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“I have an interest in exploring space-time relationships through film. There’s real time, and there’s how we perceive time. Time affects the way we perceive place. That’s where I get this idea of “looking and listening”. In my films, I’m very aware of recording place over time, and the way that makes you understand place. Once you’ve been watching something for a while, you become aware of it differently. I could show you a photograph of the place, but that doesn’t convince you, it’s not the same as seeing it in time. I’m very interested, now, in how much time is necessary to understand place.”
– James Benning, Senses of Cinema, 2004
It may be needless to say that there is a modicum of artists in the cinematic landscape at large whose sensibility has reaped the fruit of complete and utter stillness within the world. For every film in which artists like Tsai Ming-liang or Apichatpong Weerasethakul find themselves experimenting with the passage of time within spaces such as jungles, hospitals, and movie houses, the amount of projects in which time isn’t considered even half as carefully seems to increase tenfold, maximizing the impact of those slower films as they become less and less prevalent within the contemporary cinematic discourse. Enter James Benning, who has carved his name wholly within the temple of slow cinema since the beginning of the ’70s with shorts that methodically and patiently swelled into the canvas of features like 11 × 14 or Landscape Suicide, all within a body of work that has tragically seen some projects of his permanently lost.
A fellow educator of film at Northwestern University and CalArts, the minimalism of Benning’s cinema refuses to coerce the viewer into seeking out the hidden details within his often-sparse imagery. You are just as likely to experience his work at a film festival as you would at a gallery installation. Instead, Benning lets each of his frames speak for themselves, and if not for themselves, then for the regions that they occupy or for the people within them. The bigger picture is the picture itself. Whether mounting a 16 mm camera in the back of a car during his and co-director Bette Gordon’s road-trip from NY to LA in 1975’s The United States of America or filling the frame with ten different shots of the sky (each shot ten minutes each) in his aptly titled 2004 picture, Ten Skies, the quietness of his filmmaking has now spent five decades extending itself to a near-radical means of existence, which only becomes more tangible once you learn of his participation in the War on Poverty, as well as the subsequent observations of capital’s impact on industry on community, race relations, and several other avenues that are well amongst his oeuvre. His voice — directing, creating, and distributing on his own terms since 1971 — has only proved more necessary with time, especially as the world of cinema constantly promises (or perhaps threatens) new levels of innovation faster than the average viewer’s attention span watching a film that moves like Benning’s.
His newest project, Allensworth — a document of a municipal community, covering a year of the town with one shot for each month — continues this voice as Benning, now 80, takes to some of his most minimalist imagery yet, focusing on the titular ghost town, which became the first municipality in California to be run by Black people. A context that may only be apparent should you read about the film before watching or even just be familiar with Benning’s mission as a filmmaker. But still, rather than forcing meaning or subtext within every spare image, you are merely given an opportunity to immerse yourself in a geography that otherwise would continue to remain unknowable. Ever since switching from his mainstay format of 16 mm to pristine digital, one may think it easy to mistake the shots in Benning’s latest as freeze-frames, if not for the faint amount of noise that helps bring life to each and every abandoned locale. This notion alone further cements the evolution of his cinema, in which structure and linguistics are one and the same, both melded into a film language that remains shrouded in an intoxicatingly enigmatic nature.
It also makes it more difficult to label his work as mere films, as they have gradually gone on to take the form of more of an audiovisual collage of different temporal and spatial explorations. It’s halfway near the film, specifically its sixth shot, in which we are outside of what looks to be a church, becoming more apparent by the offscreen singing we begin to hear as the shot draws to a close. But even without clear prevalence of humanity on display, the majority of Allensworth very easily proves to be a film abundant with life. If it somehow isn’t present within the muted chirping of birds or the passing of cargo trains and the occasional four-wheeler truck, it manages to be found within the isolated spaces of this community, in which lives had to have been lived, and something had to have been shared between the people within it, if not the ghosts of communal life. There’s a sharp sadness and deliberate sterility (at times recalling the late period of Frederick Wiseman) to these frames, whether its lent by the digital photography, or Benning’s age being accounted for, or for the show-stopping sequence featuring Faith Johnson reading aloud poetry by the late Lucille Clifton that delves into not only her racial identity but also that of the country she resides in and the innate problematizing of its background. It’s this centerpiece sequence that speaks not only on behalf of the region that the film documents but also as an ongoing tapestry of life that has only taken until now to become realized onscreen. Watching Benning’s latest confirms to me, at least, that even within his own late period in which everything and everywhere may have already been mined, Benning still finds communities and worlds that he has yet to explore at just the luck of a draw, even when nobody else will care to find them.