2016 Film Essays

James Benning’s ‘Stemple Pass’: Minimalist Horror for Trump’s America


Although President Elect Donald Trump has not yet been sworn into office, the term “Trump’s America” has already become a usual suspect in film criticism. Indeed, it’s difficult to avoid reflecting on this seismic political event when viewing contemporary American films. Recently, I’ve found myself thinking back to James Benning’s Stemple Pass, an experimental film released in 2012 (incidentally, midway through Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency). Benning’s film deals with distinctly American subject matter, and those sociopolitical fixations warrant close analysis. Those fixations include the obsessive lust for “returning to the past,” an intensifying fear of the outsider and the tenuous connection between the human and the nonhuman (this last topic underpins issues like factory farming and capital expansion at the cost of environmental damage).

I caution against referring to Stemple Pass simply as a work of “non-narrative” cinema, because its progression is so rigorously and specifically designed. The film is comprised of four static shots with virtually identical framing, the sequences divided by a progressing change in season. Benning shoots the film on HD digital video, capturing minute changes in weather with crystalline detail while always maintaining focus on the film’s visibly main “subject”: a precise reconstruction of the cabin that once housed infamous “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski. The seasonal sections are couched with minutes-long stretches of natural ambient noise, which Benning interrupts by reading from Kaczynski’s diaries in voice-over narration.

The film plays almost like a work of genre horror, charting as it does the descent of one man’s mental state: Kaczynski begins with banal recollections of his day-to-day routines while living in the wild, before eventually going on to boast about deliberately injuring nearby motorists and eventually mailing explosives to major tech firms. The film’s serenity moves slowly from hypnotizing to dread-inducing, trapping the viewer within the confines of an unmoving image and the words of a mentally unfurling individual. This affect is magnified by the tension between claustrophobia and openness: although the film is built of wide, “open” repetitions of its image, the generally unchanging frame also keeps the viewer’s focus “trapped.”

Benning incorporates elements of ominous foreshadowing as early as the film’s first season (spring). He slowly reads Kaczynski’s graphic description of preparing a porcupine for eating, during which he repeatedly recalls dealing with the animal’s blood clots and internal organs. This scene immediately undoes Kaczynski’s own perception of his living space as purely picturesque and Edenic. While the Unabomber perceives the intrusion of vehicular noise and technology as a “fall” from his private grace, he himself enacts violence on his surroundings that are unfit for his delusional pre-lapsarian (or “pre-fall”) worldview. This delusion eerily predicts the kind of logic motivating many Trump voters, who perceive their notoriously corrupt and corporatist leader as a “voice of the people” when in fact he is the embodiment of their oppression. So too does Kaczynski’s yearning for a “return” to a utopic past reflect the empty logic of Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” As with the American past implied by Trump’s slogan, the past idealized by Kaczynski is one rooted in violent exceptionalism and xenophobia.

And it is the issue of exceptionalism that both connects and divides the philosophy of Kaczynski and Trump. Kaczynski perceives himself to be exceptional enough that his worldview warrants brutal action, but he also views himself to be “one” with his natural environment. He employs this self-defying logic to justify the fact that he regularly kills and eats animals for survival, but doesn’t consider the ways in which he impedes on his space, and on the rights of other human beings. Trump’s campaign, however, operates on the basis of human exceptionalism, which posits that the natural environment is subordinate to human (and more specifically corporate) interest.

Again, it is this violent foundation of exceptionalism which links Trump most clearly to Kaczynski, and to the themes of Stemple Pass. Just as Trump’s campaign promises mass deportation and the construction of a wall around national borders, so too does Kaczynski pride himself on his insular world. Like Trump, Kaczynski also emphasizes the importance of shutting out unwanted outsiders, and of proving his own exceptionalism. If the cost is violence, then so be it. For such a quiet film (what many would describe as “minimalist cinema”), Stemple Pass speaks with more volume and terror than many contemporary horror films. Played in 2016, it’s eerily prophetic.

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is a lifelong cinema enthusiast pursuing his M.A. in English literature at the University of Calgary. His fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including DarkFuse, Double Feature Magazine, Turn to Ash and the anthology Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups). He has also written numerous articles for Bright Lights Film Journal. You can contact him through his website, mikethornwrites.com.