The New York Film Festival’s annual Views from the Avant-Garde series runs from this Friday through Monday; Twenty Cigarettes, the latest from James Benning (previously: Thirteen Lakes, Ten Skies) plays on Sunday.
Given that James Benning’s oeuvre has some of the most perfect, stunning, hyperbole-justifying stunning shots on record, it may still seem unfair to complain that Twenty Cigarettes is, visually, a relatively drab experience; this is, per Benning, a film “about duration,” with his subjects determining the length of their screen time by how long it takes to suck the tobacco down. Smoking is increasingly overtly unacceptable and scold-worthy; still, there are few other socially acceptable ways to say “Sorry, I can’t deal with you people around me/this work, I’m going to retreat outside for three minutes to compose myself.” Mainlining nicotine is a social experience for many people; Benning focuses on smoking as attempted respite.
Perhaps the most overtly characteristic thing about Cigarettes, then, is the way the soundtrack assaults its subjects. Outside or inside, in the country or city, there’s always some distraction punctuating their antisocial idyll: planes, trains, cars, trucks, lawnmowers. (Or maybe just someone inexplicably yelling “Hey, fuck you!”) Shot five features Stephan Pascher, artist, smoking outside while birds and trucks fight it out for sonic supremacy. The shot preceding him has filmmaker Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) down in what looks like a 70s-wood-paneled basement where he still can’t escape the sound of motorcycles. Benning has made no secret of his dislike of urban environments; Twenty Cigarettes acts in passing as a catalogue of attention disruptions and the impossibility of total silence. John Cage would’ve liked it.
Regardless of the background, every shot places the subject center frame, cut off just below the shoulders and allowed some two or three inches of head room; locations range from Houston to Seoul, but the outside world’s been stripped away save for some final title cards. You’ll fight to find visual clues to locale, often in vain. If (as Benning’s allowed) Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” are a reference point, third subject Tedi Gentry passes with flying colors: as a Bach cello suite plays faintly in the background, you can see her bemusedly thinking while smoking, with faint expressions of surprise, tense contemplation and sudden private amusement playing across her face, suggesting a whole interior world expressing itself while no one’s around to bug her to explain.
Still, mileage will vary. Rarely less than pleasant, with an ambient soundtrack whose faintest details (some of which have been artificially constructed with seamless ease) demand total attention, something about Cigarettes feels off: duration’s one thing, but sometimes you’re really just dealing with a wall with no interesting textures, and the frame eventually exhausts itself. (It’d be nice to say that the play of smoke against light and background adds an extra element, but in the flat digital that’s not always true.) As a film about modes of smoking, it can only go so far, and leaves the nagging feeling something had been underthought.