11 x 14 (1977)
Directed by James Benning
Tuesday, October 16, at Light Industry, 16mm
Shock and horror spread—James Benning was switching to digital. It was 2008. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, who’d been shooting on 16mm film stock for nearly 40 years, had made his last work in the medium with RR, a feature film whose conceit was as simple as watching trains traverse their paths. The essence of his work would change now.
A lot of great filmmakers help make their viewers more aware of film’s material essence—celluloid’s physical grace or brutality in bringing out dimensions of movement and light. Benning did this while also helping viewers see his artworks as based in time. His films are often shot with the camera in a fixed frontal position overlooking a landscape with an object moving across it; this describes many of the 65 shots in 11 x 14, among his most celebrated films, which show small figures traversing fields or cars motoring across roads. The film’s methodology announces itself quickly—a shot beginning when an action does, and cutting to white when the action stops. Each shot tells its own small, self-contained story, and your mind builds a larger one from adding them up. Because the actions of all of them are fairly straightforward, your eyes and mind roam free to enjoy their vibrating details.
The pleasure of Benning’s shots, whether they are static or moving, lies in how they catch everything in front of them. Rather than searching for drama, they simply let it come. “It just accumulated into what it is—collecting things here that would then suggest there,” Benning wrote to me in an email about 11 x 14. One shot, inside an elevated train, presents a man sitting in front of the camera. He’s darkly lighted, so you can’t see his face; what registers are all the buildings in the city he’s passing through, which will vanish at the same time that the ride ends and the film stock runs out. There’s also the tale of the woman who walks up her stairway, and that of the baseball shortstop waiting for a ball to come his way. Even a smokestack gets involved in the action, its billowing white clouds animated by and timed to a Bob Dylan song. It’s hard to convey how much fun this film and Benning’s others are; the movies are constantly moving, even and especially when it initially seems like they’re not.
So what’s happened since he went digital? At first, Ruhr posed challenges to viewers—since he wouldn’t run out of film stock, he could film that flaming building forever, and boy, it felt like he would. But he found other paths within the far flatter, more infinite-seeming digital world soon enough. Twenty Cigarettes (2010) presented people face-forward in front of walls, ending and beginning again with each smoke break; small roads (2012, and recently screened at the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde series) showcased exactly 47 tiny paths across the United States for which cars could search. The last time I checked, he was remaking Easy Rider. The playful sense of discovery still moves through his work, regardless of what he’s shooting on. I feel like I know what I’m going to get with a Benning film. And I look forward to its surprises each time.