THE FILMS OF JAMES BENNING
James Benning is an important American formalist avant-garde filmmaker. His lengthy and distinguished career goes back to the early '70s and includes one-person shows, retrospectives, and screenings at innumerable international festivals and cinematheques. He holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin and is a lecturer there. Of his work he says: "since I started making films, I've always tried to open a new narrative space from the juxtaposition of sound and image, or text and image - how the spectator experiences them, how they quote each other.”
Benning's use of duration reflects his accord with Henry David Thoreau's passage from Walden, “No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking at what is to be seen?"
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 films like 11x14 and One Way Boogie Woogie, he combines the structural analysis of image, sound and narrative with auto-biographical traces, as well as with an almost "classical" interest in composition, color, light and landscape.
This publication by Edition Filmmuseum presents two major works by James Benning: each recently restored by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, and; inaugurating an extensive publication effort by the institution, on DVD and in print, to celebrate an artist whose unique personal vision of America has established him as one of the most significant figures of American independent cinema. These publications are landmark in nature, as Benning's films that he shot on celluloid have never previously been available in either analog video or digital form. These titles also mark Benning's crossover from autobiographical text/image collages to his preoccupation with landscape.
Produced at the junction of two millennia, the CALIFORNIA TRILOGY 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 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, 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. 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.
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 the two key works representing the peak of this "text-image film" period. DESERET and FOUR CORNERS 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.
(Germany, 2009/Austria, 2014)
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, Benning's first foray into digital filmmaking, is a modern-day "city symphony" dedicated to Germany's industrial Ruhr district. His latest work, NATURAL HISTORY, is an audiovisual portrait commissioned by Vienna's Natural History Museum.