In 1977 Benning shot One Way Boogie Woogie, a one-hour film composed of 60 minute-long shots of industrial urban landscapes in his native Milwaukee. For 27 Years Later, he returned to the same locales with the same people in them to record the changes. The individuals, of course, have changed – and a few had died. But except for the occasional new structure and several having been razed, the images are pretty much the same. The most revealing difference between the two films is the difference between the two film stocks: The earlier film has rich hues, where as the new one has coolly clear realistic coloring, lending it a strongly contemporary feel. Once Benning has set up his camera he never moves it, but his images never seem static. He invites us to appreciate the geometric forms of industrial build ings and other structures. His sense of composition is so acute, it’s as if one could feel the tension between forms of the structures framed or bisected by the strong verticals of telephone poles and smokestacks and the horizontal plinths of sidewalks and streets. The presence of human beings also allows him some droll humor. It has been observed that Benning recalls Mondrian’s geometric paintings in form, and the urban landscapes of Edward Hopper in tone and content. Sure enough, in the original film, two men amusingly walk by carrying a Mondrian-like painting; in the sequel, a single man carries a Bill Traylor painting of a steer. —Kevin Thomas
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