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Berlinale 2018 – Temporarily at Peace: A Conversation with James Benning

found fragments (James Benning, 2016)


Sitting in the Akademie der Künste Café with a notebook, a collection of poetry and coffee as company, I waited for a filmmaker to join me whose work I’d been increasingly drawn to lately. Just under a year ago James Benning’s Landscape Suicide (1987) had entered my consciousness so often in such a short window of time that I decided it could no longer be ignored: a cosmic message was being sent my way. I rented the disc — which also featured American Dreams: Lost and Found (1984) — and buckled in for a harrowing ride. I was certainly impressed but not yet sure what to make of it all. Further investigation led me to Benning’s later landscape works.I realized shortly thereafter that his California Trilogy had been recommended to me yet another year earlier.

In 1985 Benning co-directed O Panama, a half-hour film starring a silent Willem Dafoe trapped in an endless state of fever-dream. Benning has made nothing which qualifies as ‘short’ or ‘fiction’ since (barring his one-minute contribution to the 2009 Viennale, Fire & Rain), and Dafoe is the sole recognizable actor in a filmography that spans over 40 years. While certainly different by virtue of its very existence, observatory landscape shots that have become Benning’s trademark, especially recurring shots of clouds, are already present there.  His first ‘feature-length’ film 11 x 14 (1977), while very much its own, echoes the formalism of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman… (1975), with a less apparent narrative thread. My favorite sequence watches a man reading on the subway in an extended take, silhouetted by a sunny Chicago through the window behind him, as we roll through the city. Another shot observes domestic suburban America shortly after dinner: Dad sits at the table with a beer and newspaper while Mom does the dishes. Their son appears and reappears through the doorway in the background, just passing through. When the dishes are finally done, the silence of their absence is astounding. The drip of the faucet is magnified. The tranquility is a façade which shades dissatisfied existence.

When it was announced that 11 x 14 would be playing in the Forum sidebar of this year’s Berlinale, and that this likely indicated a visit from Benning in person, I decided to get in touch and see if he might have time to meet with a young aspiring filmmaker. One aspect of his biography had always grabbed me in particular:

At the age of 33 Benning received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin where he had studied with David Bordwell. For the next four years he taught filmmaking at Northwestern University, University of Wisconsin, University of Oklahoma and the University of California, San Diego.

I obtained my own Film and Media Studies degree at the University of Oklahoma, and to see it casually listed here came as a pleasant surprise. I was always interested to know more about his time there (in the mid to late 70s), and that’s where our conversation began.

“It was kind of a great period for the art school, with Joe Hopps as the director… Joe ran the school as a dictator, which was great because he had good ideas. Most of his faculty agreed with him and he would make things happen quickly. If we needed more space for graduate students, he would get the military to give a bunch of barracks that weren’t in use. He was fantastic.”

“It was a quite spectacular place to be. We also had some interesting students from Iran at the time because [Oklahoma University] was known for Petroleum engineering […] and because of that, the school was known to young artists that came from Iran.”

“And OU had pretty good support from the state, because the oil industry was booming. And taxes helped pay for the education system. Then when there was a so-called oil shortage, in the late 1970s, that cut a lot of the funding for OU. And at that time the art school kind of depleted and became something else. It was about a 5-10 year period in the 70s where it was very vibrant. And I know nothing about it since.”

“You know what it’s like now. It’s a rather conservative state, and the arts aren’t very well supported in America to begin with. They certainly aren’t supported by conservatives, especially people that are stupid and don’t understand how culture can actually solve larger problems by understanding differences. When you get leadership that’s ignorant to that, you lose. Perhaps that’s what happened at OU, and perhaps that’s what’s happening in all of America now, although it never really supported the arts like other countries do.”

Then I asked about the home-base-away-from-home that Europe has become for his career, with his latest installation found fragments currently showing at neugeriemschneider (a gallery which represents Benning among a roster of visual artists) in Berlin and the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna restoring his older works and bringing them to DVD.

“I’ve been showing more in Europe for the last 30 years than in the U.S. because there’s more of an audience here that understands what my work is about. There’s certainly a large art world in America but I’ve always somewhat fought against that because I didn’t want to be part of it…”

He gave me a 3-page fold out pamphlet from the found fragments exhibit and told me I could go see it, but it was important to read beforehand.

13 Lakes (James Benning, 2004)

The day after our meeting I did exactly that. As I read the pamphlet on the subway ride, I came to understand the size and scope of his projects much better. found fragments (three screens of which were installed at the Berlinale in 2017 as untitled fragments) is a multi-layer multi-media work loosely focused on the lengths to which the U.S. government will go to pursue the punishment of accidental wrong-doings while leaving its own misdeeds unpunished and considered as instantaneous ‘undoable’ history.

The installation featured two screening rooms and a collection of found objects — often painted — hung on the walls between the rooms. It was a fairly minimal setup, though just as he’d mentioned, there was a plethora of objects unused waiting in a roped-off room. For the exhibit’s run, pieces would be rotated between what was currently hanging and what waited in the side room.  The most striking photograph was a large print of a burnt car, thoroughly described in the pamphlet as ground zero of an enormous forest fire which ignited by accident. A man had parked the car but left it running as he and his son stepped into nature for a moment. On the three long-running screens from left to right: a charred forest at dusk, a black screen with audio of fighter pilots during conflict, and the gorgeously slow movement of late afternoon sunlight over a pencil portrait of an unnamed Native American.

Benning peeked in during the middle of my viewing of the three primary screens. I said hi, but he was either intent on not disrupting my viewing or didn’t hear me. The gallery was an odd setting as its open coldness (but nicely heated floor — perfect for seated viewing) seemed to encourage attitudes of difficulty and inaccessibility toward the work, rather than dissuade them.

James Benning in conversation at the Berlinale

The waitress arrived and Benning ordered a pleasant afternoon’s dream line-up: apple cake, rhubarb lemonade and a coffee. After she left, he quickly turned the questioning back to me.

“So what do you do? You’re a writer? You make films? You study? What did you study? Let me interview you.”

During my studies I actually had one course in the art school, in which we were tasked with shooting several shorts on 16mm film. It’s a semester summed up by a single moment in memory; understanding the physicality of celluloid the first time I had to load a roll.

“So they’re still trying to keep that old language alive?”

I think they might’ve stopped in the last few years.

“Like a lot of other places.”

Do you miss working on 16 at all?

“Not at all. It’s costly, you have to rely on laboratories, (unless you do your own developing), printing, and that’s something I… I did a little developing but never any printing.”

Was that rewarding, to do the developing yourself?

“When you do it the first time you’re curious because it’s like magic, just like when you develop still photos, it’s kind of interesting. And then because you can’t have the quality control a good lab would have — although there weren’t many good labs left when I quit — you introduce all sorts of new problems to the image that became part of the aesthetic. Some people get interested in that, but for me it got old very quickly because it looks kind of the same. When you get a poorly developed film you get the same kind of things happening; scratches and flares that are interesting for a minute or two and then…”

Not for the whole duration.

“Yeah. I mean it can be and certainly there’s good work made with that but I’m not very interested in cinema at all anymore, it’s too confining for me. And there’s too much arguing between the dominant cinema and people that are working outside of the dominant cinema. They shouldn’t even be talking. I have no understanding why. Their needs are completely different. But you like cinema, I know that.”

When you say you’re losing interest in cinema, do you mean you want to make more work specifically for installations or just generally the different spheres?

“I like working with my hands again, painting and drawing and doing silkscreens. But the ‘thinking’ I used to make cinema, I migrate that over into the work I’m doing now that makes objects, and finds objects. The thinking is the same, but now it becomes three-dimensional space rather than on the screen, (although I might have screens installed in the three-dimensional space) but I’m interested in objects and their relationships to the images. The thinking for me becomes clear because the spaces that I’m trying to develop now are somewhat mimicking what’s always been in my head the way I worked to make films: finding things here and there and making some kind of juxtapositions that wouldn’t be dogmatic and an audience would have to make sense out of those juxtapositions, and they’d be open enough that you could have your own interpretations. I’m still interested in that idea of presentation but in different forms. It still includes moving image but not necessarily in a theater. But I am aware that the contract in the theater is so much stronger than the contract in a gallery space, with the audience. The audience actually comes to pay attention in a theater and when you come to the gallery space, duration is dependent on you, and because of that people look at a painting for ten seconds. Of course there are people that actually look…”

He mentioned later that he prefers the theatrical presentation of L. COHEN (2018), as it was not specifically made as an installation piece, despite being mounted as one during the Berlinale. In his words, people who experience L. COHEN as an installation — and therefore fleetingly — might think it’s a “song,” an “image,” or “something spectacular.”

When I saw it that night, it proved to be something spectacular even in a theatrical setting.

Ten Skies (James Benning, 2004)

One of the best things about going to see a Benning picture is knowing what you’re in for. It’s hard to be disappointed when you know before the screening starts that you will probably spend an extended amount of time watching a mostly static image.

We watch the field. People cough. Others leave. Still others who can’t bring themselves to leave take to whispering. Rumbling plane sounds overhead, naturally distant. What exactly are we looking at? Are we supposed to be looking at anything in particular? Why such an unremarkable image? Why not a more breathtaking scene to stare at in stasis? We wait too long and then we wait some more.

Benning has talked about the inherent politicization in his images, which he believes make themselves known, however subtly or subconsciously. (“If you look at things differently aesthetically, maybe you’ll look at things differently politically.MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2, p. 231) I wanted to ask him in conversation, “what about love?” L. COHEN answers that question. The eclipse hits. It seems wholly impossible, an invention of postproduction, but there it is in all its oddly green apocalyptic glory. For what we will afterwards learn lasts all of a mere 2 minutes and 2 seconds placed in the perfect center of the film – a fact shared after the screening with the giddy glee that only a mathematician could feel — it is night.

The dark rolls over, the crickets kiss the shortest night of their lives goodbye (one cannot help but wonder how this passage of time felt for them, do they sense anything’s different?) and we are once again examining a mundane farm field in Oregon sometime around 4pm in August of 2017.

Some time later (it’s nearly impossible to say how much later), a track by the titular Leonard plays on the soundtrack. It is as moving as the shot is static. That is to say, you may have heard Cohen, but you haven’t heard him like this. Even more immediately, we’ve seen this shot, but we’ve never seen it like this: in the wake of two small miracles. When the song ends, it leaves a small but permanent echo on the landscape.

L. COHEN (James Benning, 2017)

Though he noted at the screening that the inclusion of music in L. COHEN was already “radical,” pop songs were hardly so scarce in his earlier work. 11 x 14 even features a Bob Dylan track in its entirety — twice. He also mentioned that the film could have easily been much longer, as he filmed a full hour before and after the eclipse, but in the end opted for a more practical 45 minutes, which some clearly still struggled with.

At this point the waitress reappeared with his order, noting that the coffee had spilled a bit on the way out and that he would get another, better looking one. “Alright,” nodded Benning. “It would taste the same though,” as she left. Then, “Alright, that’s enough. Bye.” He waved farewell to my phone and once I had stopped recording, lived up to the challenge of his own demanding filmmaking style, “Now you have to remember the rest.”

As part of my research leading up to our conversation, I watched the German-made TV documentary Circling the Image, which chronicles part of his journey shooting 13 Lakes, a journey which spanned 2,300 miles and two weeks. It is a reverent piece, nearly as poetic as Benning’s own work. In it, we witness Benning’s pre-shoot rituals. To find the right shot, he first visits the location with only a film photo camera, which he frequently raises to use the viewfinder for a sense of composition, but never clicks to preserve any stills – looking. He then raises his hands to his ears and cups them toward the landscape with his eyes closed — listening. Anyone flummoxed by Benning’s landscape work should certainly give Circling the Image a try. That’s not to say that the works need ‘explaining,’ it’s just that understanding the man behind the stoic magic brings new levels of comprehension and far more appreciation for how much work goes into his deceptively simple films. When I mentioned the documentary, he covered his face in embarrassment. I asked if cupping his ears was something he learned, or which came instinctively. It was something he learned from long walks in nature with his uncle, a sweeter and less pragmatic origin than I’d imagined.

He recounted the time, when teaching (mathematics) in New York, the very building in which his office once resided was burned to the ground. It was determined to be a case of arson, and among the chief suspects was Benning himself. While he had nothing to do with it, the mere fact of his acquaintanceship with a few politically active people was enough to get him fired.

While working on his Master’s degree, he claimed to have taught the same course he was enrolled in. I pressed for more infomation, and he revealed he was the TA for the course, though the professor was hardly knowledgeable on the course materials, as he was borrowed from another department on the basis of his studying retinas. A young Benning ended up researching and teaching the lesson plans. “I gave myself an A,” he said.

On the topic of school we talked briefly about sports. He had more fun buying tickets at the last minute from scalpers outside OU football games than watching the actual games. He prefers to watch minor league baseball these days. The major leagues have gotten bogged down by “disco music and noise.” The man just wants to have a beer and a hot dog and watch the game. Baseball triggered something in my memory… I asked something like “Didn’t you attend college on a baseball scholarship?” He said something like “Yeah. That was mostly a joke though, because the scholarship covered my tuition, but tuition was only $90 a semester.” Things certainly have changed.

He seemed almost as interested in my artistic journey as I am in his, and when it came up that I make music, he asked if I knew his daughter Sadie was in a band. Yes! Le Tigre! I was very surprised to learn just a week prior, after spotting their first album amongst a cluster of CDs on his coffee table in Circling the Image. She stopped making music though, he informed me. She started selling her paintings. She’s a millionaire. A multimillionare, probably, he remarked. An off-hand remark about how he still visits Norman, Oklahoma (a small city built around the University of Oklahoma, whose edges sprawl out to nothingness near the highway) prompted me to ask why. He has a musician friend there, Jon Hadley, whom he visits from time to time.

Just before Berlin, he spent a few days at the Academy of Solitude near Stuttgart, where two of his friends are on a four-month artistic sabbatical. The solitude is for the sake of being able to focus on their current project without distraction. “They’re hungry to see anything,” he said after mentioning that he screened a recent work for them. “There were around twenty people, but it looked pretty packed in that little theater.” He showed me the picture on his iPod touch, which looked just like an iPhone and “does all that other crap” without the ability to actually place calls. I mentioned the place looked like a small church, with its wooden benches set on an incline facing a single small screen. He went on to show me a couple other photos from the location that he seemed proud of. One was surely the most beautiful and perfectly symmetrical image I have ever seen of mossy mold slowly ensnaring the corner of a stone structure, absent of any other context.

Admitting it might just have been due to my watching them less than a week apart, I asked about the possibility of a deliberate connection between the smokestack in Ruhr (2009) and that of 11 x 14. “You’ve made the connection” was the reply, suggesting any premeditation on his part was insignificant in the face of merely watching the two in close temporal proximity. He went on to correct my smokestack remark: what we see in the final (hour-long) shot of Ruhr is something like a chimney in which coke is being heated into what will later become steel. He elaborated this process at a level of detail the intricacies of which have unfortunately escaped me.

When I ask if he’s read anything he liked lately, he recommends Rachel Kushner, and explains with an air of gratitude how he befriended the author after enjoying Telex from Cuba, and how Kushner in turn wrote him in as two different characters in her upcoming The Mars Room, which releases in May. In the meantime he’s just one character in my short piece. When we parted, I was left with much of the same sensation of watching a Benning film; a quiet conversation had taken place, and the world, in all its unending unsolvable misery felt temporarily at peace.