Long, Hard Looks
Jackson Arn on Three Works by James Benning:
Readers (2017), L. Cohen (2012), measuring change (2016)

The following three works by James Benning screen Sunday, January 14, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2018.

Since 1971, the 75-year-old filmmaker James Benning has taken on subjects as diverse as America’s freight train network; Henry David Thoreau; the Unabomber; the factories of Duisburg, Germany; and the Great Lakes, almost always with the same Spartan economy of shots and edits. The 97-minute Ten Skies (2004) consisted entirely of footage of the sky visible over American industrial centers; the 99-minute Twenty Cigarettes (2011), twenty shots of anonymous smokers. His films, with their apparent simplicity, are almost as far removed from the commonplaces of experimental filmmaking as they are from multiplex fare. There’s rarely any confusion about what objects we’re looking at when watching a Benning film—and in fact most of the time, thanks to the director’s deadpan titling, we know what we’re about to see before the film starts.

At the heart of Benning’s practice, however, is an unmistakably avant-garde thesis: ordinary ways of experiencing reality need to be transcended with the help of cinema. You could argue that every single work of art, successful or not, has made some version of this claim, but it’s been of particular concern to the directors who’ve exerted a major influence on Benning, above all Andy Warhol (whose Empire consisted of one eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building). Very much like Warhol, Benning seems to believe in a hyper-literal interpretation of Flaubert’s aphorism: “For anything to become interesting you simply have to look at it for a long time.” Watching his films, you become attuned to the tiny details that day-to-day life compels you to ignore. You grow deeply, almost meditatively aware of yourself, watching from your seat while the objects on screen change very slowly. You can almost hear yourself think.

Perception has always been an implicit theme of Benning’s work, but in Readers, the most fascinating of his three films playing together at the First Look festival this weekend, it’s the main attraction. Watching the film—composed of four lengthy shots of people reading, interspersed with short excerpts from their chosen books—you occasionally get the feeling of staring into a mirror, with the subjects’ rhythm of perusal, reexamination, and contemplation bearing a close and slightly uncomfortable resemblance to your own. The first reader, Clara McHale-Ribot (daughter of the composer Marc Ribot), is making her way through D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, but this doesn’t become apparent until at least the ten-minute mark, when she shifts her position and exposes the book’s jacket to the camera for a short while. Thanks to the almost total absence of context, your eyes are free to roam across the screen, and differently sized pieces of information seem to take on equal weight—the message on McHale-Ribot’s T-shirt, half-exposed underneath her jacket, or the edition of her book become as noteworthy as its title and author. And so on for each of the four shots, featuring, in order, the author Rachel Kushner (whose The Flamethrowers includes an eccentric filmmaker character clearly modeled off of Benning), the sociologist Richard Hedbige, and the performance artist Simone Forti.

It’s tempting, when writing about Readers, to stop at recreating the hypnotic feeling of watching the film. But this can give the false impression that Benning’s direction is nonexistent instead of just skillfully restrained; that his craft consists of turning on the camera and waiting for his viewers to do the hard work. A more accurate statement would be that Benning, a legendarily devoted professor at CalArts since the late eighties, aims to foster and celebrate the artistry of other people without compromising his own—a goal hinted at in Readers’ cast of world-class thinkers and creators. This desire to connect with the ordinary, adventurous viewer also seems to have played a part in the director’s switch from 16mm to digital a decade ago, a decision that was criticized by purists but which also suggests an artist coming to terms with the realities of his medium and striving, even near the end of his career, to inspire as many potential students as possible.

Benning’s artistry is most visible in Readers at those moments when the film jumps between ways of seeing. In each short period following a shot of a reader, after we’ve spent oh-so much time scanning the frame at our own pace, we’re suddenly forced to read for ourselves, right to left and top to bottom. The effect is jarring but invigorating and even a little funny, lying somewhere between a non sequitur, a big reveal, and a punch line. If Readers suggests Benning’s unlikely knack for humor, the 48-minute L. Cohen proves he can be a full-blown comedian when he wants to be. The film begins with real-time footage of an Oregon farm, peppered with barnyard noises and industrial rumbles, but suddenly veers into time-lapse footage of the night and morning, set to, of all things, Leonard Cohen’s slow, intimate “Love Itself.” Like deadpan virtuosi Bob Newhart and Nathan Fielder, Benning leaves his audience to reconcile the surprising goofiness of L. Cohen’s content with the matter-of-factness of its presentation, and most of the time, a nervous laugh seems like the only appropriate response.

A more somber work than its companions, measuring change reunites Benning with the quintessential piece of land art, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, located just off shore of the Great Salt Lake. Where Benning’s casting a glance (2007), dedicated to Smithson’s memory, studied the location from dozens of different vantage points, measuring change opts for a single, distant view. In the earlier work, we experience Spiral Jetty; this time around, we’re experiencing others’ experiences. Over the course of the film, dozens of visitors, seen from so far away they look like insects, crawl back and forth over Smithson’s masterwork, sometimes disappearing into the snowy horizon, sometimes moving toward the camera and out of the frame. Like Readers, the film depicts people’s encounters with art but teasingly withholds key information about what their responses are. We seem to have no way of knowing what visitors think of Spiral Jetty, any more than we understand McHale-Ribot’s opinion of D. H. Lawrence. But it’s almost impossible not to imagine responses of some kind, extrapolating from the data Benning gives us, whether it’s the pace of the visitors’ steps, their decision to stay alone or interact with others, or the amount of time they take once they’ve reached the spiral’s center.

It’s long been James Benning’s goal to coax his viewers into making exactly these kinds of observations and subtle inductions, flexing the muscles that often seem to be in danger of getting soft. In doing so, he sometimes takes on the persona of a stern coach or a dry standup comic, but most often his manner is that of a calm, patient educator who’s resolutely convinced of the truth and value of his lessons. There are moments during Readers, L. Cohen, and measuring change when this project can seem heroic and even poignant. Benning’s four readers engage in a practice that’s becoming rarer with each passing day: spending time by themselves, sans electronic distractions of any kind, and pondering. By celebrating this, Benning’s recent output offers the ultimate rebuttal to slow cinema’s detractors. How can patient contemplation be trivial when it’s going extinct?