A couple of days ago The New York Times ran an obituary on Lawrencia “Bambi” Bembenek. She became a bit of a tabloid sensation in the late 80s and early 90s for being implicated and found guilty of the murder of her husband’s ex-wife. Bembenek, a former Playboy bunny and police officer (!) gathered strong public support among those who variously thought the murder was justified, thought she was innocent and thought she was the victim of sexism and a public pillorying. Beyond that, she made even more headlines escaping from prison and going on the lam for 3 months.
Readers of this blog may well wonder what the hell does her life and death have to do with Hot Splice.
Tucked into the obituary was this item.
Within a year, supporters produced a low-budget documentary, “Used Innocence.” And in a three-hour television movie, “Woman on Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story,” Tatum O’Neal played the title role.
No doubt many followers of this blog will find interest in the Sandor Stern directed masterpiece starring Tatum O’Neal, but Used Innocence may be of more interest.
The “low-budget documentary” produced by Bembenek supporters, Used Innocence, was directed by James Benning. Exactly what these supporters were thinking when they got Benning in on the project is up for speculation, but the result was a masterpiece – a classic, austere and abstract film on Bembenek, America, the nature of documentary and a very personal essay dealing with Benning’s and Bembenek’s relationship.
Completed a year after Erroll Morris’ Thin Blue Line was released, Used Innocence follows some similar ideas and expands others in its use of actors playing real people, the use of images as evidence and most importantly to Benning, how landscape and place define character, motivations and events. Long pans of anonymous housing tracts and the blank landscapes of contemporary America beg questions of what produces tabloid worthy crimes. On top of all this are letters written between Benning and Bembenek. Benning has the letters read over the soundtrack – and in Benning style, the length of the letter determines the length of the shot. The letter shots are of clear blue sky. But unlike, say, the narratives of a film like Deseret, where historical texts build the contextual framework for the beautiful shots of Utah landscapes, the texts in Used Innocence create a sort of dance between Benning and Bembenek. Their relationship builds through their shared letters – at times questioning, seductive, manipulative, angry. Benning questions everything about the making of the documentary. How evidence, images, words make a case (or not) of innocence and guilt. How he as a documetary-maker uses Bembenek and how Bembenek is using him to make a case for her innocence. What’s truth? What’s Not? Their missives become intensely personal , but that only adds more questions to the nature of their relationship.
When Benning was at NWFF a few years ago, I asked him about Used Innocence. He said it was perhaps his most personal film and because of that he rarely lets it be screened. It was last shown in the Pacific Northwest, maybe ever, sometime in 1990 at the Rendezvous in Seattle and at the Olympia Film Festival a week later.