Just Look

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.


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.

Place is a function of time, and Benning’s patience is boundless. So he went back last year to Milwaukee, where he was born, and created a shot-for-shot remake of “One Way Boogie Woogie.” The new film, “27 Years Later,” retrospectively infuses the once playful images with a sharp sense of loss. The buildings and factories are now either dilapidated or nonexistent, and the same goes for Benning’s friends. Viewed directly after “One Way Boogie Woogie,” the new film suggests a kind of cinematic memory game, or maybe a looking and listening test.

Such juxtapositions of the ephemeral and the permanent course through Benning’s work, and can take on near-Proustian proportions for attuned viewers. Benning is 62 years old, still negotiating the vastness of everyday experience, and his work now bears the weight of more than a half-century’s personal and political concerns. Every lake and every cloud caught on camera shares a common message: You can hold a shot for 10 minutes, but you can’t stop time.


“I grew up in a family that had no art in the house and didn’t read books,” Benning says of his early years in a German working-class section of Milwaukee. “I had no idea that there was an art world that actually was based around intellect as much as aesthetics. The aesthetics that I thought was art was corny stuff--sidewalk art fairs and watercolor paintings.”

More All-American than avant-garde, the adolescent Benning found his thrills in baseball. In the early 1960s, the young University of Wisconsin pitcher tossed batting practice to future Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews of the Milwaukee Braves. He graduated with a mathematics degree, but opted out of post-grad studies in order to “deny” his military deferment. “My friends were dying in Vietnam,” he says. Instead, he taught the children of migrant workers in Colorado and Missouri how to read and write.


It was a desultory flip through a television dial that provided a breakthrough. A public broadcast station was showing Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s 1943 landmark “Meshes of the Afternoon,” a trancelike, repetitively structured short film that unnerved audiences with its narrative discontinuity and irrational alterations of perspective. Benning decided to transfer his love of mathematical proofs and elegant solutions to experimental filmmaking. His aesthetic proved as liberating as Deren’s; of “11x14,” Benning’s debut feature, avant-garde cinema scholar Scott McDonald wrote that he reversed the standard narrative hierarchy, “us[ing] character as a means of maintaining our interest in formal elements.”

In 1986 Benning made one of his few films to feature something of a storyline. “Landscape Suicide” revisits the scenes of the crimes of Ed Gein and Bernadette Protti as the actors portraying them perform dialogue from official trial transcripts. Although a review of the film in the Toronto Star was headlined “Murder most banal in slug-paced movie” (apparently “the most walked-out-on movie of the entire Festival of Festivals”), it praised the cumulative effect of the film as “an uneasy--indeed, queasy--blend of the banal and the horrific. What the postcard-static landscapes suggest, with their hovering overcast skies and workaday human bustle, is eased home by the low-intensity testimonies: the places where the killings took place seem like ordinary places, the people who did the killings seem like ordinary people. Were it not for what these places saw and what these people did, we would probably never have noticed them at all.”

Benning’s influence on contemporary narrative cinema is impossible to calculate, although Gus Van Sant has described his own existential desert drama “Gerry” as a partial Benning tribute, and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Ten” recasts the fixed-camera-in-a-moving-car design of Benning’s “United States of America.” Easier to quantify is Benning’s influence on his daughter. When she was 15, he gave her a Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera--beloved by artists for its low-resolution format--for Christmas. Shortly thereafter, Sadie Benning’s video diaries marked her as a visionary of the New Queer Cinema, leading to a Rockefeller grant at age 19, a recurring spot on MTV and inclusion in a Whitney Biennial. Her work, too, is circumscribed by aesthetics; she still shoots on video, and makes intensely personal, autobiographically charged projects that often chronicle her self-imposed seclusion.

But Dad was the original outsider. He moved every year for 20 years before settling down in New York in 1980, in the midst of an experimental filmmaking renaissance that included Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer and Hollis Frampton. “I didn’t have a job when I lived there. I just made my own films,” he says. “I was able to live year to year on grants. It was a luxury.”

Benning took an initially ambivalent step toward stability when he accepted a teaching position at CalArts in 1987. He has been on the faculty ever since, and has made Southern California the base of operations for his films.

For students in his “Listening/Seeing” class, the only requirement is showing up. Each week, according to the course description, “a different location (either urban, rural, or wilderness) will be visited for the purposes of listening and seeing. At the end of the visit the class will meet within the location to discuss what each has individually experienced. Attention will be given to how the experiences of listening and looking can translate into the making of images and sound.”


The class might leave the Valencia campus as early as 4 a.m., and the trip often lasts all day. Destinations might include downtown L.A.’s skid row, an oil field in the Central Valley, an emergency hospital waiting room or Death Valley--anywhere students might feel out of their element. One thing the professor likes to do, he says, is “drop them off at a federal prison, have them go in without permission ... and have them stay in there as long as they can without being kicked out.” While it’s hard to imagine a college administration sanctioning this curriculum, the experience invariably teaches students how to negotiate uncomfortable territory. “It isn’t a tour. It isn’t set up,” Benning says. “That affects the way you see and hear.”

Benning also teaches “Math as Art,” in which budding artists learn to dispel the notion of mathematical logic as creative anathema. Last fall, he says, one student “took a love poem and translated it into zeros and ones,” using binary code. “He used those zeros and ones as architecture, knitting a scarf where zero is a knit and one is a purl. Then he gave the scarf to his girlfriend for Christmas .... It’s so conceptually sound and so wonderful. It’s about encoding in a clandestine way. And it’s about love, and mathematics, and craftsmanship. So I thought, I have to teach this class one more year.”


Benning’s current project is a meditation on one of his earliest obsessions. “The concept is to view a lot of different freight trains in different parts of the U.S. ... under different weather conditions, during different times of the year. And then each shot is exactly the length of the train,” he says. “What I’m interested in is the way railroads cut through natural landscapes. Because they can’t go up grades, they fit into the landscape in a much more aesthetic way than roads, which cut through the landscapes.”

He can never be sure of the fortuities he will capture on film. (In the most action-packed moment of “13 Lakes,” a pleasure boat crosses the frame at Lake Powell, disrupting the placidity of the water in ways that become increasingly vivid over the course of 10 minutes.) And yet, through careful research and planning, Benning seems to coax serendipitous events into being. Today he knows exactly where to go for his first shot.

He maneuvers the Marauder down an unpaved path off Highway 138, just inside the San Bernardino County line, and parks a few yards from the lone railroad track. We’re surrounded by pockmarked rock formations, but the sounds of the highway are still audible.

In line with his devotion to 16mm film--and his economic ethic--Benning has used the same Bolex H16 EBM electric camera for 30 years. His Nagra 4.2 reel-to-reel has recorded the sound for all of his films. His boom microphone and windscreen, frayed but workable, have stood by him just as long. As he assembles the camera’s tripod, Benning casually warns that we might wait three hours for a train to arrive. He begins to survey the area, stooping to savor the scent of sagebrush and cupping his hands behind his ears in a trademark Benning gesture.


Encroaching on this desert idyll, a group of swimsuit models climbs the nearby rocks for a photo shoot. Benning suggests we pay a social call, since these are “the first babes on the train film.” By the time we make our way over, after several false alarms as oncoming trains are switched to a different track, the models have retired to their Jeep, and Benning is left to schmooze with the male photographers. He halfheartedly discusses their common bond: cameras.

Benning’s vocation is a solitary one, his lengthy road trips punctuated by diners, rest stops and roadside motels. “It’s something that actually scares me,” he admits in “James Benning: Circling the Image,” a politely reverential 2003 documentary on the filmmaker made for German TV. “I gravitate more and more toward being alone, and experiencing things by myself.” A personal communion with the image is integral to his artistic process, but one assumes he wouldn’t make films if he didn’t want to share the experience.

So why the hesitancy to join the digital age? Isn’t the minor aesthetic sacrifice of a DVD transfer worth the potential for a wider audience? (The last seven Benning films have been shown on German TV, with his approval.) What about the posterity of prints that already have started to decay? Benning concedes that digital transfer is the only way to archive, “but it’s all time-consuming and costly, and I’d rather be making my next film than doing that.”

At the stroke of noon, his train arrives, and it’s a doozy. Save for copious graffiti, this old-fashioned freight train--the real thing, not a container or a “piggyback”--looks as if it has barreled out of the Wild West. Benning hustles to flip the switches on his camera and analog recorder, and captures the incongruence of a natural landscape temporarily bisected by the wheels of commerce.


Benning’s ambition to navigate the whole of America for the sake of his art has drawn comparisons to the methods of Kerouac and Whitman. But for the past 18 years he has chosen to explore his adopted home state. He lives in the small town of Val Verde, in the Santa Clarita Valley, where he is “a half-hour from the desert, a half-hour from the ocean, a half-hour from the mountains.”

In the 1930s, Val Verde was a resort town for African Americans, “a sort of separate-but-unequal Palm Springs.” Jazz musicians kept homes there and often entertained vacationers with impromptu performances at a local lodge. By the time Benning moved to California, Val Verde had become home to a mix of poor whites, Latinos and African Americans. “I was very interested in this melting pot which America was supposed to be, but never became. It seemed to be a place where it was actually happening,” he says.


Despite his affinity for the state’s natural splendor, his “California Trilogy” is a deeply politicized but non-polemical history of the landscape, suffused with regret over even the smallest casualties of human profiteering. Each film consists of 35 stationary shots, each shot running 2 1/2 minutes, with direct ambient sound. “El Valley Centro” (1999) is made up of mostly rural landscapes, almost none of which are in a natural state. “Los” (2000) circumnavigates Los Angeles, observing flight to and from the metropolis from a 405 overpass, and capturing a literalization of urban sprawl in the form of paved streets that give way to sand dunes. “Sogobi” (2001), a Shoshonean word for “earth,” completes the trilogy with a futile attempt at finding some untouched wilderness.

The Guardian’s John Patterson described his altered state--common among Benning’s audiences--after sitting through a screening of the trilogy at USC: “Emerging after five hours, I swear I’m stoned on the movie, so calm I’m actually worried about driving home safely. I sit down before the George Lucas Building and stare at it with freshly peeled eyeballs for exactly 150 seconds, and in my heightened state, I see lies, cultural strip-mining, rank exploitation, a factory for meaningless rubbish.”

Benning is a quietly outraged observer of the despoliation of the environment, but he demurs from the environmentalist tag. “I’m a part of the problem as much as the solution. I drive so much, and I drive cars that aren’t the most economical,” he says. “I should be learning from my films how to change my life.”


We’re driving through a dry, dusty place called Summit Valley, pondering the oxymoronic appellation, when Benning pulls into a turnoff, allowing several speedier vehicles to pass. “Everybody’s in a hurry but me,” he says. His excuse might as well be his modus operandi.

For an even grander experiment in trainspotting, he’s chosen a cliff-side location in the Cajon Pass overlooking dual train tracks that cut through a small canyon. Benning, who thrives on self-imposed restrictions, has left only four minutes of film in his camera. He assembles the tripod so that it straddles the barbed-wire fence, as passengers in passing cars invariably swivel their heads.

It’s the busiest line Benning has ever seen, with a new train arriving every 15 minutes. Still, he waits for a theoretical perfect shot: two trains passing one another at speeds fast enough to enter and exit the frame within four minutes. “My stomach is telling me to get the hell out of here,” says the breakfast-and-lunch-deprived filmmaker. But Benning’s patience can reach the kind of Zen heights where bodily needs become subservient to the task at hand.


To my amazement, the uphill and downhill trains approach and intersect just half an hour later, setting up Benning’s ideal shot. After months of observation, he can confidently estimate that they will run this stretch of track in just under four minutes. Unfortunately, he shoots himself in the foot with his formalist rigor: The film runs out five seconds before the uphill train exits the frame.

It’s 4 p.m. The only restaurant in the vicinity is a McDonald’s, so Benning detours to a mini-mart to forage for his first meal of the day. When he emerges, he carries nothing edible; his right hand holds a new map of U.S. scenic drives.


Though his intimate, mathematical structuralism might be sui generis in cinema, Benning took many of his cues from legendary earth artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973) and his fascinations with entropy, geographic time and minimalism. This year, he intends to repay his debt by filming at Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a coiled earthen berm that stretches 1,500 feet into the translucent red water of Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

“When he built it in 1970, he thought it would go underwater and come back out, and go underwater and come back out, because the level changes 2 to 3 feet per year,” Benning explains. But 30 years of rain put the jetty completely underwater until just two or three years ago. Now it is almost completely submerged again, but he hopes that evaporation will cause the spiral to crystallize by December. “I’ll be able to film the whole cycle that took 30 years in just one year. It can’t come up--then I’m screwed. I won’t have a film.”

Surely to Benning’s pleasure, “The Spiral Jetty” is in a highly remote location, past a series of No Trespassing signs. The last mile must be traversed on foot.