To the extent that there can be a household name in contemporary avant-garde cinema, James Benning would be that guy right now. On paper, his work can sound harrowingly vapid; the worst case scenario for anyone who’s ever accused art house cinema of being ‘slow’ and ‘boring’. The thing is, they’re not. At all. In the same way that spending an hour at the beach, visiting the Grand Canyon, or having a meditation session could never be anything close to a ‘tedious’ experience, Benning’s films present patient viewers with all the grandeur, sublimity, and exhilaration of a first-hand encounter with the natural and material world. They also happen to be extremely complex and intelligent with regards to phenomenology, cinema history, and American ethnography.
In Edition Filmmuseum’s new 2-disc set – the second of a thorough project that will see the release of many of Benning’s key works from his four-decade career – they’ve included his two final films that he ever – will ever – shoot on 16mm film (from here on out, it’s only HD digital, which has increased his productivity markedly). Both RR and casting a glance premiered in 2007, and also happen to be the two films that signaled the height of his critical acclaim, the summit of his superstar status. This is especially true of RR.
RR (pronounced either ‘Ar Ar’ or ‘Railroad’) belongs to the oldest and most materially specific genre in all of cinema: the ‘train movie’. The Brothers Lumière started everything off with a train pulling into a station; Keaton beat Speed by about 70 years with his blockbuster loco-thriller The General in the late 20s; David Lynch danced ‘The Locomotion’ into the digital era with his apocalyptic INLAND EMPIRE; and a year later, Benning sings his own celluloid swan song with a climactic bang, showcasing seemingly every variety of train in existence (there are, in total, 43 of them in this film). Just as contemplative and narrative-less as the Lumières’ inaugural picture show, RR is a summation project; not just of his career, but of the medium itself. It’s at once ambivalently joyous and sorrowful, fast and slow, boldly abstract and stoically representational.
casting a glance feels at first like a very specific work in relation to RR, but gradually reveals itself over its 77-minute running time to be a very lucid, sly, and sprawling contemplation of history. In the most obvious sense, it’s a document of one of man’s great collaborations with the American landscape, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. But there’s a twist (sorry). It begins with a didactic intertitle showing a date of April 30, 1970, then five minutes of static shots of the jetty, another date in the early 70s, and so on until Benning jumps ahead at the film’s mid-point to 1988. Later, still, we’re in the 2000s, and eventually right there in 2007, forming a structural parabola through the sculpture’s complete timeline. It takes you aback, because it’s so difficult to make sense of the durational conceit that he is working with, and time feels both linear and scattered at once.
Of course, this isn’t a film that was 35+ years in the making. Rather, it is a fictional recreation of the natural changes that have evolved in this region in the decades since Smithson made his piece. The water rises, rock erodes, plant life forms and dies. In its effort to illustrate a complete history of the ‘Spiral Jetty’, casting a glance becomes a study on the compression of histories and the cyclical nature of systems. Aesthetically, there is a certain similarity to Benning’s 2004 masterpiece 13 Lakes with the bifurcated lake/sky compositions employed here, and it’s in the essential differences between these two films that glance states its most plangent observations.
Image-wise, the video presentations in this release are a little disappointing, especially in light of Edition Filmmuseum’s previous, exemplary release of Benning’s Landscape Suicide and American Dreams (lost and found). Part of the problem here is the significant windowboxing that they’ve utilized for the films, both shot on 16mm in the 4:3 academy ratio. For those unfamiliar with the practice, ‘windowboxing’ shrinks the video image within the frame – creating a thick black border around the entire film.
This is meant to ensure that anyone watching these DVDs on a CRT television (what we all had before HDTVs happened) won’t miss any information due to that technology’s knack for zooming in slightly on any material it plays. Unfortunately, everyone else has to suffer so that a weaker viewing monitor can be accommodated. DVD is already a limited home video format in the era of blu-ray and HD streaming, so shrinking the video only further limits the amount of pixels that can be used to replicate the film. Just how bad is it in this case? The black border that surrounds these two Benning masterpieces takes up a whopping 25% of the frame; essentially primed and ready to be hung on a wall.
Besides the border, the image itself also leaves something to be desired, though it’s a totally adequate way to see these films and handily bests any of the bootlegs that have surfaced on torrent sites. The transfers were both provided by the West German Broadcasting Corporation in Cologne, and sport a bluish tinge to the color palette that feels markedly cooler than they appear when projected from 16mm. This is more problematic for RR because of the warmer, more desertous climates shown in the majority of the footage, while casting a glance fairs better with its aquatic, Salt Lake setting. There is also a ‘thick’ look to the films as a result of some minor edge-enhancement, but there’s also some discernible film grain in there, too.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital audio track sufficiently reproduces the minimal, ambient soundtracks for both films.
Two rare audio interview: ‘Casting a Glance at casting a glance‘ & ‘James Benning: RR – JB – QA’
First, both of these interviews are 17-minutes long, and play while an image diptych of Benning speaking at a microphone shows on the screen. It’d have been nice if there were video with these interviews, but they’re also very easy things to have on in the background while you’re doing something else. Another thing is that they’re both excerpts from Q & As, and the questions are mostly taken out. So you’ll have Benning speaking in response to one question, a slight pause, and then he’ll be answering another unknown question a second later. It can be difficult to parse when one answer ends and another begins, and often times I’d spend about a minute just trying to figure out what the question might have been.
That said, both tracks are fairly insightful of Benning’s work ethics and a valuable addition to this set. Benning speaks in a simple, clear, and often rambling way that is very easy to listen to, and his thoughts make these films much more digestible, especially for those who wouldn’t otherwise know what to do with a film that’s entirely comprised of static shots of trains. Benning, who studied to be a mathematician when he was in university, naturally had some very technical and geometric concerns in making these films. That his persona is entirely devoid of even the slightest pretenses makes the films even more wonderful.
20-page bilingual booklet
The number ’20’ in this case is deceiving, since most of it is comprised of German translations for the two audio interviews found on the DVDs. There is a short introductory blurb called “Last Films”, printed in both German and English and written by Oliver Hanley and Alexander Horwath. This four-paragraph piece quickly runs down how these are the last two films that Benning will ever make on 16mm, and how his work continues on in the digital realm. The other, longer piece that is exclusive to the booklet is an essay by Christian Höller, which nicely details how each film addresses history,
duration, and the American landscape, the three most prominent themes in Benning’s oeuvre.
These are two of the most uncompromising and all-encompassing American films of the millennium, perhaps all of cinema. While cinephiles, with their knacks for excessive categorization, tend to separate narrative cinema from the avant-garde, it’s an arbitrary distinction that does no one any good. Brilliant ideas and singular experiences like these are for everyone, period. That they’ve been telecined and released to the public for home video consumption in these glossy and inconspicuously digital presentations is a bit unfortunate, though also à propos.