James Benning is one of the most pre-eminent American independent filmmakers in the experimental narrative vein. As a young man, living in the Milwaukee in the 1960s, he saw MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON broadcast on public television. This film made an indelible impression on him: “It was just so different to anything I’d ever seen”. This experience motivated him in part to take up an artistic career in filmmaking (following studies in mathematics), even though his developing artistic style differed markedly from that of Maya Deren’s. Between 1971 and 1977, he made an extensive series of short films in 8mm and 16mm, some in collaboration with Bette Gordon. In 1977, he shifted his practice to incorporate the making of feature length films. In 2007, Benning declared, “No more 16mm filmmaking: the lab work is too stressful, and projection is getting worse than terrible. I'm going to make small DVD works and show them to friends."
For more than a decade now, the Austrian Filmmuseum in Vienna has taken the lead in collecting and preserving the celluloid film and digital video works of this artist. They also published the first substantial monograph on Benning’s work, and embarked on a project to produce carefully mastered DVD editions of his films. Each of these publications contains bilingual booklets with original texts about the filmmaker and his films. GME is proud to present these collected works of James Benning on an exclusive basis to the North American university market.
The mid-1970s saw James Benning's first feature films attract the attention of critics, establishing him as a representative of the "New Narrative Movement." In these films, he combines the structural analysis of image, sound and narrative with auto-biographical traces, as well as with a classical interest in composition, color, light and landscape. His work fuses elements of American structuralism, the narrative avant-garde and experimental documentary. This 2-disc set features 11x14 (1977), one of the central U.S. avant-garde films of the 1970s, in a restored version, that premiered at the 2018 Berlinale. Also included is Benning's recurring view of his hometown Milwaukee at three different points in time: ONE WAY BOOGIE WOOGIE (1978), 27 YEARS LATER (2005) and ONE WAY BOOGIE WOOGIE 2012. These three films document both change and transience in the same locale over time.
This DVD edition comprises two key works from the 1980s, which mark Benning's crossover from autobiographical text/image collages to his preoccupation with landscape: AMERICAN DREAMS (LOST AND FOUND, 1984) and LANDSCAPE SUICIDE (1986).
AMERICAN DREAMS (LOST AND FOUND) is the filmmaker's personal take on the history of the USA from 1954 to 1976, told through a complex and thought provoking amalgamation of image, text and sound. James Benning describes this film as an "homage to my own coming of age": it combines his love of this film as an "homage to my own coming of age": it combines his love of baseball with his interest in American history, politics and popular culture to achieve a formally complex and challenging take on the American Dream.
In LANDSCAPE SUICIDE, Benning effortlessly straddles the boundaries of narrative and documentary forms as he recounts two infamous murder cases that took place almost 30 years apart. The film circles around the relationship between landscapes, both physical and mental, and the violence that takes place in their midst: "the idea wasn't to dwell on violent acts, but to focus on how people look at themselves when they commit violent acts, and how they perceive what happened later", says Benning.
In the 1990s, James Benning's films were primarily characterized by an ongoing investigation of the relationship between the image and the (spoken or written) word. This 2-disc set features two key works that represent the peak of this "text-image film" period. DESERET (1995) and FOUR CORNERS (1997) are rigorous attempts to address, engage and come to terms with the history and geography of the United States, as seen through the prism of one particular part of the country. The beauty of the shimmering landscapes is contrasted with darker exposés of American history.
In DESERET, Benning retells the history of America's Mormon State of Utah, by fusing more than 90 separate shots (comprising spectacular black & white and color landscape images), with a voiceover narrator quoting articles published in New York Times between 1852 and 1992 that reference the violent struggles between Mormons, Native Americans, and the Federal Government, as well as nuclear/biological weaponry and toxic waste sites.
Benning's following film FOUR CORNERS is both a tribute to the famous region in the USA where four states converge (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) and a portrait of four very different artists (impressionist pioneer Claude Monet, African-American folk artist Moses Tolliver, fictional Native-American wall-painter ‘Yukawa’, and Abstract Expressionist Jasper Johns). The voiceover narration deals with natural and man-made forces that have rent destruction upon the Native American population in this region.
Produced at the junction of two millennia, the CALIFORNIA TRILOGY (2000-2001) is James Benning's three-part topographical study of America's "Golden State". Looking to the past while investigating the present, the mathematician-turned-filmmaker condenses three distinct Californian landscapes into a total of 105 shots, each exactly 2½ minutes long. Formal restraint and compositional precision combine with ambient sound and an unheard social commentary to create a hypnotic journey across the 31st US State; from the Great Central Valley (EL VALLEY CENTRO) through greater Los Angeles (LOS) to the Californian wilderness (SOGOBI). This 2-disc set presents the complete CALIFORNIA TRILOGY for the first time ever on DVD.
In CASTING A GLANCE (2007), one artist pays tribute to another as James Benning offers his filmic paean to Robert Smithson's legendary "earthwork" sculpture, the Spiral Jetty. With RR(2007), his homage to the American railroad, the filmmaker brings an era to its close by going back to cinema's roots. Shot back-to-back over a period of two years, these works marked James Benning's farewell to analogue filmmaking and together constitute the profound "last words" on the film medium by one of its most singular innovators. In both cases, the "protagonists" (the train and the Jetty) act as a kind of measuring device, laying bare not only a temporal becoming, but a myriad of historical and cultural connections as well. This 2-disc set presents both films together with rare audio interviews, in English, in which Benning recounts the experience of making his "last" films and gives unique insight into his creative methods.
Since the late 1970s, James Benning's films have been a regular fixture at festivals in Germany and Austria, while frequent television broadcasts have helped expose his work to an even larger audience here than perhaps at home. This 2-disc set presents the products of this intercontinental relationship: RUHR (2009), Benning's first foray into digital filmmaking, is a modern-day "city symphony" dedicated to Germany's industrial Ruhr district; NATURAL HISTORY (2014) is an audiovisual portrait commissioned by Vienna's Natural History Museum.
Reinhard Wulf's feature-length documentary JAMES BENNING: CIRCLING THE IMAGE (2003), produced for German television, is a DVD extra that significantly illuminates Benning’s working method, especially the manner in which his films are composed of carefully-timed, long takes and precisely selected, fixed camera positions.
See Other Experimental Narratives & Avant=Garde Shorts Available from GME here.
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