There's no use denying it: remix culture is officially respectable. Hank Shocklee appropriating Maceo Parker's squeaks is now something you study in trade schools, and the last of the arm-folded curmudgeons asking “Is it art?” have been politely shown the door. “Remix cinema” is now more than just a collection of neat ideas.
I remain, frankly, in awe of the wildly ambitious, crowd-sourced Star Wars Uncut, which took the dead equine carcass of George Lucas' initial space opera film and chopped it up into 473 fifteen-second segments remade in (mostly) clever or crafty ways. The project's success doesn't just speak to the popularity of this particular brand or the relative ease in which one can make and share short films, but of the call-and-response that can exist between works of art. It is a form that can elevate beyond mere gags. (Not that gags are wholly without merit. Perhaps the biggest laugh in theaters in 2012 was during Ted, when a memory flashed not to a parody of Saturday Night Fever but of Airplane! poking fun of Saturday Night Fever.)
None of this is particularly new. Classical composers wrote variations on centuries-old themes to much creative success. (Was Johaness Brahms “sampling” George Frideric Handel? I'd sure like to think so.) Wisenheimer Marcel Duschamp drew a mustache and scribbled a crude pun beneath the Mona Lisa and now that's in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In September of 2012 the Pompidou premiered the screening of James Benning's “remake” or “retelling” or “regurgitation” of Dennis Hopper's iconoclastic Easy Rider, which will play as part of the Moving Image Museum's First Look series this January. As the blurb tells it, Benning visited the locations where the sequences of the 1969 film took place, took long static shots, and ran audio from the movie underneath.
The effect is simultaneously interesting and frustrating. Now, I happen to be in the small group of critics that has no real love for Easy Rider. I'll never deny its importance as a cultural touchstone or industry game-changer, but there's part of me that thinks that New Hollywood would have launched with the next counter-culture exploitation picture if this one weren't around. (While I'm killing your idols, I feel the same way about Kevin Smith's Clerks and, to a lesser extent, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.) Easy Rider, on paper anyway, is a terrific pick for an experiment like this. Frankly, Benning's film did a good job of reminding me that Hopper's original, while heavy, certainly heavy, is a bit of a slog.
So the opening shot, which in the original is outside of an airfield, is in front of an empty post-industrial plot of dirt. Planes fly overhead, which is when you realize this is shot on extremely sloppy video. Scenes around campfires are just closeups of flickering flames. Everything at the commune is represented visually by a closeup of a running stream. A really, really long take of a running stream. The Long-Allen Bridge (where Hendrix's “If 6 Was 9” was heard originally) is one of the few shots that has movement in it. We don't hear that song, though – the music is very lo-fi indie pop with female vocalists (Chan Marshall was one of them) and all the tunes were new to my ears except for an extremely ironic version of “Born To Be Wild.”
Genius? Certainly not. But not horse manure, either. Earlier in the year I was ready to scoff at something called The Shining Forwards and Backwards, a simultaneous projection of Kubrick's film superimposed in both directions with the accompanying forward audio track. The spooky subject matter gives it a boost, but the idiosyncratic juxtapositions are striking. (You can read more about this here and you can read Devin's take here.) Benning's Easy Rider has a handful of similar crackling moments.
Best is when the dialogue seems to somehow be commenting on the associated image. There's the scene in the diner, where the rednecks threaten Fonda, Hopper and Nicholson. Today, the diner (or the diner Benning chose to shoot) is now a boarded up mess. So who got the last laugh, squares!?! And you can't watch footage of a river for eighteen minutes and not think about how, you know, time just flows, man. (That Peter Fonda is saying things like “I'm hip about time” surely doesn't hurt.)
There are a galaxy of other mind trips you can take if you settle in to this film, I suppose. It'll take some effort, though. I don't care who you are, when you are in a theater looking at an ugly, static shot of an abandoned gas station without anything happening on the soundtrack you will start to feel self-conscious. You will start turning your neck a bit to see who else in the audience is about to crack. I've sat through an entire retrospective of Andy Warhol films at the Whitney Museum and, let me tell you, Easy Rider dares you to shout “bullshit!” more than most anything I've seen. It's funny, I suppose, that Benning should choose to chew “the act of watching” with a movie that was so envelope-pushing in its own time. But I don't know what possible meaning we could glean from his treatment of, say, a Frank Capra comedy.
I don't know that there's anything all that deep going on here. If this were a painting, you'd look at it, say “I get it,” and move on. The film, however, demands 92 minutes of your time and I don't think that whatever point Benning is trying to make is, quite frankly, deserving of that much rumination. It's cool, I get it, but I don't think we need to dwell on it that much. Despite my growth to accept “remix cinema” on its own terms, this particular instance had me echoing the heard-but-unseen words of its central character: we blew it.