound). The image asks who you are, compared to what you’re seeing. Is this completely foreign? Now, I do agree I picked an image that is much less loaded than the black poverty of ‘60s Louisiana as seen in the original film. I really wanted to stay away from such a loaded image; perhaps it’s too final, or maybe too recognisable, or too easy, or too cliché. All of which it wasn’t in the ‘60s.






AB: This shot of storefronts corresponds to the scene in the redneck café in the original.


JB: This was in Morganza, Louisiana. I went there knowing that the café was gone, thanks to Google Maps street level. When I got there, I found that the stoop is still there, but the building was gone, except for one row of bricks at the bottom. And there was a little plaque on the sidewalk out front saying Easy Rider was shot there, listing the names of the local people who were in the film – which is pretty cool. It looked rather new, like it might have been put up just a few years ago.


AB: Are the storefronts near there?


JB: They’re actually not, they’re quite a ways away … They’re in Maricopa, a small town just south of Taft, in the southwest corner of California’s Great Central Valley. When I saw them they reminded me of Easy Rider, for some reason, I don’t know why – an old town falling apart – and when I got to Morganza, there were a number of buildings that were really dilapidated, on the main street that runs alongside the railroad track, not at all unlike the buildings in California. So they’re not the right buildings, but they have the right feel – of things that are left empty when businesses fail, or people die or move on.


AB: There are several contradictory ways of thinking about this shot. It’s very beautiful in a rather abstract way, with a texture like a Rauschenberg collage, and these rich colours, and the geometric lines and the repetition of rectangles, almost like a strip of film, even …


JB: And the blue sky is really blue, and the red on top is gorgeous …


AB: … but at the same time, it is a political image – or at least a social or economic image. As you’ve said of some of the other small town images in your film, it’s an evocation of the crisis …


JB: Yes, you really feel it in that image.


AB: But do those qualities conflict? Is there a risk in seeing beauty in de-industrialisation and dereliction?


JB: One can argue that I’m aestheticising poverty but, in this case, it’s not necessarily poverty, it’s the past – it’s aestheticising the loss of the past. At one time, those were functioning buildings …


AB: They were probably beautiful then, too.


JB: I do like some things purely for their aesthetics, and sometimes that can get in the way of your thesis. I know where your question is coming from, but I don’t have a defence really. For me, it represents forty-some years ago, just that things happen, again, there’s this kind of entropy … The café is now actually a vacant lot, which wouldn’t have looked all that interesting on film, but it might have been interesting, just complete absence, and perhaps that could have been more powerful, to show that there’s nothing there, it’s gone. I don’t have to represent it, it’s just gone.


AB: I’m interested in what you say, in relation to the way that some people have occasionally interpreted your interest in landscape as environmentalism. But it strikes me that you’re as interested in man-made landscapes as in natural ones, and that you have a palpable affection for the way things used to look – for mid-twentieth century American design, really. The distinction between natural and man-made beauty doesn’t seem important in your work.


JB: I’d agree with that. I still want to see things for how they are and, if they’re beautiful, that’s okay. But a lot of people drive by those buildings and don’t see them that way, and then if they see my film they might say, ‘oh, wait, maybe there is something to appreciate in decay’. But it does border on nostalgia and romanticism. You are right about me having no prejudices between the man-made or the natural. The surface of the Great Salt Lake is as grand as the Jetty itself – and the other way around, too.





AB: There are two shots of storefronts, one after another, and again an exterior standing for an interior, which seems to reinforce that idea of the camera not wanting to go inside. There is a sense of distancing here. I like the idea that, if the camera doesn’t go inside. maybe the guys could avoid their fate this time, maybe they won’t encounter the rednecks and Jack Nicholson’s character won’t be killed …


JB: Although the second shot actually represents an exterior, as it corresponds to the exterior shots, where the girls follow them outside and ask for a ride.





AB: In this fourth campfire scene, there is a long speech, which you include. Jack Nicholson’s character talks about freedom, and about how people – he means Americans – talk a lot about freedom but, how if they meet a really free person, that scares them and they react violently – and then it happens. Why have you preserved so much of this speech?


JB: For me this is the most important speech in the film, the idea that one can try to be free, and what complicates that, how many forces are there against you living your life the way you want to. I left the speech in, but I cut out Hopper’s interruptions, because it flows really well without them. This speech can be read as how America has treated the world in the 20th century.


AB: The idea of freedom crops up in some of your other recent work – in relation to Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski, both of who laid claim to notions of freedom in their writing. Kaczynski even signed his bombs ‘Freedom Club’, which is also part of the title of the book about your cabins project. (4)


JB: Kaczynski’s notion of freedom is very interesting, that is, we should have freedom to control what’s important in our lives, not freedom to control other people. Freedom to control the important things in life, like food, clothing, shelter, and being able to defend oneself. But that doesn’t mean you have the right to control other people – which is ironic coming from Ted.

  4. Julie Ault (ed.), (FC) Two Cabins by JB (New York: A.R.T. Press, 2011).


AB: His actions proved the limitations of his thinking. If you define freedom as control over what happens to you and your environment, then sooner or later you’re going to come up against other people and their freedom, and this theory gives you no basis on which to resolve those conflicts peacefully. Of course, some of his ideas about freedom stem from the mainstream, as enshrined in the constitution, including the second amendment, which affirms a man’s right to bear arms.


JB: But Kaczynski does separate his ideology from his violent behaviour. He has said that his violent acts came out of pure anger, there was no political motivation involved whatsoever – they were purely from being angry and wanting revenge. I do, however, think the idea that freedom is the freedom to control your own life, but not anyone else’s, is quite beautiful. But, of course, as you suggest, this doesn’t work in the real world. Nevertheless, for me it is an important utopian idea.







AB: Let’s talk about these three shots together. They relate to the scene at the brothel, and they’re all footage from the original film, aren’t they? Two stills and one moving shot.


JB: The famous flash-forward to the burning motorcycle.


AB: Yes. These three shots create a symbolic knot, combining sex and death, and also the Madonna and the whore. That’s in the original scene, but you’ve given it considerably more emphasis. At the same time, the idealisation of the whore rather confounds this opposition – up in the sky, she looks as though she’s made of clouds; she’s much more heavenly than Mary …


JB: Yes, that’s what the brothel would want you to feel, that’s what they’re providing, an angel … It’s a representation of the brothel scene, and where I used the track ‘Troubled Waters’ sung by Cat Power, which codes both the prostitute and Mary as the devil’s daughter. So it works the other way, too.


AB: And one of the prostitutes in the scene is actually called Mary. Is your main concern here just to foreground the ideologies that are at play in the original, and to leave the audience to form their own opinions about these?


JB: Yes, but then I don’t know if the Cat Power song is reinforcing that, or changing the meaning. For me the song is acknowledging how a woman might feel about being a prostitute. Nobody grows up wanting to be a prostitute, and the song talks about people scorning the woman; so it’s about how a woman might feel in that position. And then, when the same song plays over the image of the mother of God, I think about how religion often works. I watch TV evangelists who ask poor people to give them the little money that they have – that’s really evil, to target people who have little money. As you suggested, the way women were treated in the original film was at best as objects. I am trying to question their imaging of women, in the brothel scene, and in the film.






AB: This is a very different view of the French Quarter, where the brothel is.


JB: It was shot in the morning at the corner of Dauphine and St Louis Streets, dead centre of the French Quarter. It’s two beautiful residences, rather than places for nightlife – although there is a bar on the street level of the yellow building. In my shot, you can hear ambient street sounds with the low rumble of a few cars and trucks, mixed with the calls of morning doves. In the original film, the sound of Mardi Gras lingers in the early morning streets.


AB: More dwellings …


JB: Yes, both quite beautiful. I suppose many people would love living there. It’s almost a dream. But, for me today, it would be like living in hell. I’d rather be fixing up that squatter’s shack in the desert.






AB: This is the famous cemetery scene, filmed in St Louis Cemetery No. 1. To represent this whole scene, you’ve used a shot of the statue of a weeping child that sits on top of one of the bigger mausoleums. Another feminine image …


JB: Yes, it portrays fragility; it is literally fragile from a hundred or more years of acid rain (again entropy), but she endures. Yes, it is feminine and fragile, but also strong. I took no sound while shooting this shot. I use the full soundtrack from the original film. This is the only shot in my film that does this.


AB: With the religious statues and the prostitutes, the iconography of the Madonna and the whore persists in this scene in the original film. Your use of the statue of the weeping child displaces that a bit, although I’m not sure what meanings it produces instead – maybe bereftness, or compassion for the bereft.


Your film generally has a more melancholic tone than the original, and I don’t know if this is just because of the time that has passed, or if it’s because your film is slower. Maybe when you don’t move past things so quickly, the transience of things themselves – and our own transience – starts to appear. I find it a sad film, but I’ve only watched it on my own – have audiences found it so?


JB: People have commented that they felt it was very sad. But would you call the original film sad, or a different kind of sad? Are they just bringing that to mine?


AB: The original film is coloured by a strong sense of failure or defeat, almost from the start. And it’s funny, because it was made at a time just before you could really see that ’68 had failed. This feeling of failure would make more sense if it was made a year or two later. I don’t think your film has quite that sense of failure about it.


JB: Maybe it does, but maybe it’s today’s failure.


AB: The sadness might be the effect of taking the characters out of the film. It becomes a bit desolate as a result. But perhaps it also makes us think about more general problems – like global warming – because we're not distracted by the concerns of individuals?


JB: Well, the characters aren't completely removed from the film, but I suppose they do only exist as ghosts; ghosts that are made to return to the scene of the crime. 






AB: We already talked a bit about this mansion.


JB: Referencing slavery.


AB: A house like this is a very overt sign of wealth, and raises the question of where wealth comes from.


JB: Yes, one can’t make that kind of money without participating in some form of exploitation.





AB: And this is the fifth campfire, where Peter Fonda says ‘We blew it!’ It’s an important line of dialogue, but kind of surprising.


JB: It does come out of nowhere. Which is why so many ask ‘what does it mean?’. I think it is obvious. A better question would be, why was it said?






AB: This shot stands in for a montage of shots depicting the oil industry in the South.


JB: They pass by a number of oil refineries, and you see them from the bridge, I think, driving Northwest out of New Orleans, near Lake Charles.




41. EXT. LAKE – DAY.



AB: The last group of shots in the film, from the cracking plant onwards, read like a montage on the theme of ecological disaster. The film ends with three very green shots, accompanied by a song which talks about how you can’t play with polar bears, because they’re not feeling well today. It even includes the line ‘you can’t change the world’. You’ve moved away from the individual deaths of the characters to this much bigger issue – is that how you want your film to be read?


JB: The song was written and performed by The Sibleys, a brother and sister band that has come of age in Wonder Valley, somewhere in the middle of the Mojave Desert. They were home-schooled by their mother. That line about polar bears is very important to me. And yes, there are big issues at stake. You can’t read it any other way. They’ve been hiding their money in the gas tank and they go past a gas refinery, the gas tank blows up … When they say ‘we blew it’, it wasn’t about the oil industry – but, for me, it is. The whole film is driven by gasoline, literally.


AB: But so is your film.


JB: Yes, I’m part of it. There’s no way to deny that I burn a lot of gasoline. Luckily, we only have a few hundred years more of that stuff left.


AB: So you wind up caught in a contradiction, looking at the problem from the inside?


JB: It’s like that old Pogo cartoon: ‘We met the enemy and it was us’.


AB: Or like Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to the future: ‘Dear future generations, please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum’.


from Issue 5: Shows


© James Benning and Alison Butler, October 2012/January 2013.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.