James Benning at the Harvard Film Archive
April 24 - April 26, 2009
Director James Benning in Person Friday and Saturday RR Friday April 24 at 7pm Looping, chugging and barreling by, the trains in Benning's latest monumental film map a stunning topography and a history of American development. RR comes three decades after Benning and Bette Gordon made The United States of America (1975), a cinematic journey along the country's interstates that is keenly aware "of superhighways and railroad tracks as American public symbols." A political essay responding to the economic histories of trains as instruments in a culture of hyper-consumption, RR articulates its concern most explicitly when Eisenhower's military-industrial complex speech is heard as a mile long coal train passes through eastern Wyoming. Benning spent two and a half years collecting 216 shots of trains, forty-three of which appear in RR. The locomotives' varying colors, speeds, vectors, and reverberations are charged with visual thrills, romance and a nostalgia heightened by Benning's declaration that this will be his last 16mm film. Directed by James Benning. US 2007, 16mm, color, 115 min. Spiral Jetty and casting a glance Saturday April 25 at 7pm In 1970 Robert Smithson built his iconic Spiral Jetty, a 1500-foot long sculpture of mud, salt crystals, and rocks jutting into Utah's Great Salt Lake and embodying elemental and philosophical principles essential to the artist's aesthetic. Smithson's film of the same name intercuts footage documenting the Jetty's construction with sequences in a natural history museum and his own poetic voiceover, the camerawork recapitulating the Jetty's form in swirling aerial shots, dazzled by the sun's reflections in the water. Benning first focused his own camera on the Jetty when he searched for its remains during the cross-country motorcycle journey at the heart of his 1991 film North on Evers. At the time Benning supposed that "in a way [his] trip [had] ended there at the end of the spiral," however the coil's pull persisted-as an important reference in his 1995 film Deseret and then as the subject of casting a glance. Simulating the Jetty's thirty-seven year history, casting a glance records the shifting ecology of the Great Salt Lake's northeastern shore, finding the earthwork "a barometer for a variety of cycles." Benning has created a work "that [Smithson's] film begs for, which pays attention to the Jetty over time.' J.B. 13 Lakes Sunday April 26 at 3pm Benning's deceptively simple titles for 13 Lakes and its companion piece, Ten Skies, belie the richly nuanced worlds of light, shadow, stillness, and change in each films' 10-minute-long shots. Structurally and conceptually minimalist, 13 Lakes presents as many bodies of water from across the United States-each chosen for its unique historical, ecological and geographical characteristics, and each framed to divide the image evenly between water and sky. The precision and rigor of the film's form intensifies the experience of duration, with Benning's long takes embracing both his subject (to which he is acutely attentive) and his audience (to whom he generously offers the time for audio-visual immersion), inviting us to share in his sober contemplation of the ever-subtly shifting mystery of the natural world. Directed by James Benning. US 2004, 16mm, color, 135 min. Ten Skies Sunday April 26 at 7pm Filmed around Val Verde, California, this series of skyscapes gracefully visualizes human civilization's interaction with, and impact on, the landscape. The skies and cloud formations chosen by Benning are affected by pollution from an industrial factory, jet trails, and smoke from an accidental wildfire, all clearly legible upon the firmament. And yet, despite these ominous environmental undercurrents, Benning conceived Ten Skies as an anti-war film, describing his work to be "about the antithesis of war, [about] the kind of beauty we're destroying." This intention is affirmed in the reflective serenity of his images; the varying tones, textures and colors of the atmosphere, and the shifting transformations of billowing clouds that produce astonishing perceptual revelations about scale, ephemerality, and the cinematic frame. Directed by James Benning. US 2004, 16mm, color, 109 min.