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April 24 - April 26

Place Over Time. Recent Work by James Benning

“The artist is someone who pays attention and reports back.” – J.B.

Over the past thirty-five years James Benning (b. 1942) has played a central role in the history of American independent cinema by offering his rigorously structured yet wonderfully graceful films as extended meditations on the American landscape and its social and environmental histories. Benning’s life and work have been shaped by his passionate wanderlust—born in Milwaukee, he lived for intervals in Colorado, the Missouri Ozarks, Illinois and Oklahoma before settling in Val Verde, California in 1987, with car and motorcycle journeys around the country generating such films as I-94 (1975) and Four Corners (1997). His career has been equally restless, ranging from his early experimentation with an avant-garde aesthetic to his embrace, during the 1980s and 90s, of explicitly autobiographical elements and increased human content. With his “California Trilogy” (2000-2001) Benning entered a new phase, refining his formalist style and political concerns while distilling his abiding interest in place and exacting organizational structures. The different phases of Benning’s career inform his more recent work, presented in this program, which looks at and listens to the world with an acuity grounded in Benning’s firm convictions that duration and a rigorous formal aesthetic can give way to films that allow us to see differently and to read the inscription of the political into the places that surround us.

This program is co-presented with the Film Study Center, Harvard. Special thanks: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the Film Study Center; Scott MacDonald, Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard. Support provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


Special Event Tickets $10
Friday April 24 at 7pm

railroadRR

Directed by James Benning, Appearing in Person
US 2007, 16mm, color, 115 min.

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 two hundred and sixteen 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 work in 16mm film. 

 Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Saturday April 25 at 7pm

jetty

Spiral Jetty

Directed by Robert Smithson.
US 1970, 16mm, color, 32 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection



casting a glance

Directed by James Benning, Appearing in Person
US 2007, 16mm, color, 80 min.

In 1970 Robert Smithson built his iconic Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot long sculpture of mud, salt crystals, and rocks jutting into Utah's Great Salt Lake, 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 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 north-eastern 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.

 Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Sunday April 26 at 3pm

lake13 Lakes

Directed by James Benning.
US 2004, 16mm, color, 135 min.

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.

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Sunday April 26 at 7pm

cloudy skyTen Skies

Directed by James Benning.
US 2004, 16mm, color, 109 min.

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.

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