James Benning’s 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, and the Culture of Distraction
von Scott MacDonald
James Benning’s long career as a 16mm filmmaker has grown dense with paradox. He remains best-known, at least in the United States, for his earliest longer films: 11 x 14 (1976) and One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), extended riffs on the American Midwestern cityscape and landscape (during the mid-1970s, Benning’s films were seen as a breakthrough contribution to American avant-garde cinema from what some have called the cultural “fly-over zone”: the territory between the centers of film production in New York and San Francisco/Los Angeles). And yet, the most productive and accomplished moment of his career began decades later, once many American avant-garde programmers seemed to have lost interest in him, with North on Evers (1991), the first film he made once he had moved to California to teach at the California Institute of the Arts, and has continued through 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, both completed in 2004. Second, Benning is best known in Europe, especially in Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, where his films are seen not only in theaters, but on television. He himself is a reasonably international person—he has appeared at film festivals around the world and is a regular at the Rotterdam and Berlin Film Festivals; he has taught in Korea and in Mexico. Yet, in all these years, Benning has rigorously confined his films to the United States, and with the exception of a single shot of Alaska’s Lake Iliamna in Thirteen Lakes, to the continental United States. Indeed, The United States of America (1975, co-made with Bette Gordon) and Utopia (1998) are the only films that have taken Benning outside the United States, and then, only briefly, to contemplate Niagara Falls from the Canadian side and the U.S./Mexican border from the Mexican side, respectively. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, to all appearances Benning is a thoroughly secular, relatively political person who, however, makes films that, increasingly, model a contemplative, meditative, even a spiritual sensibility.
Benning’s California Trilogy—El Valley Centro (1999), Los (2000) and Sogobi (2001)—and 13 Lakes and Ten Skies represent an epitome, a quintessence, of his career; and they may signal a kind of conclusion: recently, Benning claimed that “When I finish casting a glance, which is supposed to show at Documenta this summer, I plan to buy a DVD camera and start a new career. No more 16mm filmmaking: the lab work is too stressful, and projection is getting worst than terrible. I'm going to make small DVD works and only show them to friends...” (email to the author 4/4/07). Whether Benning’s digital work will in fact come to represent a new direction remains to be seen; it is already clear that his digital films are not “small.” They are feature-length, like most of his later work. In any case, there are good reasons to look carefully at 13 Lakes and Ten Skies as capstone works in a long, distinguished career.
During the years since his breakthrough films, 8½ x 11D (1974) and 11 x 14, Benning’s work has been characterized by a progressive renunciation of the conventions and distractions of commercial media. Indeed, the move from 11 x 14 to One Way Boogie Woogie can be read as a premonition of this process. 11 x 14 is a feature film that develops several skeletal narratives: early in the film, for example, we see a man and a woman in what appears to be a clandestine meeting on the street; these characters kiss, then separate and while we see each of them later in the film, their paths never again cross. Benning evokes narrative cinema, and in particular the classic tradition of narrative intercutting between plotlines that converge at the film’s conclusion, only to defy the expectations it has traditionally created. In One Way Boogie Woogie, however, what few shards of character and plot are evident are subsumed within a rigorously organized, serial structure. One Way Boogie Woogie is made up of sixty one-minute shots; the focus throughout is on the filmmaker’s arrangement of what we see, not on any development of plot or character. Both films are full of formal experiment, but the absence of anything like an ongoing narrative in One Way Boogie Woogie represents a decrease in the number of elements explored.
During the decades that followed 11 x 14 and One Way Boogie Woogie,Benning explored a range of combinations of narrative development and rigorous formal structure, all of which defy the expectations created by commercial cinema. Some of the resulting films seem to emphasize formal arrangements of space and time, and of sound and image, more than narrative (Grand Opera , for instance); some seem to emphasize narrative more than formal organization (Him and Me , for example). In general, however, Benning maintained a relatively even balance, at least through the 1980s: American Dreams (1984) and Landscape Suicide (1986) are particularly good examples. Since North on Evers, however, the films have moved more and more clearly in the direction of formal organization. Both Deseret (1995) and Four Corners (1997) do include sets of mini-narratives, presented as visual texts and/or as voice-off narrations within a larger set of formal developments; but after Utopia for which Benning “borrowed” the exciting story of Che Guevara’s years in Bolivia from Richard Dindo’s 1997 documentary Ernesto Che Guevara, the Bolivian Journal (Benning used the Dindo soundtrack, complete, as a score against which to present his imagery of the Southern Californian and Northern Mexican landscape), his films have nearly done away with narrative—or at least they have relocated narrative from on-screen into the theater itself, where the spectator’s adventure in coming to terms with Benning’s sense of space and especially his sense of time tends to become the primary experience generated by his films.
Probably no filmmaker has been more involved with exploring and documenting the American landscape and cityscape than Benning. Place has nearly always been a central concern in his films (there are exceptions, including American Dreams—though even here, the textually presented narrative of Arthur Bremer traveling around the United States and into Canada in the hope of assassinating a presidential candidate evokes a variety of locales); and in recent years, the progressive renunciation I have mentioned seems to have been in the service of positioning place ever more fully in the foreground of our attention. For example, both Deseret and Four Corners, as their titles suggest, are experimental documentaries about particular places and the history that has evolved within them. Deseret focuses on the history of what came to be called Utah (“Deseret” was the original Mormon name for the territory) after the Mormons settled there. Four Corners focuses on that convergence of political boundaries where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet, a geography where the histories of a range of native and immigrant populations have been entangled for centuries.
In Benning’s California Trilogy and in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies the history of events that have occurred within the particular places represented in the films has become at best implicit; these more recent films are less experimental documentaries about the geography and history of particular locations than they are cinematic experiences of being “in” particular places for extended cinematic durations. In public discussions of the recent films, Benning often expresses the hope that, because of the length of his shots, the audience will sometimes become conscious of a different kind of history: the series of personal adventures that resulted in the shots they are seeing. Obvious instances where this does happen include a shot in Sogobi and another in 13 Lakes (at Lake Iliamna), where a wind blowing from behind the camera—the one in the heat of Death Valley, the other in cold Alaskan weather—is so strong that we cannot but wonder at Benning seeking out such conditions for these shots, and be aware of the discomfort he must have been feeling during the filming. In most cases, however, our consciousness of Benning, and whatever “narratives” he lived during the shooting, is marginal at best. (This awareness of Benning-as-filmmaker has produced a film about Benning at work: Reinhard Wulf’s James Benning--Circling the Image , which chronicles Benning on the road shooting images for 13 Lakes.)
The increasing focus in Benning’s films on placing the viewer within extended moments in particular locales is confirmed by a change in the nature of Benning’s self-reflexivity in recent films. In early works like 11 x 14 and One Way Boogie Woogie, the American Midwest was a setting where Benning could play with the possibilities of image and sound. A particular shot in 11 x 14 might have us looking at a cornfield being plowed by a tractor; the middle furrows of the field extend into the distance from the bottom center of the frame and furrows flare out to the left and right of this center point. The energy of the shot results from the fact that the tractor moves from the background toward the right foreground and then leaves the image on screen right; after a moment, it moves across the screen in the very near foreground and off screen again to the left, then moves back into the image from screen left and continues into the distance: that is, the unusual visual organization of the shot and its use of off-screen space becomes as “visible” as the subject of the shot, a tractor plowing a field. Similarly, in One Way Boogie Woogie we hear the off-screen sound of a train that we assume is approaching, as a woman is unraveling red string while walking backwards across a train track; but the train never appears, and the surprise to our expectation becomes the subject of the shot. In these early films, Benning seemed to be demonstrating not only that the Midwest was a visually interesting location for American independent films, but that the Midwest—despite all the attention being accorded New York and San Francisco—was part of the cinematic avant-garde and its exploration of fundamental cinematic elements. In the California Trilogy, however, and in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, one no longer feels that Benning is providing self-reflexive, wryly amusing formal “games” for the viewer. Rather, the focus in the new films is on engaging the spectator’s perceptiveness. We are less involved with Benning’s formal wit, than with confronting the challenge of discovering the subtleties of image and sound within unusually extended durations.
The rigor of the structure of the California Trilogy—each of the three films is made up of thirty-five 2½-minute shots—seems a premonition of the even more minimal structures of 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, which are made up of thirteen and ten ten-minute shots, respectively.However, the Trilogy includes elements of structure that Benning renounces in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies. The Trilogy is held together formally by the identical structures of the three films, and by the fact that particular kinds of images appear in each of the films: “there are so many cross-references…. Even the first time through, you might notice that there are cows in all three films, and billboards—you might even remember that they’re all from the same company, Outdoor Systems—and aircraft, and trains (a freight train, a commuter train, then a freight train again), and oceangoing ships…” (Benning, in MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 5 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006], p. 251). The Trilogy is also held together by the implicit politic that informs all three films:
Benning: The whole trilogy is basically about the politics of water. In the Central Valley, corporate farms take advantage of two irrigation systems that were built with public money, one with federal money, one with state money. The corporations paid for none of the construction, but they take full advantage of it: 85 percent of the water in California is used for farming; only 15 percent is used for manufacturing and public consumption. And, of course, Los Angeles was expanded by stealing water from the Owens Valley. When I made El Valley Centro, I was very aware of the water politics, and I thought, “Well, when I make this urban companion, I’ll have to make a reference to how those politics continue from one place to another.” So Los begins with water flowing into LA in the original aqueduct from the Owens Valley. And then in Sogobi, I tried to show where the water comes from…. The very last image explains the mystery of the first. Also, the last image of El Valley Centro relates to the first image of Los; and the last image of Los relates to the first image of Sogobi. The Trilogy could play continuously, and you could enter anywhere. (A Critical Cinema 5, p. 250)
In other words, while narrative is no longer evident in the California Trilogy, and while place has moved into the foreground, the politics of place, as these politics have played out in California (and, of course, across the entire American Southwest) in recent decades, informs the structuring of the Trilogy.
In13 Lakes and Ten Skies even such implicit politics are generally no longer in evidence, and whatever political edge the two films have is a function less of the images we see than of the ways in which we come to grips with the extended temporal durations of the shots, durations unusual even for Benning. Like many independent filmmakers working in the wake of Andy Warhol’s long, slow films of 1963-1964, Benning has never been a stranger to extended shots. The fourth shot of 11 x 14 presents a ride on a Chicago El train; the ride and the shot last for 10 minutes 50 seconds. Later in that film, a beautiful and troubling shot of a smokestack sending billows of white smoke into the atmosphere lasts more than seven minutes. Also, like so many of his early 1970s colleagues, Benning produced a single-shot film, or at least the illusion of one: 9-1-75 (1975), during which, for twenty-two minutes, Benning’s camera tracks through a crowded campsite at Mothy Lake, north of Milwaukee, on Labor Day (some years ago, I surveyed the genre of the single-shot film in “Putting All Your Eggs in One Basket”: see Afterimage, vol. 16: 8 [March 1989], pp. 10-16). And more recently, Four Corners includes a set of four extended shots of individual works of art.However, the shots in both 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, all of which last exactly ten minutes, are different from Benning’s earlier extended shots in the subtlety of the action evident during these long durations; and they are different even from the extended shots in Four Corners, in which nothing moves at all, since each of those shots is combined with the sound of a narrator reading a text that traces the evolution of a complex and troubling aspect of American history. Further, while all the extended shots in Benning’s longer films before 13 Lakes and Ten Skies are contextualized by other, less temporally challenging elements (this isn’t true of the California Trilogy films, though the shot-lengths are not as extreme as those in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies), these recent films present a series of such challenges in a continuous, unrelieved sequence. Benning’s separation of each of the shots from the next by a moment of darkness (a bit over eight seconds long) further retards the velocity of both films.
The resulting experiences of 13 Lakes and Ten Skies are, of course, highly unusual in a variety of ways. In fact, for first-time viewers the films tend to require, early on, some decision-making. During my first experience of each film—and I am sure my experience is relatively usual—the relentlessness of Benning’s durational strategy seemed a bit frightening, in a manner that reminds me of my experience of many horror films. In a horror film that gives every evidence of being truly scary, viewers must, at some point early in the screening, make a decision to endure whatever the film is about to send their way. They know, of course, that they can leave the theater at any time, but even so, the decision to allow oneself to be frightened must be made and accepted. Much the same kind of decision is required by both 13 Lakes and Ten Skies. By the second or third shot of either film, it has become clear (even if it is not already clear from prior publicity about the screening) that the film will be an extended sequence of ten-minute durations, and further, that these moments will be, at least compared to nearly all moving-image experiences in film and on television (even to nearly all avant-garde experiences in film and on video), unusually minimal: almost nothing will be happening. Once this realization has come, viewers must decide either to leave the theater or accede to Benning’s durational challenge. The fact that, at least in my experience, nearly all of those who come to see 13 Lakes (I have not programmed Ten Skies) do stay for the entire experience represents something of a victory for Benning’s artistry, and demonstrates that, though Benning has refused to provide many of the elements most people go to the movies for, what he has provided has been not only endurable, but engaging enough to sustain a 130-minute experience.
What exactly is it that 13 Lakes and Ten Skies offer spectators? The most obvious answer is that the films provide a kind of visual and auditory retraining, a retraining related, at least in a general sense, to Stan Brakhage’s quest to use the 16mm movie camera as a tool for creating metaphors for the kinds of open perception that he imagined very young children to have during those visually Edenic months before their acculturation into language results in the atrophy of perception. Like Brakhage, Benning means to offer opportunities for the perceptual transformation of acculturated adults, though his strategy for achieving this is quite different from Brakhage’s. While many of Brakhage’s films mimic the experience of freeform, first-person sight by means of gestural camera movements and dense montage, 13 Lakes and Ten Skies open up visual and auditory spaces by using a tripod-mounted camera within long unedited shots. Filmmaker Peter Hutton, a Benning friend for many years, in describing his own work, has provided a useful way of thinking about Benning’s approach:
The experience of my films is a little like daydreaming. It’s about taking the time to just sit down and look at things, which I don’t think is a very Western preoccupation. A lot of influences on me when I was younger were more Eastern.They suggested a contemplative way of looking—whether at painting, sculpture, architecture, or just a landscape—where the more time you spend actually looking at things, the more they reveal themselves in ways that you don’t expect. For the most part, people don’t allow themselves the time or the circumstances to get into a relationship with the world that provides freedom to actually look at things. There’s always an overriding design or mission behind their negotiation with life. I think when you have the occasion to step away from agendas—whether it’s through circumstance or out of some kind of emotional necessity—then you’re often struck by the incredible epiphanies of nature. These are often very subtle things, right at the edge of most people’s sensibilities. (Hutton, in Scott MacDonald A Critical Cinema 3 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998], pp. 243-244).
Of course, Hutton’s films are silent, but in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies Benning works with both sound and image in a manner analogous to what Hutton says.
During any particular ten-minute shot in either 13 Lakes or Ten Skies, spectators are first confronted with a recognizable image—a lake, a skyscape—that is changing, usually quite gradually. Indeed, in some instances the changes taking place are so gradual that we cannot quite see them occurring. Particular shots in both films remind me of Morgan Fisher’s Phi Phenomenon (1968), during which viewers watch an institutional clock without a second hand for nearly eleven minutes: minute by minute, we can see that the hands of the clock have moved, but we cannot see the actual movement. Fisher’s film wittily directs our attention to a fundamental dimension of cinema (the phi phenomenon is that function of the brain that causes a sequence of still images presented to the eye/mind in rapid succession to seem to be in motion) that, in his film, we are not quite experiencing! During Phi Phenomenon there is a tendency to focus on the clock’s minute hand in an attempt to perceive the motion we know is occurring, and much the same happens during some of the shots in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies: we recognize that these are images from the real world and that therefore they must be changing. In time, we are able to recognize that one or another kind of movement has occurred in even the most still shot of a lake or of a sky.
Basically, there are two kinds of change that occur during any particular ten-minute moment in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies: the transformations evident in each individual shot and the differences evident in the change from one shot to the next. In 13 Lakes Benning’s compositional decisions help to place both kinds of change into clear relief. Each of the thirteen shots of American lakes is organized so that the line created by the surface of the lake crosses the image horizontally approximately half way from the top to the bottom of the frame. Along with the rectangle of the frame itself, this creates a skeletal grid that helps us measure the movements within individual shots, as well as the differences from lake to lake.
Within each individual shot in 13 Lakes a range of changes occur. In the first shot, of Jackson Lake in Wyoming, we look across the lake at the Grand Teton Mountains, early in the morning, as the alpenglow gradually alters the color of the mountains and the colors of the reflections in the lake. In the fifth shot, made at Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, the frame is divided between the blue-white surface of the lake and a light blue sky; very little visual change is evident—the shading varies slightly; tiny, very distant white lights, apparently from a small pleasure boat, hover just at the edge of visibility—but the auditory surround of a chorus of frogs varies continually. And in the ninth shot, made at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a rather surreal landscape reminiscent of certain Jerry Uelsmann photographs reveals slight visual changes—the movement of the water varies, birds fly through the frame in various directions—and auditory changes: in addition to the regular lapping of the water, we hear the chirping of crickets and, periodically, the sound of a distant car or a plane. Each of the individual shots in 13 Lakes offers, as Brakhage would put it, “an adventure of perception” during which spectators are challenged to consciously engage the changes, or lack of changes, occurring at any particular moment in the scene before them. Benning’s cinematic machinery confronts us with a series of simulacra for visual and auditory perception in real locations in real time—a most unusual position for spectators of moving-image media, given the usual hyper-manipulations of space and time in commercial film and television.
The skeletal grid provided by the film frame and the horizontal line of each lake’s surface also acts as a ground against which we can measure the successive figures of the different lakes, the way Eadweard Muybridge’s linear grids were meant to foreground differences in successive stages of animal and human locomotion. The sequence of lakes in 13 Lakes is geographically random: we see Jackson Lake, Wyoming; Moosehead Lake, Maine; the Salton Sea in southern California; Lake Superior in northern Minnesota; Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin; Lake Okeechobee, Florida; Lower Red Lake, Minnesota; Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana; the Great Salt Lake, Utah; Lake Iliamna in Alaska; Lake Powell, Arizona/Utah; Crater Lake, Oregon; and Oneida Lake, New York. The choice and order of this particular set of lakes seem to have something to do with the considerable differences between them—the move from Jackson Lake to Moosehead Lake to the Salton Sea at the beginning of the film, for example, jumps the viewer from one geographic region to another, from one kind of terrain to another, and from one kind of lake to another (Jackson Lake and Moosehead Lake were created by geological forces; the Salton Sea first by a faulty irrigation system and subsequently by irrigation run-off from the Imperial Valley in Southern California). Benning’s choice of lakes also seems to be related to his personal history, at least to the degree that some lakes seem chosen in part because of Benning’s psychic investment in certain geographic regions: his Milwaukee origins are evident in the fact that three of the thirteen of the lakes are in the upper Midwest; his choice of Oneida Lake in New York State may have something to do with his frequent visits with close friends in this area; and for years he has been regularly drawn to both the Salton Sea and to the Great Salt Lake—the Great Salt Lake, especially Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970),is an important location in North on Evers and Deseret, as well as in 13 Lakes, and it is the subject of casting a glance (2007). But the most important principle at work in the choice and arrangement of the thirteen lakes seems to be the creation of a certain variety in the kinds of perceptual experiences Benning can provide in these different locales, perceptual experiences that to some extent echo each other, while also revealing a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, range of distinctions. Indeed, during the opening minutes of some shots, viewers may find themselves wondering how the shot is a useful addition to what has been experienced so far, only to realize, slowly but surely, that the new shot does in fact add to what has gone before.
Generally speaking, the experience of Ten Skies echoes the experience of 13 Lakes. We are engaged by movements of more or less subtlety within each image, and often what we see is qualified by an off-screen sound-scape. Further, the movement from one shot to the next inevitably provides both surprise and continuity. In the opening shot of Ten Skies the changes in the sky are barely perceptible; we can see subtle variations in color as two jet trails move more or less vertically up through the frame and as a subtle glow across the bottom of the image forms during the second half of the shot. While the first shot could hardly be more low-key (a way of warning viewers that this film will test their patience), the second shot is quite dramatic: a glowing gold cloudscape or, really, smokescape—Benning filmed the smoke from a brushfire that raged across the mountains north of Los Angeles in 2003—moves rightward, accompanied by the sound of helicopters and planes. The shot is gorgeous and, once one realizes its source, a bit frightening. From shot to shot, the balance of visual versus auditory experience varies continually. The fourth shot includes a relatively straightforward skyscape (white clouds moving slowly to the right across a bright blue sky) accompanied by a particularly complex soundtrack: at various distances we hear the sounds of birds, a plane, a dog barking, distant traffic, the talking and singing (in Spanish) of some men at work, an idling motor—many sounds, some of which are quite clear, while others remain ambiguous. The following shot reveals the sun, barely visible through a mottled, gray-green sky; the sound is less complex than the sound in shot four (we do hear the cooing of doves, a dog barking, and some insect sounds), but there are several layers of motion: the clouds move to the left, causing the sun to seem to be moving to the right; during the final third of the shot, a plane moves vertically up through the image relatively quickly; and during the ten minutes of shooting the position of the sun changes from about forty percent of the way from the left side of the frame to the dead center of the frame.
One difference between 13 Lakes and Ten Skies involves the points of view of Benning’s compositions. 13 Lakes assumes a conventional pictorial horizontality: in every case we are looking across a lake that is framed in an identical fashion to all the other lakes. In Ten Skies, however, the angle of our gaze varies from shot to shot. In some shots we look at cloudscapes that seem just above the horizon. In the fifth shot, however, we realize—when the plane flies through the image—that we must be looking much more directly up. Further, in Ten Skies the skyscapes often tend toward the abstract, and at times evoke the work of particular abstract painters: the first shot, for example, reminds me of color field painting and, in particular, of Jules Olitski; the dramatic second shot, of J. M. W. Turner. A difference that is not evident during the film, but is made clear in the final credits is that while 13 Lakes was filmed in a wide variety of locations, some of them relatively difficult to get to, Ten Skies was “Filmed in Val Verde, California,” where Benning lives—though, obviously, other than the second shot, these skies could have been filmed in many places (in an unpublished interview, 4/15/07, Benning indicated to me that by “Filmed in Val Verde” he means in the general geographic region he thinks of as his “backyard,” which includes Death Valley and the Sequoia Natural Forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains). A third important distinction between the two films is that, according to Benning (unpublished interview), in 13 Lakes sound was recorded in sync with the visuals (and later, modified during the editing process), while all the sound in Ten Skies was borrowed from tapes recorded for other Benning films and combined with the new imagery. This difference in the histories of the sound tracks for the two films is subtly signaled by Benning’s use of the same sound of distant gunshots in the Crater Lake shot (the twelfth) of 13 Lakes and in the eighth shot of Ten Skies.
More fully than earlier Benning films, 13 Lakes and Ten Skies represent something of a perceptual quest, most obviously for viewers, but also for those who decide to present either film to an audience. The rigor of Benning’s design for each film—the minimal compositions of individual shots; the slow, regular rhythm of the editing—not only moves the differences from shot to shot into the foreground of the attention of those who engage the film, it foregrounds the cinematic apparatus itself. To this point in his career, Benning has been consistent in championing 16mm production and exhibition. Of course, one of the inevitable dimensions of all film exhibition is the fact that over time, projection destroys prints, through friction and through the exposure of the photographic image to light and air. 16mm is particularly prone to damage since, for many years, it has been the film gauge most often used in schools, colleges, and universities, where professional projectionists are not used and where projection equipment is not always first-rate. The projection of 16mm films often results in scratches inscribed on the filmstrip, and it is not unusual for dust and other detritus to find its way into projectors during screenings. In most films, such interference is not particularly visible, or at least is easy to ignore, because of the amount and kinds of movement in the imagery. But in films in which the movement of the imagery is as subtle as it is in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, any damage to the filmstrip, any dirt in the projector is immediately obvious; indeed, it can quickly become the most obvious dimension of an image. Periodically, we must wrestle our attention away from this annoying scratch in the emulsion or that hair fluttering at the edge of the frame, and back to Benning’s imagery and sound.
I see this virtually inevitable aspect of the experience of these two Benning films as the material analog of viewers’ struggles to remain focused and alert during screenings. Again and again during a viewing of either film, we “awake” to realize that our minds have moved elsewhere, into daydream, memory, worry, planning . . . and we wrestle our consciousness back to the screen and the soundtrack, often to realize that in the interim things have altered more than we might have expected. An undistracted viewing of either 13 Lakes or Ten Skies is well-nigh impossible. What Benning has done, however, is to make imaginable the idea of utter clarity and thorough awareness. He has implicitly provided a goal, a cinematic ideal, that feels worth striving for, and this cinematic ideal functions as a metaphor for one of the essential quests of life: our desire to make the most of the perceptual opportunities provided by the moment to moment incarnation of the sensory and sensual world around us in the face of our inevitable decay and mortality.
Benning’s 13 Lakes and Ten Skies can function as a form of therapy, as a way of helping us learn to make space for careful perception and for sustained contemplation: that is, as a form of resistance to the relentless distraction around us, distraction that in modern culture is emblemized by the movies and television. The culture of distraction within which we function seems predicated on the idea that a better life is essentially a deeper commitment to our material well-being, and in particular, to an ever-expanding level of consumption—of material possessions, of food, of shots per minute . . . Of course, 13 Lakes and Ten Skies are, like other films, consumer objects that require the exploitation and consumption of material resources. Benning has always admitted that by being a filmmaker, “I’m demanding a service that’s polluting the Earth. Filmmaking isn’t a clean industry” (A Critical Cinema 5, p. 239); and when he is present at screenings of his work, he reminds audiences that many of his films require considerable travel: for example, he claims to have driven ten thousand miles to make the recent RR (2007), and 13 Lakes required considerable driving, as well as a flight to Alaska.
That Benning’s recent films confront the idea of conspicuous consumption in a variety of ways, even as they take part in industrial processes that pollute the environment, is a contradiction that these films share with all other films that mean to promote an environmental consciousness. Nevertheless, 13 Lakes and Ten Skies effectively model the idea that we can do more than simply consume, that we can learn to see and hear more clearly and more completely, and that enriching our lives is not simply a matter of consuming more, but rather involves re-energizing our attention and our perceptual capacities so that our experiences of the moments we have in this world are more complete. Like other forms of perceptual and spiritual training— transcendental meditation and yoga, for example—the experiences of 13 Lakes and Ten Skies create a sense that being in the world involves a striving for something beyond immediate comfort and material well-being: a psychic clarity and patience that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call spiritual health.
The increasingly global sweep of the culture of distraction and hysterical consumption promoted by international corporate capitalism seems to be producing a variety of closely related forms of cinematic “resistance,” both in the United States and abroad. Peter Hutton’s work has always shared a great deal with Benning’s, and such recent films as Time and Tide (2000, 35 minutes), Skagafjordur (2004, 33 minutes), and At Sea (2007, 60 minutes) have asked viewers for more extended perceptual concentration than Hutton’s earlier films. Sharon Lockhart’s recent Pine Flat (2006) presents twelve ten-minute shots focusing on children living in Pine Flat, a tiny town in the mountains north of Los Angeles. The shots are composed in a manner that sometimes evokes Benning, and the resulting film provides many of the same challenges for viewers as 13 Lakes and Ten Skies (Benning is listed as an advisor for Pine Flat, though Benning is quick to point out that Lockhart used the ten-minute shot before he did, in her Goshogaoka , and that she has influenced him at least as much as he has influenced her).Five (2007), a digital video by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is made up of what appear to be five continuous shots made near the Caspian Sea; the fifth is a minimal, thirty-two-minute “shot” (it looks like a single shot, but is made up of several) of the surface of a lake at night, as clouds and then a rainstorm obscure and reveal the moon and its reflection. The shot is accompanied by a complex, gradually evolving soundtrack during which frogs, insects, and other wildlife seem to respond to the changes in light and weather, and at the end to the arrival of dawn. The fifth shot in Five asks precisely the kind of patience and attention that Benning’s shots in 13 Lakes and Ten Skies require. I see all these films/videos—and there are other, closely related works—as a form of resistance to the co-option of consciousness by a global consumer society, as a way of arguing, insofar as possible from within “the belly of the beast,” that technologies that have been in the service of unbridled corporate capitalism for decades can still be re-directed in the interests of the environmental, psychic and spiritual health of modern societies.