In his aptly-entitled essay-interview with James Benning for Artforum International—"Testing Your Patience"—Scott MacDonald emphasizes how Benning's films "confront the hysterical consumption modeled and sold by American commercial media and attempt to retrain those who come to see the films, testing viewers' patience in order to reinvigorate their perceptual capacities" and, thereby, offering "the possibility of perceptual retraining and psychic cleansing." As Benning shifts away from the constraints of 16mm filmmaking and flexes the potential of HD work, the opportunity to lose patience and reinvigorate perception increases exponentially.
"I have a very simple definition of an artist," Benning told MacDonald. "The artist is someone who pays attention and reports back. A good artist pays close attention and knows how to report back. I teach a course called 'Looking and Listening.' The class and I practice paying attention. I take them to many different places, often for a full day, and we look and listen. Sometimes we go to an oil field in the Central Valley, or to a mountaintop to watch the sky brighten as the sun begins to rise, or to a homeless neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles, or to the port at Long Beach. We gradually learn that our looking and listening are coded by our own prejudices, that we interpret what we see through our own particular experiences, and we learn that we need to confront our prejudices and learn to see and hear more clearly. And to learn more about what we do see."
Not the least of Benning's lessons in visual acuity is the awareness of narratives immanent in meteorological phenomenon and/or industrial processes. He carries that awareness forward—by way of an outsider's perspective—into the industrialized Ruhr Valley of Western Germany with his first feature-length digital work Ruhr, which premiered at the Duisberg Film Week. For as much as Benning has verbalized his discontent with processing and projection errors in 16mm filmmaking, motivating his rationalized shift to HD, the Duisberg premiere was marred by "auditory disruptions both on screen and off" and—as assessed by Mark Peranson at Cinema Scope—though no damage was ultimately done, "this was more a statement about the present and a harbinger for the future." Peranson's initial impressions will, no doubt, remain the most salient. "Along with being one hell of a head trip," Peranson concludes, "Benning's first digital feature is his closest to theory. More than a series of specific images, Ruhr is best considered a film about image-making itself." Specifically, digital image-making, where "the medium … take[s] the reins."
What full HD shooting has afforded Benning, Peranson continues, "is the possibility of playing with other forms of editorial shorthand." This has proven to be a slightly controversial issue, as indicated in the robust discussion at The Auteurs Notebook—a discussion in which Benning has admirably participated—where the fine hairs between "reality" and "truth" have been combed. It's a somewhat couffiered argument that I put to rest over a decade ago when I fell in love with the digital photography of Pedro Meyer but an argument that—I guess—requires restyling each time an artist enters the digital domain. Peranson nails it: "With digital filmmaking, we're in a cinematic space where the 'real' has no meaning; rather, Benning is using all the means at his disposal to create what we could call a reality-directed document."
The Auteurs team kicked into high gear when Ruhr screened at Rotterdam 2010, commencing with Matthew Flanagan's "descriptive zoopraxography" of Ruhr's seven chapters. It should come as no surprise that Flanagan's appreciation is evocative with attentive poetry; his own website Landscape Suicide is named after an earlier Benning film exploring the relationship between text and image. Flanagan's reaction to Benning's digital erasures is that they're "wholly imperceptible, irrelevant to the activity of viewing." To the purists alarmed at Benning's digital sleight-of-hand, Flanagan reconfigures Benning's " intricate act of betrayal." He explains: "Benning's work has only ever inversely acted as documentary; its objective is to interrogate, or foster, a certain mode of seeing—realism as attention, not style. André Bazin once pointed out that 'the more the image tends to resemble reality, the more complex the psycho-technical problem of editing becomes,' and Ruhr might well be one of the most sophisticated, and devious, solutions to that problem we have."
Danny Kasman adds: "Video may remove tactility and perhaps even weight from an image, but what it enhances is a totality, one that favors the long-take and the long shot." (I expect, however, that Benning will argue that his HD works are not video.)
Neil Young's reactions were admittedly mixed. He observed that Benning "seemed to be learning his way through the possibilities of digital while 'on the job' ", resulting in a "curate's egg" of "uneven results."
The program capsule for Ruhr's US premiere at REDCAT in Los Angeles mollifies Young's criticism as "a meditation on the notion of terra incognita. Faced with the unfamiliar landscape of Germany's Ruhr Valley, the cradle of heavy industry in that country, and a new medium, he turns the film into a process of slow discovery." In his Artforum piece celebrating the REDCAT premiere, Michael Ned Holte brings the critical discussion full round by observing that Benning wants his viewers to "feel" time rather than forget about it, and that "the true promise of HD lies in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer's attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register." As quoted at the start, that's a lot of patience to lose.
As part of a weekend celebration of Benning's films in the Bay Area—"Darkest Americana & Elsewhere"—the San Francisco Cinematheque and the USF Film Studies Program screened Ruhr at the Presentation Theatre of USF. This afforded the opportunity to pose a few questions to James Benning.
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Michael Guillén: I need to ask the obvious question. Since this was your first work in the HD format and the first piece you've shot outside of the US, and—since I'm aware that you create each of your films learning from the film you've just completed—what have you learned from these two new experiences that you think might inform your next work?
James Benning: Well, I've learned very much about the difference between an HD camera and a 16mm camera. The very first shot I did was the one at the Dusseldorf Airport and I was lucky enough to shoot it on a day when there was no wind. I discovered that there was this system of weather that the plane would pull behind it; these subtle wind patterns that would come through as the plane would cross over. You'd hear these wind vortexes that the wings cause and then 30 seconds after that it would drag behind it a wind system, a weather system, that would cause the trees to lose leaves and move.
After I did the shot and went home, I realized that I probably wouldn't have been able to do this with film. First of all, I was able to shoot two hours worth of footage and was able to shoot a number of reiterations of these planes landing. I realized that if I had watched just one plane landing, I wouldn't have realized that this weather system was from the plane. I might have thought it was a coincidence of wind going by. By being able to shoot for two hours, something like 35 planes landed during that time and each time each plane would create a slightly different weather system and a different noise. That interested me.
I realized that the resolution and the registration of the HD camera was so much more steady and precise than in 16mm that any little movement that happened could be captured by this camera, where it would probably be lost in the movement of the 16mm frame; the jiggling of the frame during projection. I immediately got very excited that I could look at things in a much closer, deeper way than before at much more subtle things that were happening.
I also immediately realized it had a completely different look than film and that I would want to pursue that look. Unfortunately, we didn't have an HD projector here so what you were seeing wasn't HD—it was video—and so it didn't have the resolution that it should have had. I guess if you sat back farther, it looked a little better. But if you looked at it from one of the closer rows, you could see all the dots from the projector. Some of what I'm learning now is that the projection systems in HD haven't been developed yet. As 16mm film gets worse and worse in projection, HD will get better and better. There, of course, are systems that are set up now where it's a completely different experience if you see it there; but, I think you get the idea.
I've also learned in digital that you can do a lot more post-production than you could with 16mm film. You can do post-production with 16mm film; but, it's much more difficult and you're not quite sure what the result's going to be. With digital, you're working with a computer and you can see the results almost immediately. When I shot the [Schwelgern] coking tower, I actually did a two-hour shot. I shot it at dusk so it goes from light to dark over the course of that two hours. Then I decided I only wanted to use the middle hour of that two hours; but, in that middle hour, it doesn't go from light to dark and I wanted it to go from light to dark. What I was able to do was to color correct the shot. The shot is in real time but the color changes in an unreal way. I was able to color correct the last frame to match the brightness of the last two hours of the shot and the first frame to match the first part of the shot. Does that make sense? The shot is two hours long. I take the middle half but I color correct the first part to match the key frames at the beginning and the end, to slowly go from this brightness to that darkness. It's cheating; but, it's cheating in a way that I felt gave a better feel of what I originally recorded.
I also shot the very first shot in the [Matenastraße] tunnel for two hours. I was able to pick the cars and the movement of the leaf and the little piece of cellophane and cut out cars and trucks that I didn't like through dissolves. Again, what you see is a reality but it's a constructed reality.
The color of the tunnel isn't changed. It's a remarkable tunnel. It's actually a tunnel that goes underneath a steel mill. It's mainly workers that use that tunnel. It's dark and dingy; but, what's remarkable about it, is that—when you're in the middle of it—you feel like you're in somebody's ear drum. You can hear each side of the tunnel and it funnels the sound back and forth and it's magnified by bouncing off the tunnel. I liked the way the tunnel itself stripped the color from it except when the cars come through—I showed a red and a green car—but, otherwise there's no color manipulation at all.
It's true that in a number of my films—like, 13 Lakes and Ten Skies—I used a 400-foot magazine and end up with a 10-minute shot, which means I still trim a minute off that 11-minute reel so that I could slide the shot slightly. In One Way Boogie Woogie, I did 50-feet shots and used 36 feet of that. So I still had a choice as to where I could start and stop. But in those films I was thinking of early cinema where they would do a full roll of film, although I was never really using the full roll; I was doing some editing. Now with digital I can do a two-hour shot but if I bought a new card—they have two-hour cards that fit into my camera and the camera takes two cards so I could potentially shoot four hours and, if I got someone to jerryrig it to go into a hard drive—I could make shots that would only be limited by the battery life of my camera. For me, however, two hours seems manageable. I love the luxury of being able to do the two-hour shot. It doesn't cost me any money at all. If I don't like it, I just erase the card and use it again. So there's this luxury of recording shots that are much much longer than I was able to do in the past because—first of all—I was limited by the reel size but I was also limited by money more than anything. Even if I was limited by reel size, I could do tricks to extend that. I did a film in 1975 with a 22-minute take and there's a dissolve in the middle—I used two 140-foot magazines—but, you can't see where the cut is so it looks like it's a 22-minute shot.
Sharon Lockhart just made a film called Doubletide where she used five 10-minute shots together and had her actor hold still while they changed magazines so that she could actually simulate a 50-minute shot. So there are tricks one can use even when you are limited by roll size. But now I'm more interested in process itself. The interesting thing about making Ruhr is that, generally, I know a place well. I don't make a film until I know a place very well. From knowing place, I can study a process of what happens there. With Ruhr, I didn't know the place at all so I chose processes that I already knew about. When I watch Ruhr, I think it's really not about the western part of industrial Germany; it's more about Milwaukee, Wisconsin where I grew up, because I knew those processes of steel from the Midwest, and I knew about the working class, and I knew how Blacks were used as cheap labor, rather than Muslims and Turkish people. So in a way what I'm looking at in Duisberg is really a lot about the politics and the kinds of work I was familiar with in my own home town, which I like. I think it's interesting that my first film outside the US is not really about being outside the US at all. It's by looking outside, I can understand my own place better.
Guillén: Speak to your evolving fascination with steelmaking.
Benning: There's a film festival in Korea, the Jeonju, where in the past five years they give a digital grant to three different filmmakers in different parts of the world. This year they chose three filmmakers from this hemisphere, and I am one of those.
So I went back this fall to shoot at a steel factory. The way steel is made, they use blast furnaces. They heat iron ore in a blast furnace and it becomes a molten metal called pig iron. The pig iron is separated from the slag—the impurities—that comes off it. It comes flying out of the blast furnaces into [ladle] cars. The film I made there is a half-hour look at these [ladle] cars moving pig iron. It's called Pig Iron. But I became very interested in the whole steelmaking process when I made Ruhr.
The very last shot of Ruhr is the coking tower where they make coke, a highly dense and compressed coal that's used in the blast furnaces. The way it's made, they superheat this coal in furnaces for 25 hours. The tower that you see in Ruhr is in Duisberg and it's the state-of-the-art coking tower in the world. People come from all over the world to study the process that they've developed at Duisberg. They have 72 different ovens that cook coke coal for 25 hours at a time. At the end of 25 hours, the machine pushes the coal out of the coking oven into a train car. It falls into that car and travels about a hundred yards and locates itself beneath the coking tower, which you see in the last shot. When you hear the noise of the siren, that's the train moving the coke underneath the tower. Then they dump 10,000 gallons of water on top of that coal in a little less than a minute and that creates this water vapor that rises through the coking tower and makes these big plumes. Generally, this process takes place about every 10 minutes. In other words, every 10 minutes the coal in one of the 72 ovens gets pushed out into a train car, moved beneath the coke tower, and they dump the water. In that last shot in Ruhr, there was a problem on the line at one place so one of the iterations is skipped. So there's a 20-minute section where nothing happens. You see the coke being processed five times in the hour-long shot
Guillén: Speak to the soundscapes you're created for each chapter.
Benning: First, because I shot outside of the country and because I was just learning digital filmmaking, I didn't shoot double system like I did with 16mm. I actually had a very good microphone that plugged right into my camera and I recorded the sound in synch in the camera. I'm not doing that now. Now I have sound devices equipment and I do both recording into the camera and double system. Because I didn't want to learn so many things at the same time, I simplified the sound. Also because I realized I couldn't travel with so much equipment if I wanted to carry my camera on the plane. Since it was new equipment that I had just bought, I was hesitant to put it underneath. I ended up doing synch sound that's recorded right into the camera. Then I used Pro Tools to enhance that. I've learned lots of tricks on how to double sounds and put them slightly out of synch to create a fuller sound, like they were recorded with more microphones than I actually used. But I was very much interested in the actual sounds that were in those places. Those seven shots that you see in Ruhr were chosen as much for sound as they were for the image. Perhaps the very first chapter was inspired by the sound of the tunnel itself. Once I spent more time in the tunnel, I realized it was as visually stunning as the sound was. In each chapter I tried to create a realistic sound of that place itself.
I did cheat at a few places and I don't know if I want to admit it. I added the piano in the street sequence. However, after I stopped filming, I heard somebody playing the piano in one of those houses on the street; but, I didn't record it there. I had a friend fool around on the piano afterwards. In the tunnel sequence—you hear trains that make this wonderful sound in the tunnel?—I put one of those sounds in the very last shot to make a bookend of that. Otherwise, all the sounds are from the place.
I don't like surround sound at all. I don't like sound that's bigger than the image because the image is up here on the screen, it's not back there in the auditorium. It should have the presence of the picture and not be bigger than the picture. I don't like overproduced sound. I like it to be subtle.
Guillén: Knowing that—along with the problems you were having with labs—that you were having issues with projection of your 16mm films, I'm intrigued by the comment you made earlier about the HD projection technology not being quite ready for what you're doing. This situates your work at a cusp between a declining 16mm technology and a yet-to-be-fully-implemented HD technology.
Benning: HD technology is ready. It's just that most theaters aren't set up for it yet. I showed Ruhr at REDCAT—which has state-of-the-art sound and image—and it was absolutely incredible. So it does exist. When people ask to screen Ruhr, I'll say, "Do you have HD projection?" They'll say yes. Then when I get there, it's not HD projection; it's video. If you saw a proper HD projection of this, it would look much better than 35mm. It would have an outstanding resolution.
Guillén: So Ruhr has been shown about five times, is that right? It premiered in Duisberg, screened in Rotterdam, at REDCAT, here….
Benning: That's about right. It's been showing a lot lately and I'm not quite sure where they're showing it and I have no idea what the projection systems are like. My producer has been sending it out and saying, "We will only show it in HD" but then it turns out to be video. But this will change. With 16mm I know it's going to change for the worse. I love 16mm filmmaking; but, I didn't like what was happening in my life for the last four or five years, where it took six months to get it printed and the print was maybe destroyed on the third screening and the first two screenings were out of focus or they didn't have the sound right and it was incredibly bad. I'm too old to have that kind of stress.
Cross-published on Twitch.