Festival Daily
24 July 2011
Day 5 - A Perfect Portrait

James Benning's latest film, 20 Cigarettes, is a break from his series of landscape portraits, focussing instead on the myriad details of the human face. It is another fascinating work by a unique filmmaker who defies any easy categorisation.

For most of his career, James Benning has filmed the American landscape. Few artists have been so thorough in documenting the country's rural areas and hinterlands. Some films, such as Four Corners, have also engaged with its past, drawing on literary and historical sources to supplement the exquisitely framed images. Others, like United States of America, offer a window on present-day life. The film is a five-minute coast-to-coast journey in a car taken by Benning and a passenger. The only commentary is snippets from radio broadcasts. Playing out against the constantly shifting landscape. The commercials, news and music that play broaden the scope of the film.

Though regarded by some critics as a structural filmmaker, Benning is opposed to such labels, echoing the words of P. Adams Sitney that it is a "film that insists on its shape". A trained mathematician, some of Benning's work has a certain symmetry and geometric precision to it. But more often than not, it defined by its subject and not some pre-planned formula. As such, Benning's films possess a painterly quality and can be viewed as one would an artwork (although these are not gallery exhibits - they have a beginning, middle and end, and as such should be seen in a cinema).

These films are a far cry from the trend of much contemporary cinema, which employs as many edits as the human eye can take, a style that Transformers director Michael Bay has affectionately referred to as "fucking the frame". Benning's work couldn't be more different. A shot can range from a minute to a whole reel of film, as was the case with 10 Skies and 13 Lakes. Just prior to these films, Benning's Califonia Trilogy (El Valley Centro, Sogobi and Los) comprised of 35 shots, with each shot running for 2.5 minutes. Whereas in 2007's RR, each shot was determined by the length of a train as it passed through the frame and across the landscape of numerous locations around the US.

Benning's most radical departure in recent years was Ruhr, which screened at New Horizons last year. It was the filmmaker's first project outside the American continent, although the images captured could have come from Pittsburgh or any other US industrial town or city. The second surprise was the move to digital. Prior to this, Benning had always worked with a 16mm Bolex. Aside of the subtle changes in image quality, the new format allowed for greater freedom with duration, as was witnessed in the film's second part, an hour-long shot of a coke processing tower. For some, it might be an interminable indulgence, but Benning's unwavering belief in the interest of an image allows us time to examine every detail.

With his new film, Benning has chosen to explore the faces of his friends. Each of the 20 shots features someone smoking a cigarette. The shots' duration ranges between two and seven minutes, depending on how long the cigarette takes to burn. And in that time we are permitted not just to look at these faces, but into them.

Ian Haydn Smith
International Film Guide

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