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Just Look

Some people walk out of James Benning's movies. But for others, his experimental films elicit a range of emotions: awe, rapture, contentment. By Akiva Gottlieb

November 06, 2005|AKIVA GOTTLIEB | Akiva Gottlieb lives in New York City and writes about film for the Village Voice.

"Have you ever been arrested?" I ask, as he loads camera equipment into his black Mercury Marauder. It's a fair question before today's film shoot, since trespassing on private property is a James Benning pastime.

"I haven't," he answers. "But I've been held at gunpoint for 20 minutes by a guard at the state prison in Central Valley, while filming 'El Valley Centro.' I trespassed and didn't have permission. I was able to talk my way out of it, but the guy wanted to put the fear of God in me with his big weapon. It was pretty ugly, actually."

All of Benning's work is predicated on restricted access. He films in remote areas with outmoded equipment, and makes films too demanding for most audiences. Each film adheres to a rigorous formal structure from which he will not deviate. Because 16mm films are difficult to screen, his work is almost impossible to see outside of the odd film festival or museum retrospective. And since he's loath to compromise the grainy integrity of the originals by transferring them to DVD, even the most ardent film scholars are usually unaware of Benning's existence.

Nevertheless, he is perhaps the most important experimental filmmaker working in Southern California, and a pivotal proponent of structural cinema since the mid-1970s. His work, which has screened at the Berlin, Rotterdam, Vienna and Sundance film festivals, embodies the paradox that minimalist art helps us view the world with maximum clarity. More overwhelmingly beautiful than didactic, the typical Benning film can elicit responses spanning the spectrum of human emotion, from awe to boredom to rapture to contentment.

On this June morning, Benning is heading out to the desert 20 miles south of Victorville to continue his current project, another formal lesson in looking and listening.

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During a post-screening q&a at the 2005 tribeca film festival, Benning had to address the fact that about half the audience had left the theater before the end of "13 Lakes," his latest ultra-minimalist masterpiece, a series of 10-minute shots of American lakes, with no narration or background music, just ambient sound. So he deadpanned. "Those are people who like movies," he said with more empathy than condescension.

He continued to answer questions in his lazy, California-weathered drawl, as the long-dedicated and newly converted tried to pile layers of meaning onto the simplest film they had ever seen: Why the number 13? Why this specific sequence of lakes? Why do you credit the lakes at the end of the film, and not the beginning?

Perhaps sensing that further questions would strip his renegade aesthetic of its considerable mystery, Benning ended with a statement that placed his work in a larger context, and urged the remaining awestruck out into a night of contemplation. "Maybe if we looked and listened a little more, we wouldn't do stupid things," he said. "We wouldn't drop bombs on each other."

Benning doesn't consider himself an explicitly political artist, but he suggests that his environmental communion is a form of political dissent. He envisioned "Ten Skies," last year's cloud-watching companion piece to "13 Lakes," as a metaphor for peace; similarly, "13 Lakes" is a gentle existential reminder that nature will outlast all human endeavor. "I think of my landscape works now as antiwar artworks," he says. "They're about the antithesis of war, the kind of beauty we're destroying."

A purely contemplative artist, Benning believes that film has progressed too quickly as an art form. Why introduce narrative to the medium, he asks, when we haven't yet studied the pure image?

The best of Benning's work pinpoints the difference between film and photography. "One Way Boogie Woogie," a 1977 project that transmutes the one-way streets of Milwaukee's industrial wasteland into a droll city symphony, presents a series of 60 tableaux, each lasting one minute, with the camera set in a fixed position. A program at one screening introduced the film as "Buster Keaton stripped to the essentials of landscape, light, color, and wit." Nearly every shot lulls the viewer into contemplating the photographic quality of the seemingly static image, before it's disrupted by an unexpected, incongruous movement. The movements are microscopic (one shot records the reverberations of a metal ingot tossed onto a pile of ingots), coyly funny or, in at least one instance, powerfully poetic.

Picture this: A woman in black cradles a ball of yarn and walks backward across a train track. Benning holds onto the end of the yarn, his hand visible in the foreground. As the woman moves farther away, the sound of an oncoming train grows louder and louder. The 60 seconds tick down, the tension mounts--and the film abruptly cuts to the next image. I see it as a minimalist "Romeo and Juliet" told in sound, image and a suggestive use of off-screen space.

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