‘13 Lakes’ is a formal film of astonishing beauty. It is a structural film that tells a story. But its story is ephemeral, and the attempt to grasp it immediately multiplies its transience. This is how ‘13 Lakes’ tells a story about landscape, its virginity, and its culturalization. It reports that landscape is a function of time. It tells Benning’s travels across the United States, from west to east, from south to north, and back. Journeys create difference and are an instrument for placing a gaze into a social perspective. Thus, a story slowly unfolds of seeing and the gaze, that of Benning as well as of the audience. Beyond that, ‘13 Lakes’ narrates that a camera was placed and set in operation at a particular time and place. It is a film of witnessing, not a film of observation, not a documentation. A documentary film explores a theme, argues, tries to persuade. In contrast, ‘13 Lakes’ is a reflective film that is its own theme. If it adduces arguments, they consist of a strictly followed set of arithmetic rules. ‘13 Lakes’ is the story of a method brought to its logical conclusion. With optimal efficiency and maximum effect, this method produces a new cinematic form in which structure and narrative do not exclude each other, but mutually overlap and even determine each other. Benning thus succeeds in articulating the necessary relationship between a method, a medium, an idea of nature, and his own person. The result is a cinematic aesthetic that, in this radicalized form, activates a political aspect based in method. ‘13 Lakes’ is thus a political film whose politics consist in method. —Martin Beck
James Benning’s early films fused the “structuralist” investigations into sound-image relationships of filmmakers like Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton with an interest in narrative and a deep sensitivity to color, light, and landscape. He first grabbed the attention of the avant-garde film world with 8 1/2 × 11 and 11 × 14. Filmed in vivid color in the rural and urban landscapes of his native Midwest, these two films would provide the kernel for his further investigations into film form.
His films’ rigorous structures — often based on numerical systems — and exquisitely composed shots reflect his training as a mathematician, and their frequently autobiographical subject matter draws upon his working-class roots (a rare subject for avant-garde film) and his longtime commitment to political activism.
While his earliest films are mostly concerned with form and narrative, his work in the ‘80s began to introduce both personal subject matter and documentary elements, at the… read more
"A series of moving landscape paintings that, in terms of craftsmanship and comprehensiveness, can match up to the series of water-lily paintings by Claude Monet. The film does not focus on coincidental geography - and certainly not on social geography - but on the play of light and reflections. As indicated by the title, Benning shot his film at 13 different lakes, all in America. Each lake only had one shot for which the preparation, the choice of the camera position and the moment to be filmed were chosen with great care. The climate, the weather and the season make the film extremely varied, despite its almost monomaniacal point of departure. The power of the film is that the film maker teaches the viewer, without being pedantic, to look better and learn to distinguish the great varieties in the landscape alongside him. The series of names of the 13 lakes is too beautiful not to include here: Lake Michigan, Great Salt Lake, Hiamna Lake, Lake Okeechobee, Lake Pontchartrain, Red Lake, Lake Champlain, Salton Sea, Lake Powell, Lake Winnebego, Flathead Lake, Goose Lake and Moosehead Lake. This series alone is enough to encompass a treatise on America and its history. A treatise the film certainly encourages, but emphatically does not take part in." —Gertjan Zuilhof