A transitional film at the end of his first decade of filmmaking, James Benning’s Grand Opera introduces a degree of storytelling to his previously more formalist devices. Benning calls the film his “first attempt at writing my own kind of history” and, in a sense, it also serves to write himself into history, acutely measuring his place as a Midwestern experimental filmmaker, then based in Oklahoma, in relationship to the avant-garde scene situated in New York. The film thus features homages to the prominent experimental cinema of the time, including a spoof of Wavelength, as well as cameos from Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton and Yvonne Rainer. Woven with these sequences are other characteristic Benning gambits – a compilation of every house he ever lived in, a preoccupation with the history of Pi, and the looming threat that a building will explode. —Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema
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