Filmovi usuprot konvencionalnim ali i avangardističkim/formalističkim parametrima - promatranje, trajanje, strpljenje, istraživanje mjesta. Postavljanje problema i njegovo rješavanje umjetničkim sredstvima.
(Veći dio posta preuzet je s bloga književnika Dennisa Coopera)
'Employing neither psychologised stories nor non-objectivist abstractions, James Benning’s approach to narrativity does not fit within the history of narrative cinema, nor with much canonical avant-garde work, and can pose an interpretative challenge to the spectator. For the first-time viewer of any of these films, the immediate impression is of radical, almost unnerving stillness generated by the long takes from a fixed camera position. Benning’s consistent exploration of cinematic duration, his painstaking mapping out of a space over time, suggests that his work can be easily contextualised in the history of long take cinema, along with Straub-Huillet, Ophuls, Welles and others.
'However, Benning’s work cannot be fully explained by theories of the long take as they relate to forms of narrative cinema, such as those of Bazin or Mitry, as the eschewal of narrative continuity and dramatic elements, particularly characters, militates against either the long take aesthetic (viz Bazinian realism) or the synthesis theory of montage and long take (as proposed by Mitry). However, in the narrower context of experimental filmmaking, Benning’s interest, in P. Adams Sitney’s words, in “film that insists on its shape”, invites descriptors like “structuralist” and “minimalist”, and the choice of long takes becomes part of the para-cinematic refutation of dominant cinematic codes (like the highly conventionalised notion of the post-modern audience “attention span”). Benning does not consider himself a structural filmmaker, believing he has “more to say” than those detached formalist experiments generally do, and explains this method of prolonged shots as a means to investigate place.
'With his mathematics background, his structuralism manifests in the invocation of rigorous compositional logic – the films of the California trilogy, for example, being composed of 35 shots of 2.5 minutes length – “pose questions” and “solve problems”. Benning’s long takes therefore become understandable as an authorial strategy for the organisation of documentary materials and for interrogating the act of seeing. After several minutes of looking at a single shot, the effect on the viewer is powerful. The formal elegance of the compositions somehow becomes surreal over time, as we look into, instead of at, the place. This tendency locates Benning in the history of experimental filmmakers concerned with interrogating visual perception.
'Benning’s landscape works, with their meticulous, reverential compositions, have been located in the history of American realist painting and photography, and also belong to the tradition of American nature writing. It is impossible to observe natural landscapes anywhere without some acknowledgement of the grim reality of human development and profiteering on wilderness, and Benning’s work is shot through with both a deep respect and love of nature, and a quiet sense of sadness at the devastation so regularly encountered. But he avoids essayism, or polemic, preferring instead critique by quotation, such as in the carefully inserted shots of ravaged landscapes, livestock and abattoir and other evidence of human despoilment that recur throughout his oeuvre. His is a restrained ecocriticism, “a certain political meaning” expressed through multivalent American symbols. Not for Benning the heroic American modernism of some of the avant-garde masters, but a different idea of wild places, less about individual expressivity and transcendentalism, and more about observation, time and consideration, no less sacred.' -- collaged
Talking About Seeing: A Conversation with James Benning by Danni Zuvela
It is perhaps because James Benning’s work is so resistant to neat categorisation that his films have rarely received the recognition they deserve. His work fuses elements of American structuralism, the narrative avant-garde and experimental documentary. While Australian audiences have been exposed to some of the better-known figures of American experimental cinema, rarely have they had the opportunity to see Benning’s work on the big screen. This year’s Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) retrospective focus on Benning’s career thus represents an important acknowledgement of sui generis work.
Audiences were able to see a cross-section of Benning’s career: 11X14 (1977), American Dreams (1983), Landscape Suicide (1988), Four Corners (1997) and Los (2001), as well as a German-made documentary on Benning’s work, Circling the Image (Reinhard Wulf, 2003). A hugely helpful introduction to Benning’s filmmaking, the documentary established his painstaking method of visiting a space and experiencing, absorbing and evaluating its particular geography. Accompanying him during the making of his newest work 13 Lakes (not yet released), we see the care and time with which he frames each shot, and the process of filming on 16mm and recording the sound on tape. We hear Benning articulate his filmmaking approach and method (“looking and listening”), while the camera observes him filming views of different lakes. Breathtaking wide shots of the American desert landscape reference but do not mimic or copy Benning’s work. It’s easy to understand why: once we see a 13 Lakes workprint shot of a vista, we realise that though the video shots look good, they are utterly eclipsed by the depth and tone captured by the film, particularly in the rippling sapphire of the water and chalky whiteness of the rocks.
Employing neither psychologised stories nor non-objectivist abstractions, Benning’s approach to narrativity does not fit within the history of narrative cinema, nor with much canonical avant-garde work, and can pose an interpretative challenge to the spectator. For the first-time viewer of any of these films, the immediate impression is of radical, almost unnerving stillness generated by the long takes from a fixed camera position. Benning’s consistent exploration of cinematic duration, his painstaking mapping out of a space over time, suggests that his work can be easily contextualised in the history of long take cinema, along with Straub-Huillet, Ophuls, Welles and others.
However, Benning’s work cannot be fully explained by theories of the long take as they relate to forms of narrative cinema, such as those of Bazin or Mitry, as the eschewal of narrative continuity and dramatic elements, particularly characters, militates against either the long take aesthetic (viz Bazinian realism) or the synthesis theory of montage and long take (as proposed by Mitry). However, in the narrower context of experimental filmmaking, Benning’s interest, in P. Adams Sitney’s words, in “film that insists on its shape”, invites descriptors like “structuralist” and “minimalist”, and the choice of long takes becomes part of the para-cinematic refutation of dominant cinematic codes (like the highly conventionalised notion of the post-modern audience “attention span”). Benning does not consider himself a structural filmmaker, believing he has “more to say” than those detached formalist experiments generally do, and explains this method of prolonged shots as a means to investigate place.
With his mathematics background, his structuralism manifests in the invocation of rigorous compositional logic – the films of the California trilogy, for example, being composed of 35 shots of 2.5 minutes length – “pose questions” and “solve problems”. Benning’s long takes therefore become understandable as an authorial strategy for the organisation of documentary materials and for interrogating the act of seeing. After several minutes of looking at a single shot, the effect on the viewer is powerful. The formal elegance of the compositions somehow becomes surreal over time, as we look into, instead of at, the place. This tendency locates Benning in the history of experimental filmmakers concerned with interrogating visual perception.
Curated by Bruce Hodsdon, the films featured in the BIFF retrospective sketch out Benning’s move to increasingly de-peopled landscapes. Los, the second film in the California trilogy, is an antonymic representation of Los Angeles. The familiar spectacle is eschewed for unfamiliar public spaces that reveal the city’s inner workings, the machinations and minutiae of quotidian reality. Unglamorous images of suburban boulevards, a courthouse, industrial harbours, flight paths, workers and homeless people, compose a layered portrait of the “other” Los Angeles, an alternate city symphony of humanist interest in the place and its inhabitants. Benning’s appreciation of Robert Smithson’s industrial landscapes is evident here, in the shots of the car yards, dozers and trucks, and in the signature shots of oil pumps, silos and industrial machinery. Also recurrent is the motif of water that weaves through the California trilogy. Los opens with a beautiful shot of the roaring causeway which follows on from the irrigated landscapes of El Valley Centro (2000), is punctuated with numerous significant “water” shots (such as the joggers in the rain, the hosing of the empty football field and the polluted LA River) and finishes with a expansive shot of the ocean. Los also continues Benning’s inquiry into sound-image relations. Two scenes in particular stand out for their use of offscreen space; the first, a shot of a non-descript intersection, which seems unremarkable until the roar of an unseen plane flying very close overhead is deafening. In another scene, bright light glints off the visors of scores of young-looking cops in full riot regalia shifting uneasily in the sun, as a dull rumble grows from somewhere offscreen. Gradually we make out the sound of protesters’ chants, again unseen, approaching until the noise, and the cops’ tension, is palpable. The shot finishes just as confrontation seems imminent, but remains unseen. Perceptual experiments such as these are a hallmark of formalist experimental cinema, but here can also be seen as researches that reinvigorate the form of experimental documentary.
Benning’s landscape works, with their meticulous, reverential compositions, have been located in the history of American realist painting and photography, and also belong to the tradition of American nature writing. It is impossible to observe natural landscapes anywhere without some acknowledgement of the grim reality of human development and profiteering on wilderness, and Benning’s work is shot through with both a deep respect and love of nature, and a quiet sense of sadness at the devastation so regularly encountered. But he avoids essayism, or polemic, preferring instead critique by quotation, such as in the carefully inserted shots of ravaged landscapes, livestock and abattoir and other evidence of human despoilment that recur throughout his oeuvre. His is a restrained ecocriticism, “a certain political meaning” expressed through multivalent American symbols. Not for Benning the heroic American modernism of some of the avant-garde masters, but a different idea of wild places, less about individual expressivity and transcendentalism, and more about observation, time and consideration, no less sacred.
The Benning retrospective also included important work that interrogates other kinds of landscapes beside the natural and the picturesque. American Dreams uses a three-part structure that involves the simultaneous presentation of an obsessive collection of baseball memorabilia, handwritten diary extracts and popular songs. The complexity of that film’s investigation of American history and masculinity – the landscape of the mind – is so perceptually challenging it is evidently a film for multiple viewings. Landscape Suicide similarly uses actuality text as a kind of found object to structure the work. Actors perform transcripts of two people convicted of murder as the film, more fascinating than it is grim, probes the relation between the crimes and their locales. In his introduction at the screening, James thanked us for “coming out on a Sunday morning to watch a murder film”. These are relatively early films, though, and the retrospective is carefully chosen to represent the trajectory of Benning’s career over the past two and a half decades, from an interest in narrativity and the use of human figures to the exploration of landscape over time.
11X14 opens with a lengthy shot from the back carriage of the Evanston Express ride into downtown Chicago, evoking early cinema’s train fetishism and providing one of the few instances of mobile camera in a Benning film. 11X14 includes two other extremely long shots as the ambiguous three plot strands disperse; a shot of two women in bed as music plays, and at the pinnacle, a close up of white smoke or steam billowing from a smokestack. That afternoon on the train home, I reflected on the changes Benning’s work had made to my own ways of visualising as I looked out at winter-golden Brisbane, and was struck by the simple beauty of the smokestacks and factories of the industrial patch of the inner city. I realised I was seeing them differently – really differently, as though with different eyes. Suddenly, amidst the rhythmic clanking of the train, I was able to appreciate the colour, tone and composition of each view, the angle, texture and motion of the smoke, the textured slanting sides of the buildings and rusting long lines of the railyards. The journey seemed to pass in an instant, and I realised that I was “seeing and thinking” differently, and that for this over-familiar vista, my way of “looking and listening” had been subtly, but significantly, changed.
– Danni Zuvela
* * *Danni Zuvela: James, there are so many words people use to describe this kind of non-commercial film work – experimental, avant-garde, underground – all terms that have different but overlapping connotations and usages.
I’d like to frame today’s conversation in terms of “artist filmmaking”, and why film seems to be among the most marginalised artforms.
James Benning: Artist filmmakers are on the margins. I mean, there’s a number who have made a career out of it but even they tend to be marginalised. Nobody’s making any money out of it. Those who do become well known are often known for their theory, which helps their films become known. People like Hollis Frampton, who wrote a lot – I think that helped his work become better known.
DZ: Artist filmmakers don’t fit into the industrial film world, but then they are ignored by the art world as well.
JB: They’re in-between! It’s the non-commodity status of the work; it doesn’t have a “value” in either world. If you’re an artist in any other medium, you find a gallery and have hopes of making a decent living. A few do climb to the top of that pyramid to make a living. I’ve never really made money from my work, unless it’s an installation.
DZ: Can you talk to me a little about your approach as an artist?
JB: When I first started out I didn’t know what art was. My definition of art was drawing and painting and stuff… what I did think was art wasn’t really art at all – it was the stuff I’d seen in arts and crafts festivals. Then once I got serious with film, I realised art has this conceptual side to it, which I’d never thought about, but made sense.
Now I think of myself as an artist who happens to use film, and I approach my work as an artist solving problems. I set up problems and try to solve them in an artistic and creative way and hope to find an audience, hope that someone will find it interesting…
It may be that it’s no different for any other artist, but it seems especially difficult for film artists. I’ve been in four Whitney Biennials. A painter only has to be in two to become self-sufficient, but for a film artist, that recognition seems of little benefit. Anybody that’s interested in the arts should be interested in my films – they have the same concerns as other work in the visual arts.
DZ: Can you talk to me a little about the way audiences engage with your films, and what sort of changes you’ve noticed in audiences over the years – have they become more receptive to fine art film? When your films were first shown, was that in a context of people having seen work they could reference yours to, like Michael Snow’s and Hollis Frampton’s?
JB: Back in the ’70s those works still weren’t seen by general audiences. I think most of those early screenings took place with just a few people in the room. A few very interested people, but they weren’t huge audiences, or even big – more just a small, art crowd. I don’t think most people would have seen Snow or Warhol’s work, though they might have been aware of it. That awareness tended to come later.
Over time film audiences have become more sophisticated. They’ve been to film schools and other venues where they could see work that’s different to dominant cinema. Unfortunately those places, those venues, are drying up – many places that used to show experimental film have gone out of business, or they’ve changed to become more accessible. That’s in the US, of course – I think the audience is even larger, and growing, in Europe – in Germany, Austria, England, my work’s played to large audiences who seem very receptive to what I’m trying to do.
DZ: Why do you think that might be?
JB: Oh, I don’t know – it’s more exotic than images of their home country perhaps, or maybe there’s less attention, less drive to make narrative works than in the US.
DZ: But your work is narrative, in a way.
JB: Yes, it’s experimental narrative… it’s non-conventional, for narrative. I think it’s about patience too – Europeans seem to be more patient with films, to have more understanding of the concerns and what I’m doing. I found they’re very poetic in the way they talk about films with me, the way they describe films. In Germany I found people would actually take in details about images…if somebody notices the frost melting on the grass in one of my shots, for example, I get very excited that they’re watching so closely. I find that the people who get bored aren’t able to describe anything they’ve seen in the image, because they haven’t worked hard enough at noticing things within the film.
DZ: Why do you think the art world continues to ignore the value of artist film? Is it because it’s technologically more complex than hanging a painting or installing a sculpture?
JB: Galleries are resistant to film technology, generally. They prefer to show things on video or DVD. My work’s always on film, I haven’t put it onto video or DVD – if I want to show them in a gallery or museum I show them on film. For galleries, the setting up of projectors and having screening times is foreign to them. I mean, they could build a theatre or work on a theatre space, but if you show a film every day, a couple of times a day, before the month’s out you’ll destroy the print.
I’m not against new technologies. I think that films projected from a proper DVD look better than an awful, scratched print being projected. They’d have to have a proper start and finish time though – I wouldn’t want people to just wander in and out. That’s not what these films are about.
DZ: Your work is difficult to categorise, for a number of reasons, so it’s hard to find people who might be considered peers of yours. Are there any filmmakers who you think have similar concerns to yours?
JB: I think there are no real peers, but there are some people whose work looks like mine, though it’s more about an aesthetic and less about engaging with social and political ideas as mine sometimes does.
Sharon Lockhart is an artist whose work has some similarities, though. She bases her art on her observations, like the piece of a girls’ basketball team practising [Goshogaoka] . That piece has been criticised, people have criticised the choreographed movement because it’s so formalised, that it’s somehow making false statements about Japanese culture. I don’t understand these criticisms, or don’t agree with them. I think because it comes out of observation – it aestheticises the movement – that it reveals the way Americans perceive another culture. That shouldn’t be faulted, that should be applauded! You know how some people say tourism is just another form of imperialism. Well that doesn’t make sense to me. People go in and maybe observe a place their way, it’s not hidden – Sharon is totally honest about the choreography, it’s there in black and white – it’s not hidden, it’s a view from outside.
I think maybe I’m lucky – because I’m looking at my own culture the culture police don’t come after me!
DZ: So could you say that what you and Sharon both are trying to do is not just observe place, but re-present it in ways that might provoke others to explore their conceptions of place?
JB: I’m trying to re-present my own experience with place – trying to define how I feel about it. I don’t think I can be right or wrong; the presentation is how it’s filtered through my own eyes and ears. If I go to Farmington, New Mexico and I spend a couple of months there, get to know the people and then I make a film, I’m trying to be as honest as I feel, but I still might misrepresent it to those people. But they can also be blinded, by being so close to it – I might be able to see things that they can’t see. I have a right to do that, the same way they have a right to come to Val Verde, California and film me and my place. In fact I’d love that, the chance to see through someone else’s eyes.
That’s one reason I agreed to take the German crew on a journey through my life, to see what it was that they saw. It was interesting, actually, the way they worked with the material they got – they wanted to make me look good. For example there’s this thing about car culture, I admitted to being seduced by driving long distances in this car that’s not very efficient, which doesn’t get great mileage, and that that’s at odds with my work which has political undertones about conservation and the need to protect nature. They left that out, I don’t know, maybe they think that makes me look bad, and it does take a lot to admit that you’re not always perfect…they left out me understanding that I was being, at times, part of the problem, and I can see why they did that, but I think it would be foolish not to admit that…by leaving it out could make me look naive.
I didn’t look at the cuts of the documentary, I didn’t ask to see them, and I’m actually somewhat pleased. I think it’s an odd thing, to watch yourself, but I liked what they did with it. They were respectful, when they represented my work. They didn’t want to use the voiceover – I told them if it makes the film better, don’t be afraid to do it. I think a talking head would be very boring so we did the interview with the lens cap on.
DZ: The technique they use to construct the documentary seems to me to be a loving reference to your work, rather than mimicry or a take-off.
JB: Yes, they let things play much longer than any other documentary. They made it clear that they would not mimic my style, not compete with my filmmaking.
The director [Reinhard Wulf] is from the same station that’s screened my works before [WDR, Germany]. They came to LA, we met and they talked to me at length. Their station had just bought three films of mine. I wasn’t going to start the film for another year, but with their help I got started earlier. Everything just seemed to fall into place.
DZ: The documentary’s very recent and was great to see before seeing your work on the big screen. How long did it take to put together?
JB: They actually made it in a remarkably short period of time. We spent nine or ten days together at the end of November 2003, and they managed to cut it in about five weeks, because it went to air the first week of January this year, to 100,000 households.
It was difficult but fun to do. It’s been to a number of festivals and is an interesting way to get somebody to “advertise” me – I’ve gotten a number of showings as a result of it.
DZ: It really shows how vital promotion is for film artists. Do you think film artists tend to be a little reticent about constructing themselves in the public eye?
JB: Artist filmmakers are, I think, generally shy of promotion but I think even if you wanted to, there’s no real system for that promotion. I don’t know how you would go about it. There’s not a whole system like the art world’s dealers and gallery system, where if you know how to play it you can get a shot at the big time. There’s not much opportunity for one person to make a really big difference by promoting certain artists, though John Hanhardt was a curator who tried to do this. It’s very hard.
DZ: The documentary really highlights the centrality of landscape to your method as an artist, showing the meticulous process you use, the “looking and listening”, in constructing each shot. You’ve said previously that you see “landscape as a function of time” – can you talk to me a bit about that?
JB: I have an interest in exploring space-time relationships through film. There’s real time, and there’s how we perceive time. Time affects the way we perceive place. That’s where I get this idea of “looking and listening”. In my films, I’m very aware of recording place over time, and the way that makes you understand place. Once you’ve been watching something for a while, you become aware of it differently. I could show you a photograph of the place, but that doesn’t convince you, it’s not the same as seeing it in time. I’m very interested, now, in how much time is necessary to understand place. In my films, I tend to work with 100-foot rolls, which is about 2.5 minutes. That way I can have a little control over the window on the place that I record. I’m not convinced that 2.5 minutes is the proper amount of time necessary to understand landscapes but it is a manageable amount of time. I like to think I’m being democratic – each shot gets the same amount of time. It’s just a strategy. It’s important to watch for a period to choose the right time. I think that length is a manageable time for audiences. I also feel that it’s a bit like going back to the beginning of cinema, using the whole roll.
DZ: You mentioned audiences – to what degree does consideration of the work’s reception bear on your film work?
JB: Consideration of audience is not a part of it because, to me, the interest shouldn’t be determined by audiences – it should be by myself, to understand the concept and then the audience can work out how they interact with it. My films ask you to look around the frame, and at the frame, and have a different experience to the one you’re probably used to from TV or Hollywood. If we see things being signposted all the time…we become lazy, we become dominated by the filmmaker instead of having room to move.
I’m interested in the spatialisation of time. And the temporalisation of space! (laughs).
If we come to expect that every few seconds we’re going to be signposted to another piece of space, then we’re not going to be able to read longer images.
I’m not saying that everyone should make films like mine – good films can be made from quick cutting and attention to the articulation of juxtaposition. This does seem familiar, however, from co-option by MTV and ads. I’m not making a case that you have to make films like mine, though.
DZ: You sort of started out making more formal experimental films, then your works developed more of a narrative sense – can you talk to me about the shifts in your work?
JB: When I began those formalistic plays, experiments with sound and image relations and choreographed movement, every now and then there would be a fortuitous action that changed things, so I started planning those. Then I introduced minimal narratives – a bone to keep myself and the audience interested. Then I became more aware of life, life and death situations, general histories and personal histories, which was in a way coming back to people and narrative but in different ways. And I started to develop all these things I’m investigating in relation to image making, image duration. It allows me to understand form, the long take static shot, it allowed contemplation of the image and ideas.
DZ: Can we talk a bit about Los and the California trilogy (with El Valley Centro and Sogobi )? All involved that “democratic” use of (near) whole rolls you’ve referred to previously – 35 shots of 2.5 minutes. There must have been so many possibilities for editing.
JB: Well there’s the 35 factorial – you’ve got 35X34X33 and so on. What I did was I took one frame from the workprint and mounted them on 35mm frames and edited them on a slide tray. I knew their length – each roll was 2.7 minutes so I could slide the head or tail to fit, and I knew the sound and I considered that when I was ordering the films. I also thought about the interrelation between the movies, and how they were connected. Each one seemed to lead on naturally from the prior film.
DZ: I haven’t seen El Valley Centro or Sogobi, but I noticed bodies of water feature strongly in Los.
JB: Yes, those are part of the film and they also connect all the films of the trilogy, the references to water. Los opens with a spillway that carries on from and has this progression throughout, to the ocean…there’s the wetlands, the LA River and the guys spraying water on the stadium.
DZ: How did you proceed to order the films? What sort of logic determined the choices?
JB: Well, I tried not to have immediate juxtapositions but to cut to make you aware of shots’ relationships. The only place where there is an immediate juxtaposition is in the shot of the graveyard, which comes after the abattoir scene. There’s cross-referencing, also, to make the experience more spherical.
DZ: I was struck by how strongly you could feel the presence of human beings in the shots that are ostensibly “just” landscapes (traffic noise, for example). Even though you tried to focus mainly on figureless landscapes, people keep wandering in (a kind of metaphor for encroaching development, maybe). It must have been hard to be unobtrusive in some of those scenes where there are folks wandering around.
JB: Well, at times I had to tape the camera to a railing, or hide it somewhere. When I was filming outside the LA County Jail and people – families – were exiting, I hid the camera in a box and dressed as a delivery man, and made believe I was looking up an address. I generally never do that. I also did it on the homeless street, where I put the camera into a box. They dumped a whole lot of people out of mental institutions and they were just forgotten, or discarded, wandering around on the streets. One lady interacts with the camera; she’s one of very few people who do. It still feels ethically wrong to do that…I always ask workers’ permission if I’m going to film them. I had to ask these Spanish-speaking workers weeding in the field if I could film them. They were like, “why are you asking us – you’re the white guy”. They were weeding right up to the camera. They wouldn’t take any money, either, I tried to give them some money to go and buy some beers but they wouldn’t take it. That made me feel about this big (small hand gestures).
DZ: Can you talk a little about how “art” figured in your background, and about your work in art education?
JB: I came from lower middle class parents who didn’t read. My dad was into hunting, my mum did the housework, you know. I had no idea what art was. I could draw though, and people said, “Well, you’re an artist”. My models of art were the sidewalk art fairs – I came to it with very little awareness of what art was, and what I thought it was, it probably wasn’t.
When I first picked up a camera, I was interested in film about conceptual ideas – I happened to use film to become an artist, a way to looking and listening.
I used to think you couldn’t teach someone to become an artist – they either were or they weren’t. I think now that you can provide basic training, starting with teaching how to listen and how to look – learn the basics of how hard it is to pay attention. Mine [teaching classes] are kind of like performance classes where the students become active viewers. We go on excursions, and they do it, the students, they show up at 4am, and we’ll go down a mountain road in the dark and go to the top of a hill. Gradually, as it gets more and more light, they’ll look around and they’ll realise that we’re in a place where a forest fire had been…they become aware of a change in sounds, sights…it’s about the articulation of change, the little subtle changes that take place over time, watching the sun come up. I try to get them to pay attention, and they appreciate it.
The point of it is not to translate that immediately into art, either, but to think about seeing. The students are enthusiastic and these are very successful classes. I’m most proud of going against my own conviction that you can’t teach art. Their success as artists makes me very proud.
DZ: Your work emerged after the big explosion of avant-garde work in the ’70s, and your work is often referred to as structuralist – can you talk a bit about the context of your work?
JB: When I started making films I realised that they’d already gone through a lot of the material of film stuff, the investigation into form. I was very interested in exploring form but quickly gave into ideas, history…I’m a diaries person. My work is more personal than some of the structuralist stuff.
DZ: I heard that your first contact with experimental film was when you saw Meshes of the Afternoon [Maya Deren]  on television?
JB: I was watching TV in the early ’60s, switching between local cooking shows and Saturday cowboy movies, and on public TV they had Meshes on! It was eight years after that till I first started playing with cameras, so it wasn’t like I rushed out and started making films immediately! But it definitely affected me…it was just so different to anything I’d ever seen, especially on TV. I had a lot of stuff to work through before getting a camera, though.
DZ: I’m intrigued by the fact that you’re a mathematician. Can you talk a bit about the role of maths in your life and work?
JB: I was studying maths, which is very creative.
DZ: As someone who’s hopeless at maths, I have some trouble with seeing how it’s creative – it seems so logical and machine-like to me.
JB: Oh, maths is very creative. It’s beautiful, when you solve things. An elegant proof…my work is a bit like proving things, I think. Plenty of filmmakers have been mathematicians as well – Hollis Frampton, for instance. You can see maths in almost any film – in narrative film, even – say for example the way the light hits a wall. It’s beautiful, and it’s all maths.
DZ: So is maths a big factor or influence on your work?
JB: The biggest influence is always the work just done. The works influence each other, interact with each other. Ideas keep being refocused. Right now I’m working on a trilogy that goes back to One Way Boogie Woogie . I started out making films with text and image, then I felt I’d exhausted that, and I wanted to go back to portrait films, working on portraits of place, so I decided I’d make a film of 35 shots that were 2.5 minutes long. I’ve just finished making 13 Lakes, where each shot is half sky, half water.
Now I’m working on Ten Skies, which will be ten shots of sky, using a normal lens. I had a look at some of the shots and it really got the detail, I didn’t think it would but it really did. The funny thing is because of the shape of the frame, it’s kind of like looking at the sky through the sunroof of a car! I’m really interested in the ways the sky changes in reaction to the landscape below – how the clouds look above the mountains, over flat lands, above a forest fire, which was kind of creating its own weather system…There’s this one shot where these two white clouds are in the frame and then this black cloud from behind comes up and covers the whole frame – it makes a wipe! The whole thing is very dramatic, and it’s just cloud movement.
All the shots end up with a dynamic quality, I never saw that before, I never had the courage. It took me 50 years to look at the sky like that! I call it “found paintings”. I think of my landscape works now as anti-war artworks – they’re about the antithesis of war, the kind of beauty we’re destroying. The Ten Skies works came about because I’m thinking about what the opposite of war was.
DZ: This work sounds like it would be beautiful installed in a gallery setting.
JB: At first I resisted, I didn’t want to be marketed in those terms, as a commodity – I felt I’d be ghettoised, and I wouldn’t be happy about that. It’s all my fault, I suppose, that I haven’t done more gallery work. I don’t really have an opposition to the work being show on DVD, though – I don’t think it’s the technology that’s the problem. Galleries would have to rethink the way they present work so people don’t just stumble in and check it of the list, you know, and move on. With remaking One Way Boogie Woogie, I was thinking it could work side by side with the old film at the same length, that way you could make an interesting comparison. I’d still want a theatrical screening, though, showing the old and then the new. Not having them together, side by side, you’d have to make the comparison from memory. I think this could be interesting…the installation might be not as interesting as the theatrical memory.
I wouldn’t want it to be running the whole time in the gallery, though – I would want it to be shown from beginning to end. I would insist on a starting time, and chairs, not just having people coming in and out. I’m encouraged by how it looks on DVD, and I think I’m interested in returning to installation work. But it does seem quite difficult…I’m lucky people have watched my work, that people have shown it at festivals and on TV.
DZ: So…why do it? I mean that in the nicest possible way…Why would anybody want to make artist film?
JB: It’s because you can’t do anything else.
For me, it doesn’t have to be film, but I’d have to be doing some sort of art production. It’s like Ani Di Franco says: “Art is what I do when I get up in the morning.” It’s a blessing that I can’t function without it. I work all the time, in my mind, I never can stop…I have fun, then I’ll get an idea and have to grow that, even when I’m doing other things.
You never clock out as an artist. You can’t quit the job either. It’s somewhat obsessive.
James Benning’s Art of Landscape: Ontological, Pedagogical, Sacrilegious by Michael B. Anderson
The screen is not a simple rectangle but rather the homothetic surface of the viewfinder of his camera. It is the very opposite of a frame. The screen is a mask whose function is no less to hide reality than it is to reveal it. The significance of what the camera discloses is relative to what it leaves hidden. – André Bazin, “The French Renoir” (1)
IntroductionOn the surface, there would seem few films less illustrative of André Bazin’s point than James Benning’s 13 Lakes (2004). After all, 13 Lakes is no more than what it promises: thirteen lakes (from across the United States) filmed in identical ten-minute takes. Each is a static composition, framing sky and water in equal measure. None features any human incursion, save the occasional boat, wave runner, automobile, train and, in the Crater Lake sequence, the off-camera sound of gunshots. This is a film where any human imprint is light and vanishing.
Surely, 13 Lakes is a far cry from the principle subject of Bazin’s formulation, Jean Renoir’s multi-character magnum opus, La Règle du jeu (1939). In this classic tragicomedy detailing the peccadilloes of France’s bourgeois society and servant classes alike, Renoir’s numerous characters move into and out of the frame continually, giving shape to the director’s innovative strategy of playing his scenes “independent of the camera in all its real dramatic expense” (2). Consequently, the mise en scène – which is to say the space of the film – rids itself of its analogy to the frame, developing instead into a larger field in which “the action plays hide-and-seek with the camera” (3).
With no drama to conceal therefore, 13 Lakes again does not seem an obvious choice to elucidate Bazin’s conceptualisation of the frame. Even so, an absence of dramatic action does not entail an absence of movement. Though Renoir’s characters are dramatically motivated to move in and out of view, thereby construing mise en scène’s independence from the frame, it is nonetheless the motion and not the motivation that gives shape to the space. Similarly, Benning’s film manifests movement, even if this motion does not facilitate traditional dramatic exposition. In the case of 13 Lakes, the movement depicted calls attention to the moment-to-moment transformation of the natural world. Whether it is the slow drift of cumulus clouds, raindrops falling on a tranquil mere, or a brisk wind sweeping across the surface of the water, the protean quality of the natural world is emphasized. And since the movement being depicted has nothing to do with authorial manipulation, it is motion which cannot be fully circumscribed within the confines of the frame. This is a transformation occurring continually, on- and off-screen. Nevertheless, these transformations are captured by a camera, commensurate with the editorial choices of the filmmaker (both in terms of what is shot and how it is depicted). It is, in other words, a work of art, however minimal it may be in its conception. Indeed, the particularities of its formal discourse will be examined in greater detail before returning to its pedagogic value in relation to Bazin’s conception of the frame.
10 x 13
The most immediately apparent characteristic of James Benning’s film is surely its form: thirteen ten-minute static takes, which (save the leader between shots) comprise the entire visual track of the picture. Far from cursory, this detail accounts for the totality of Benning’s æsthetic. Everything that Benning says in 13 Lakes, he says using this formal language – along with a soundtrack recorded on-site, thought not necessarily concurrently with the image. Moreover, Benning, as has been noted, repeats the same basic framing in each of the thirteen segments, presenting the horizon-line in centre of the frame, dividing lake and sky into approximately equivalent fields. (To capture his subject in this manner, Benning placed the front legs of his tripod in the water and the rear one on the shoreline.) In this way, Benning does not vary his presentation of the film’s exceedingly uniform content.
It goes without saying that most viewers are ill-prepared to view film according to this rubric: 13 Lakes is an extremely challenging work, not only because it dispenses with those traditional narrative modes most closely associated with theatre and the novel, but also for the exceptional patience and attenuation to detail that it demands of its viewers. As such, the experience of viewing 13 Lakes is closer to that of the plastic arts, and especially to painting, than it is to literature or the theatre. One looks at these landscapes as they would a painting of the same subject matter. Then again, the control of duration that is central to the medium’s ontology distinguishes it from this medium, reaffirming its association with theatre and especially music. Like these two, the experience of cinema is an experience of a specific duration. It possesses a rhythm by virtue of its design. In the case of painting, on the other hand, the experience of time is controlled by the viewer, not the artist.
Among the effects of Benning’s particular strategy of showing landscapes over an extended duration is their facility to reveal aspects of natural phenomena that a more conventional representation would not. A prime example of this descriptive capacity manifest in Benning’s form is found in the film’s fourth segment, Lake Superior. Here, with temperatures hovering around zero Fahrenheit, a sheet of ice drifts gently over the incoming tide of Superior (the world’s largest freshwater lake, on the United States-Canada border). Normally, the representation of ice in the plastic arts calls attention to its mass and solidity – one need only think of the heft of German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (c1823–5) or the impregnable surfaces in Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow (1565). In such representations, ice in effect is an extension of land mass to contrast with the void of the sea. Comparatively, the floating ice in the Superior segment intimates less a solid mass than it does a buoyant veil. The ice moves, which of course is a phenomenon that painting is incapable of representing. Then again, a shorter depiction of this subject (in something like a cutaway) would risk obscuring the image’s tactility, which is built up over time. Without the segment’s duration, the impression of buoyancy and the sense of weightlessness would not emerge. Indeed, Benning’s excess spawns a musicality – manifested in the rhythm of landscape – that affects the viewer supra-emotionally. In this, Benning shows his debt to filmmakers ranging from Andy Warhol and Michael Snow – Benning specifically cites Wavelength (Snow, 1966–7) as a source for 13 Lakes – to Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky and Abbas Kiarostami (who made his own landscape picture in 2004, Five, which all the same departs from Benning’s as it calls attention to its own formal illusion).
If Benning shares their languid sense of rhythm, indeed, it would seem to be demanded not only by his subject matter, but further by what the director intends to accomplish in the film. Specifically, Benning’s stated purpose in 13 Lakes is to make a film that assists his viewers in becoming artists. Again, the temporal dimension of the work facilitates this strategy as the extended duration provides the viewer with the opportunity to decipher small changes and fluctuations in the natural world. In other words, it impels the viewer to look and listen with greater sensitivity, which importantly mimics the name of a class he teaches to young artists at the California Institute of the Arts, “Looking and Listening”. Both represent the same programme of honing the sensorial acumen of would-be artists. Ultimately, 13 Lakes and his class both attest to the same belief: that being an artist, especially in the cinema, is first a matter of being sensitive to the surrounding world. To see and to hear are necessary preconditions of being a successful artist.
Circling the Frame on Four SidesSpeaking of success, there is no filmmaker working today with a greater reputation than Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. Like Benning, Kiarostami is another filmmaker working on a similar wavelength, combining a patient observation of landscape with specific pedagogic programme that reinvests a Bazinian engagement of reality with post-Nouvelle Vague formalist preoccupations. If Abbas Kiarostami is thus the most radical re-interpreter of film form of his generation, Benning is a quiet, unassuming investigator of filmic ontology. Both, however, show a decided interest in the nature of the frame, even if Kiarostami’s is a systematic reappraisal of Bazinian thought, while Benning’s is perhaps an unintended echo of the same theoretical model.
In the Lake Iliamna (Alaska) segment, the contemplation of the film’s subject is replaced with a consideration of the medium itself. As was stated at the outset, 13 Lakes facilitates a Bazinian reading of the picture, understanding the screen not as presenting a rectangular fragment of reality, but rather as a “mask whose function is no less to hide reality than it is to reveal it”. Again, the mise en scène is not limited to what is captured on-screen, but rather spills into an indeterminate space existing just beyond the limits of the frame. It is the space of the art, and yet possesses no precise physical presence of its own. It is conceptual rather than material and, at the same time, its material existence cannot be denied, as long as what is represented on camera is a photographic record of the real world. Thus, while the mise en scène is a composite of on- and off-camera spaces, the frame delineating the two becomes itself a narrational tool, subject to the manipulations of the artist.
Assuming this explanation of the narrational capacity of the frame, there would again seem few films less corroborative of Bazin’s point than a non-narrative, post-human motion picture composed entirely of static long takes. Then again, Benning’s is not a film devoid of movement, even if the change depicted is that inherent in nature and not actor movement in and out of the frame (as in the Renoir film). In the Alaskan segment, a strong gust of wind continually blows snow onto the water from a position behind the camera. (Benning tells of being caked in a couple of inches of snow during the course of the filming.) As a consequence of this motion from the space behind the camera to that before it, the viewer becomes aware not only the lateral space spoken of by Bazin, but additionally to a spatial depth in which the camera exists not on the edge of a conceptual universe but rather in the midst of a much larger world. It is not the camera or the characters which are in motion, but, instead, it is the cosmos. The static camera is a passive observer of this perpetual flux.
Indeed, the convergence of a static camera and movement in depth also provides the film with one of its stranger allusions, and certainly its most unexpected lesson. As the story goes, when the Brothers Lumière first screened L’Arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat (1895) in a Parisian theatre, the unacclimated audience rushed for the exits, believing that the train was barrelling headlong in their direction. In other words, the crowd believed that they were seeing a real train coming towards them and assumed that the screen was an aperture opening up onto a reality where the train was coming towards them. Whether or not this account is correct is of little importance, conceptually. In either case, what was being forwarded was a description of the frame as a mask, a forerunner to Bazin’s conceit. If indeed the frame opened up onto another reality, then the four walls of the theatre acted to conceal this space every bit as much as the camera disclosed a congruent world. That is, the space of the screen is only a fragment of the space present at the moment of the action – whether the screen is an aperture opening on to another reality or a plastic representation of a space at and over a particular time. In the same way, the motion through Benning’s camera gives the impression that the theatre is again masking the viewer from a reality extant beyond the four walls of the theatre. While no contemporary viewer would succumb to the same panic ascribed to cinema’s first patrons, the Lake Iliamna segment fosters an understanding of the medium equivalent to the one possessed by these earliest viewers. One could imagine the theatre being present amidst the reality being depicted on-screen, on the edge of Iliamna, with the space of the screen again serving as an opening looking onto this abutting world.
Of course, the wisdom in this conceptualisation of the screen can be easily lost in its self-evident naiveté. The point to be gleaned is that the camera itself exists within a space that again Benning’s film calls attention to in the noted sequence. This acknowledgment is essential to cinema’s contingent relationship to reality, which indeed exists at the core of the Bazinian thesis. It is not simply that photography-based cinema depicts reality through the act of filming, but moreover that the spatial presence of the camera (in imprinting reality) requires its situation in space. It is up to the filmmakers, consequently, to determine whether or not they will draw attention to the space beyond the frame. Renoir and Benning are both successful in doing so, even if the means by which they achieve this effect are decidedly different. It is important, likewise, to remember that the world beyond the frame is an essential component to the artist’s experience of the filmmaking process. Again during the post-film wrap-up, another of the film’s spectators asked a question which compelled Benning to respond approvingly that he hoped his viewers would think about his experience of making the film. His point, it would seem, is pedagogic: the process of filmmaking, and thus its consequent form, is influenced by the artist’s experience of a particular time and place. Cinema not only renders space, but given its photographic ontology, is actualised within a greater, contingent space.
Postscript: Landscape Homicide?
To summarize, then, 13 Lakes’ purpose is didactic: by replicating the artist’s own careful observation of the natural world, it seeks to assist its audience in becoming artists in their own right. Moreover, Benning offers surprising insight into the spatial nature of his medium, simply by anchoring his camera firmly in place. In short, the form of Benning’s film directly yields its content. Then again, Benning’s film is not entirely without formal precedent: Benning remains a structuralist in a time well after that movement’s cultural ebb.
Yet, if Benning’s work is mildly anachronistic in this sense, it remains very much a product of its moment in another: its relation to the environmentalist movement. However, as counterintuitive as it might seem initially, 13 Lakes is defiantly non-environmentalist in its ethos. In fact, in one of the most telling moments of the post-film wrap-up, one viewer began her question by stating that she knows that the filmmaker is an environmentalist. To this, Benning quickly rejoined, glibly, that he is in fact not an environmentalist, as should be evident by the ten thousand miles he drove in the making of the film. While he later conceded that one of the points of the film is the condition of the lakes at the moment of filming, he held that he is an outsider to the movement. The point being made by Benning was not that he is unconcerned with nature, but rather that he does not agree with all of environmentalism’s tenets.
More to the point, Benning does not share certain presuppositions of the environmentalist movement. Tellingly, Benning in a further elaboration of his divergence from this school of thought averred that the lakes themselves would be around long after the rest of us have gone. The implication of this observation, certainly, distinguishes the director from environmentalist orthodoxy: to Benning, the environment is resilient, whereas it is its frailty that instructs environmentalist orthodoxy. From this presupposition, environmentalism derives its governing thesis: that human malevolence has produced the ecologically-fallen condition in which planet Earth finds itself. Climactic changes, for example, are no long ascribed to the same sort of long-range environmental changes that brought this planet out of its most recent ice age, but rather speak to an instance of human transgression in the stewardship of the environment. Likewise, when evidence seems to contradict this basic belief – such as with the by now well-documented growth of the Antarctic ice sheet since the early 1990s (http://www.nature.com/news/2005/050516/full/050516-10.html) – environmentalism more often than not has opted to cling to prevailing articles of faith rather than follow new scientific discoveries which it purports to represent.
All of this is to say that environmentalism possesses the basic features of a religion, with the same imperviousness to contradiction. Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and countless other mainstream successes, goes so far as to say that environmentalism is
… in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths. There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. (http://www.perc.org/publications/articles/Crichtonspeech.php)Crichton continues, claiming that environmentalism is “one of the most powerful religions in the world” and that it seems to be the choice of urban atheists, whom he accuses of maintaining an unrealistic picture of the natural world, commensurate with their own wont of experience – a week rafting on the Colorado River does not an expert make. (Someone who has spent as much time in nature as Benning, on the other hand, proves a natural adversary to this ideology. For Crichton, to know and experience the environment is to be without romantic delusions; it is to know the biosphere as violent and unforgiving.)
Indeed, Crichton’s thesis seems all-the-more compelling in light of a recent exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art entitled Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape. This presentation of 23 (mostly) urban landscape designs showcased an interest in reclaiming an environment ravaged by two-plus centuries of industrialization. However, as if to assure their continued educational value, many of these spaces feature the skeletons of their former uses. It is not simply a matter of a park replacing a factory, as is the case of the Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park in Germany. Instead, the park commingles with its former usage, as if to highlight the inexorable damage done by its industrial use. The Duisburg park, like so many of the others featured in this revue, underscore the religious dimension of the movement that they instantiate: in this case, it would seem that the designers are calling for humankind to be contrite. In others, such as with the reconstituted Fresh Kills Landfill in suburban New Jersey, the refigured landscape is the act of contrition itself, making cursory amends for the sins of our fathers, even if the scars of our transgressions remain. Certainly, this new art movement deserves thusly to be recognized as the dominant religious art of our time. These newly regenerate public spaces are the Gothic cathedrals of the present, welcoming a devout atheistic public. In film, environmentalist art has likewise asserted its pre-eminence, be it in the late work of Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa (A Rhapsody in August, 1990) or in the pictures of Hollywood titan Steven Spielberg (A. I. – Artificial Intelligence, 2001), to say nothing of the countless catastrophe pictures and dystopian fantasies that continue to grace the screen with metronomic regularity each summer.
And then there is Benning’s film about thirteen lakes, which is as far removed from the Hollywood system as it is from environmental orthodoxy. Perhaps there is no better way to conclude than to be reminded of the film’s simplicity and to consider the film’s nonconformity, both in terms of its form and in its content. Whether it is its opposition to traditional narrative structures or to the environmentalist gospel, 13 Lakes remains enmeshed with a dialogue specific to its particular time. The subject of the film might be eternal, but its implications are very timely.
James Benning @ IMDb
James Benning interviewed by Neil Young
'Crossing Paths: Jon Jost on James Benning'
'Life in Film: James Benning's Favorite Films'
James Benning: 500 Words @ Artforum
Jonathan Rosenbaum on Benning's California Trilogy
Book: JB & Liam Gillick 'Drawing With Your Eyes Closed'
James Benning's Hit List
'Nudging the Mind: James Benning's 13 Lakes'
James Benning interviewed @ filmkritik
James Benning's films @ Canyon Cinema
11 of James Benning's 45 films
20 Cigarettes (2011)
'James Benning is known for his work chronicling landscapes, with people often being absent or confined to the margins of his work. Twenty Cigarettes however brings people to the centre. Benning structures the film by asking each of the twenty participants to smoke a cigarette, each shot lasts as long as it takes for this to happen. The smokers are therefore controlling duration and the cinematic frame through the choices they make in how they are going to move through the frame. The twenty participants are all friends of Benning and include the film maker Sharon Lockhart. benning provides us with not only space but also time to be aware of our own viewing, the self consciousness of the smokers on film only being mirrored by that of the viewer.' -- AVFestival
'Ruhr is Benning’s second HD work after the minute-long Viennale trailer Fire & Rain, a corner he seems to have been forced into (by declining standards in 16mm lab work and projection), but one as exciting as it may be disquieting. Here: seven shots in two hours (ranging from 7 to 60 minutes); no restrictions imposed on duration by the length of film reels, or an obligation to heed the camera’s ontological impression of reality. Ruhr severs, for the first time in Benning’s work, the shot’s temporal relationship between what was there and what’s projected, in the same way Kiarostami cut up four months of footage into 28 minutes for the final shot of Five (2003). No longer does the canvas merely depict what the traveller saw. Ruhr is perhaps best described, in Mark Peranson’s words, as a “reality-directed document”: a concrete, revelatory study of place, but also an intricate act of betrayal.' -- mubi
'Is RR an observation or a comment, a film of trains or a film about railroading in America? For nearly two hours James Benning is content to sit with his camera and watch trains pass, and the answer is probably all that and quite a bit more. Whatever RR is, the chances are slight that another movie will make it onto a big screen in Los Angeles this year boasting a director-cast relationship (and let's not hold it against these wonderful players just because they're made of metal) as perfectly dynamic as what Benning pulls off here. His ensemble is a real murderer's row: 43 trains of all shapes and sizes, from a slinky Southern coal-hauler that moves across the Tennessee River Bridge like she owns the thing to a little work car that scuds across the frame with Chaplin's sense of humor. Even better, Benning has the good sense to let them shape the picture: Each shot lasts as long as it takes the train to make its way across the frame, bringing out a triangular relationship between the camera (and its placement), its object and time that not many directors seem to have any use for these days.' -- Phil Coldiron, LA Weekly
10 Skies (2004)
'I thought about the ephemerality of film, of both that which is photographed and the photographs themselves, of the mediums focus on movement over time both physically perceptible (objects in front of the camera) and invisible (changes in emotion, tone, ideas, and other abstractions), united to a degree by the effect of simply photographing clouds in the sky, objects that are so subtly transient as to appear abstract yet can also be so monumentally, physically dominating in the composition. The cut to the next shot—the next sky, a billowing cumulus formation with splotches of hues both too dark and too orange, suggesting roots in a fire somewhere off-camera—was jarring and refreshing, as all other cuts would be. In fact, after the first shot, my principle pleasure of watching Ten Skies comes from the fact that Benning held shots so long that inevitably my attention grew lax, often in tandem with the skys own dissolution as shapes became blurry, moved off-camera, or simply dissipated; my mind wandered and points of reference in the frame became fewer and fewer. So each cut comes as welcome relief: finally, new shapes, colors, and subtle movements to soak in and visually rove around! Banal things like jets passing in the distance or a bird or two arcing across the corner of the frame become wondrous moments of relief towards the later half of each shot as, more often than not, one becomes overwhelmingly used to this section of the sky.' -- J. Ryans
13 Lakes (2004)
'13 Lakes is no more than what it promises: thirteen lakes (from across the United States) filmed in identical ten-minute takes. Each is a static composition, framing sky and water in equal measure. None features any human incursion, save the occasional boat, wave runner, automobile, train and, in the Crater Lake sequence, the off-camera sound of gunshots. This is a film where any human imprint is light and vanishing. Benning’s film manifests movement, even if this motion does not facilitate traditional dramatic exposition. In the case of 13 Lakes, the movement depicted calls attention to the moment-to-moment transformation of the natural world. Whether it is the slow drift of cumulus clouds, raindrops falling on a tranquil mere, or a brisk wind sweeping across the surface of the water, the protean quality of the natural world is emphasized. And since the movement being depicted has nothing to do with authorial manipulation, it is motion which cannot be fully circumscribed within the confines of the frame. This is a transformation occurring continually, on- and off-screen. Nevertheless, these transformations are captured by a camera, commensurate with the editorial choices of the filmmaker (both in terms of what is shot and how it is depicted). It is, in other words, a work of art, however minimal it may be in its conception.' -- Senses of Cinema
'An opening title describes Benning’s effort as a combination of “images…found in the desert landscape from Death Valley south to and crossing the Mexican border” with the entire sound track of the English-language version of Richard Dindo’s 1994 Swiss documentary, Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal — an appropriation that, as the same title explains, was made without permission. (Some years ago the animator George Griffin appropriated the sound track of a Tom & Jerry cartoon for his own short animated film, Flying Fur.) Benning has added a few ambient sounds, but otherwise you might say that Utopia is two separate movies — the images of one, the sound track of another — running on parallel tracks. And uncannily there turns out to be more synchronicity than you might expect. Thanks to Dindo’s sound track — with subtitles appended when the spoken words are in Spanish — the eye winds up narrativizing the images; even when there’s no apparent relation, the imagination tends to impose one.' -- Jonathan Rosenbaum
Watch a 10 minute excerpt
'One of the main characteristics of experimental films is that they tend to make hash of the terms we use to speak about narrative features, and James Benning’s haunting, beautiful, and awesome Deseret (1995) — his eighth feature-length film — performs this valuable function from the outset. To say that Deseret is “directed” and “written” by Benning requires some bending of the categories. He “directed” it insofar as he conceived the project, filmed the images, recorded the sound, and edited the sound and images; he “wrote” it insofar as he compiled and edited the texts that are read offscreen by Fred Gardner, though he didn’t write them. Broadly speaking, Deseret — whose title refers to the name the territory of Utah originally proposed for itself when campaigning for statehood in the 1860s (it joined the union as Utah in 1896) — consists of the subtle, artful, and complex interface of the condensed news stories, the recorded sounds, and several hundred stationary shots. Each shot generally corresponds to a sentence in the narration, the only exception being that each of the film’s 93 segments begins without narration; the narration of a news story always begins with the second shot, on the lower portion of which is superimposed the story’s date.' -- Jonathan Rosenbaum
Landscape Suicide (1986)
'Landscape Suicide is a symmetric film. Between the five minute long prologue and epilogue, the last three “set pieces” of the film mirror the first three. While the Protti section is followed by the landscape montage and the household sequence, the Ed Gein section is preceded by them. In a way, Landscape Suicide also acts as an examination of the narrative property of cinema. We are first given Protti’s version of what happened verbally and then the images of the locations they took place in. One is thus able to situate the now-coherent account into its proper geographical location and conjure up, more concretely, the visual equivalent of Protti’s account. On the other hand, the locations of the incident are given before the oral account in the case of the Gein murder. In this case, one tries to reconstruct the incident by simulating the events being described within the locations already familiar. Benning resolves the “how” of the incident into “what” and “where” and asks us to put them back together to find out “why”. In essence, Benning divorces genre cinema from its exploitative nature by splitting up its action into words and locations. With some effort, one should be able to stitch up all the elements of Benning’s film to obtain a teen-slasher and a psychological thriller.' -- The Seventh Art
Grand Opera (1978)
'A transitional film at the end of his first decade of filmmaking, James Benning’s Grand Opera introduces a degree of storytelling to his previously more formalist devices. Benning calls the film his “first attempt at writing my own kind of history” and, in a sense, it also serves to write himself into history, acutely measuring his place as a Midwestern experimental filmmaker, then based in Oklahoma, in relationship to the avant-garde scene situated in New York. The film thus features homages to the prominent experimental cinema of the time, including a spoof of Wavelength, as well as cameos from Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton and Yvonne Rainer. Woven with these sequences are other characteristic Benning gambits – a compilation of every house he ever lived in, a preoccupation with the history of Pi, and the looming threat that a building will explode.' -- Early Monthly Segments
11 x 14 (1977)
'One of the most widely praised American avant-garde films in recent years, James Benning's 1977 feature is a laconic mosaic of single-shot sequences, each offering some sort of image/sound pun or paradox. It is also one of his few films with a narrative, although it’s one that gets swallowed up by the form of the film, as Benning puts it, and much of it consists of teasing fragments of implied stories. The individual shots, nearly always elegant (and a few running as long as 11 minutes), often come across as enigmatic, graphic, poignant, tricky, unreal, mesmerizingly slow, and/or evocative. At once a crypto-narrative with an abstract, peekaboo storyline and a fractured, painterly study of the American midwestern landscape, 11x14 points toward the creation of a new, non-literary but populist cinema.' -- collaged
One Way Boogie Woogie (1977)
'One Way Boogie Woogie was James Benning's first feature-length film, shot in 1977. It set the tone for his future career as a film-maker who invites us to pay close attention to the details of the world, and to parts of our cities that we ordinarily pass by. One Way Boogie Woogie has been called "unique in the history of American documentary film" for its uncompromising stare at the realities of American life. The film was shot in the industrial valley of Benning's home town of Milwaukee in Wisconsin. The work shows us sights seldom committed to film or celebrated as subject-matter fit for art. We encounter landscapes far removed from those that Hollywood presents, where the most ordinary or prosaic places are revealed to be beautiful and strange. Benning has carefully chosen eighteen cityscapes that invite us to examine the areas of the city we seldom, if ever, notice.' -- Contemporary Art NE
Watch a 9 minute excerpt
Landscape Suicide (1986)
“When I visited Plainfield, I couldn’t get a sense of the murder. But the feeling of a collective guilt still lingers.”
James Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1986) begins with a three minute sequence of a tennis player (Eve Ellis) practicing serves. Benning shows us just the player, standing at the edge of the court, doing her routine in a near-mechanical fashion. We do not see where the serves land or if the balls are being collected by someone off screen. After these three minutes, Benning cuts to the view of the other side of the court. The turf is full of tennis balls lying in a random pattern. Though only expected, it is an enigmatic moment in the film, for it is the first change of setup in the movie. This banal sequence does two things. One, it habituates us to the rhythm and the mode of discourse of Benning’s film. It announces to us that the major events the film deals with and their consequences will largely be kept off-screen. Two, it acts as an abstract to one of the major questions of the film – Does the sum of human actions, however insignificant individually, have an effect on the environment they live in? We are products of our environments, naturally, but is our environment a product of our actions too? Following this prologue, Landscape Suicide presents itself in two parts, each one investigating a homicide, connected by an unseen narrator who, having heard of the incidents through newspapers and magazines, presents the movie from the perspective of an outsider.
The first half of the film revolves around the murder of a teenager by her classmate Bernadette Protti in 1984 and unfolds primarily through an extended interrogation sequence, as would the second half of the film, of the accused teenager. This long sequence is shot using a static camera, with no shot-reverse shot structure, that fixates itself on Protti’s face for the whole sequence. She is visibly shell-shocked and trying hard to muster up words to answer the questions. Apparently, Benning constructed the sequence based actual courtroom transcripts and had Rhonda Bell, who plays Protti, bring them to life. David Bordwell describes here how sometimes telling, and not showing, can be much more rewarding in film. That is exactly the case here. What Protti tells here isn’t as important as how she tells it. The whole sequence is more significant as a collection of gestures than as a document of confession. This is great delivery we are taking about here. It is a part which requires you to shed your vocabulary, be completely inarticulate (even more than The Dude!) and, yet, describe everything in fine detail and Bell does a remarkable job. Even with this barely coherent piece of monologue, it becomes clear how Protti’s image, perhaps characteristic of her age group during that period of time, amidst her peers is more important to her than any morality and how petty peer pressure and the rat race for celebrity status can cause even the most sane to lose balance.
The second interrogation sequence is that of the infamous Ed Gein, who, as we all know, has been the inspiration for characters like Norman Bates and his successors. This conversation, in complete contrast to the Protti interrogation, is completely formal and well worded. Gein, played to perfection by Elion Sacker, looks like a very reasonable man. He sticks to the question and answers then with utmost poise and a clear, flat, fearless voice. The painstakingly detailed and often hilarious session tries to pin down Gein based on his self-confessed aversion for blood, but, with machine like passivity and utter soberness, he parries tricky questions and stays impermeable. One might even end up labeling him innocent were one to assess him based on this interrogation alone. Both the interrogations come attached to two “set pieces” that seem tangential to them. Each interrogation is either followed or preceded by a montage of landscapes from the hometown of the central protagonist – Orinda, California for Protti and Plainfield, Wisconsin for Gein – and a vignette from the private life of a resident, possibly the victim, from that town at that period time.
At first sight, the landscapes of these towns seem anything but indicative of the horrors that have taken place in them. The places we see, both Orinda and Plainfield, are as serene, unpolluted and quiet as towns and suburbs can ever be. But after a few minutes, the unanimous absence of people becomes a bit unnerving. It seems as if people are deliberately hiding from each other, trying to mind their own business and to distance themselves from anything that can potentially pop them out of their mundane routine. The narrator notes, strikingly, at one point: “When I visited Plainfield, I couldn’t get a sense of the murder. But the feeling of a collective guilt still lingers”. And there seems to lie the major weakness of most of our justice systems. These institutions have gotten used to “weed out” people such as Ed Gein and Bernadette Protti as anomalies in a flawless society, much like the way the narrator’s daughter tears out the pages describing the Protti murder from the Rolling Stones magazine in order to avoid reading depressing news, instead of tracing out and correcting the reasons behind the birth of all such Ed Geins and Bernadette Prottis. That is not to say that the reason behind the Gein murders and his penchant for “taxidermy” was only the animal violence he was exposed to everyday since childhood. But subjecting Bernadette Protti, who is clearly more a function of social status than of mental imbalance, to the same treatment as Ed Gein denotes nothing less than a complacent, if not irresponsible, justice system.
Landscape Suicide is a symmetric film. Between the five minute long prologue and epilogue, the last three “set pieces” of the film mirror the first three. While the Protti section is followed by the landscape montage and the household sequence, the Ed Gein section is preceded by them. In a way, Landscape Suicide also acts as an examination of the narrative property of cinema. We are first given Protti’s version of what happened verbally and then the images of the locations they took place in. One is thus able to situate the now-coherent account into its proper geographical location and conjure up, more concretely, the visual equivalent of Protti’s account. On the other hand, the locations of the incident are given before the oral account in the case of the Gein murder. In this case, one tries to reconstruct the incident by simulating the events being described within the locations already familiar. Benning resolves the “how” of the incident into “what” and “where” and asks us to put them back together to find out “why”. In essence, Benning divorces genre cinema from its exploitative nature by splitting up its action into words and locations. With some effort, one should be able to stitch up all the elements of Benning’s film to obtain a teen-slasher and a psychological thriller.
Additionally, Landscape Suicide is also about the act of remembering and reconstructing the past. It is an investigation about the possibility of retrieving the truth using every tool available. In both the interrogations, it becomes clear that the barrier to recovering one’s past is one’s own memory and, then, the language used to verbalize that sensory commodity. Throughout the Protti interrogation, there is a war between the sounds of her speech and the sounds of the typewriter that records her speech, with the latter seemingly trying to grab each one of her words and derive the literal meaning from it (this, somehow, reminds one of last year’s wonderful film Police, Adjective). Benning’s point may just be that our spoken and written media are incapable of translating actual experiences to words. It is evident that what Protti’s words mean are far from what she means. Throughout the two interrogations, Benning blacks out the screen regularly and adulterates the soundtrack with stray sounds, as if underscoring the incapability of the cinematic medium to capture or reproduce experiences and feelings in their entirety.
However, Benning does offer an alternative here. His use of a static camera throughout the courtroom scenes is noteworthy in this regard. Benning accustoms us to the space the camera stares at by eschewing conventional cinematic grammar for conversations and avoiding shuffling between setups anywhere in the film. At one point during the interrogation, Protti leaves for the bathroom. Instead of cutting to a new view point or providing an ellipsis, Benning lets the camera be as it was when Protti was there. It’s a moment that is reminiscent of the cut during the opening tennis sequence. The absence of a human figure before the camera is so unsettling that one can actually sense the change that the milieu before us has undergone. If history is indeed a study of changes through the ages, the only way to document it is to document the changes. In Benning’s film, this change is recorded in terms of changes in natural and man-made landscapes, which are also, perhaps, the closest in resembling the human memory in the sense that they, too, morph gradually over time owing to the cumulus of all human actions – both beneficial and detrimental. And it only follows logically that cinema should pay keen attention to landscapes and topographies if it ever wants to revive the past and reconstruct history as it was, free from corruption by conscious human intervention and oversimplification by the rigidity of our languages.- theseventhart.info/