Twenty Cigarettes is a game with its own rules and a game with film history: In Benning’s “Screentests” we watch twenty individuals, each of them smoking a cigarette. Some of them are familiar, like Sharon Lockhart. Others we’ve never seen before. But they all give us time to read their body language. We embark on a journey across foreign facial landscapes, through long inhalations into the inside of their bodies, and into the invisible world of their thoughts as we imagine them to be. James Benning is well-known as the structuralist and documentarist who introduced the dimension of cinematic time into the landscape. One take lasts exactly three minutes, or the time it takes for a train to pass through a Californian landscape. This time round it’s people who determine the length of the takes by smoking a cigarette. They stand among walls and shelves and only their movements, which they try to control, and the movement of the smoke, which they can’t control, stipulate the coordinates of the filmic space. Benning makes a screenplay out of this and surprises us by once again creating something entirely new out of little more than smoke. –Berlinale
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
Benning's most personal film? A lot simpler than Ruhr, but is able go beyond the depths of his landscapes with constantly changing expressions. The real self (or is it face?) can be revealed on camera, but sometimes it can be so fleeting. Everything has its place here, the sequencing and pace feels just right. Interesting to learn that the film came from Benning teaching a class on how to pay attention. Masterpiece.
Somewhere “between ‘hypnotically fascinating’ and ‘squalidly tedious.’”
James Benning’s new film on cigarette smoking.