Cinema Changes Trees: A Dialogue About New Films By James Benning

Discussing new digital films—"Spring Equinox," "Fall Equinox," "thinking of red," "measuring change," "wavelength"—by the American master.
Patrick Holzapfel, Ivana Miloš

 Spring Equinox

On November 10, James Benning premiered five of his latest works (thinking of red, wavelength, measuring change, Spring Equinox and Fall Equinox) at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, accompanied by a short response film by Michael Snow. Benning was also present for a Q&A before and between the screenings. Prompted by the pleasure as well as the discontent of the encounter with these films, we decided to engage in a dialogue that would offer us the time to interweave thoughts with as little space in between as possible.

Dear Ivana,

Writing to you about the new films of James Benning we have seen together at the Austrian Film Museum, I have the urge to begin with the end. It seems fitting, bearing in mind how Benning proceeds in his Spring Equinox, which I found to be the most vibrating film of the evening. Shot on a road passing by his home up to a mountaintop, this is a film about change. It is about change despite being shot at home. There are different kinds of changes. The change is that of light, which begins already in the film’s title. The idea of the same amount of darkness and light is somehow consoling, I think. But I am not entirely convinced that life consists of many equinox days. In my opinion, Benning betrayed darkness by focusing on daylight. Maybe this is due to the needs of cinema, but is cinema not an art of the night? It doesn’t make his poetry of perception any less captivating, it is just one change that is missing. I always liked the idea that cinema does not only exist to show the wind in the trees, as D.W. Griffith said, but also the change from day to night and night to day. (On a further note: I think day for night shots look amazing; there is one in Deliverance that I adore. I always liked the fact that the first studio was called “Black Maria,” as if cinema were something holy that could create, perceive, breathe  darkness whenever it wants to...)

Light also changes during the day, of course. We can see that in both Spring Equinox and Fall Equinox. Maybe these small changes are much more important than the big one between light and darkness? They change what we look at. What do we look at? To give it a very basic name: nature. Yet, it is a nature on the side of the road and those images somehow seemed very secluded, special and ordinary (not really in the way Benning talked about banality in the Q&A between the screenings) at the same time. They reminded me that it is the way we look at things that makes them special, the way we perceive them, the things you can only express when you have the means of perception. My gaze was wandering all the time, things were to be discovered not in every new image but in one image at the same time. This is also the concept of non-existent time, the concept of simultaneity. Ghosts moving in the frame, into the frame, maybe not, just an illusion, something we want to be there, maybe? Another glimpse, another image, but it is the same. A sudden movement, like a bird. Things are hidden in front of our eyes. One more obvious change is between the two films, of course: The one from spring to fall. In this regard, these two films together are about summer, I think. About what summer has changed. There is a time in between with those two films and this gives a whole new scope to a filmmaker who seems to be obsessed with duration, with the floating of time. The same is true for measuring change and the time in between, which we do not see. I’m referring to the time between morning and afternoon that Benning omits between the two shots that make up the film. Fittingly, the flood is missing in this film, time and tide left out (not left out when he is thinking of red, obviously). No, there is a gap here, it is almost like in a film by Maurice Pialat or Claire Denis, an elliptical way of showing duration. This is also true for each individual equinox film, as there is this change in altitude (which is of no importance whatsoever) and the way he connects the different images in a rather rough way.  

Here is something I wanted to ask you about after the screening: those brutal cuts  connecting all the images were ruthless but also very important for the film, maybe something political exists in those harsh decisions. Benning also talked about it. He said something like “all things have a certain duration.” To be honest, those cuts and especially the black screen in between felt strange. Maybe I am too much of a Bazinian, but through editing the films in this manner, Benning denies us the ability to believe in the space he is portraying; he could have shot this film on at least five different mountain roads. He even could have been at places where there is no road at all. Is this important? I don’t know, I guess not. For me, it is just a bit curious to have such a concrete way of looking at places without knowing where I am. I wonder how you perceived those harsh cuts or anything else that comes to your mind?


measuring change

Dear Patrick,

It is curious to be speaking of change in reliving James Benning's films, as if some manner of sprite, both wistful and willful, steals into the mind to leaf through the lasting images that remain of the three films. The first one to appear before my eyes is that of the thickly sailing, unbroken fog enveloping the conifers in Spring Equinox, which I also found to be the most intricate and intriguing film of the evening. A great deal of its appeal comes from the pace of the changes you speak of, the light contained in the transformations of spring combined with all the wake-up calls released into the air throughout the segements of our ascent up the mountain near Benning's home. Even so, as Fall Equinox comes along, one cannot help but think back to spring with some resentment, a truth in T.S. Eliot's famous lines on April's cruelty highlighting your words on summer as the real subject yielded by these two films in tandem. In combining these two points of high balance of the year (both in terms of time and light), it is as if Benning's intervention paints spring's promise of life darker by the ensuing autumn browns, as well as through the realization of how little has visually changed, although the atmosphere gives off a completely different air. Though his comments on the severity of environmental changes in the Q&A were made almost in passing, the sinister undertones of the autumnal shades already spoke them out to my eyes. The constructedness of equinoctial perfection is luckily undermined by the small changes you mention; the intermittent flies (though I know you do not believe in their presence when we merely hear them, trusting that Benning has been fiddling with his sound again), the shaking grass, leaves and branches in the sunlight. Yes, the greatest treasure is the means of perception, and it does feel like a gift when time stretches and extends the possibilities of gazing and roaming the screen, unearthing the new in every image, every (still) step of the way.

In seeing measuring change, with its two blocks of circadian stillness and adjoining motional phantasmagoria (as if the jackets worn by the people wandering on the Spiral Jetty are a carefully costumed film in themselves, as are the bushes twitching in the wind of the first half hour of the film), I couldn't help thinking: why do we need Benning to look at nature? And what kind of nature are we looking at then? And how much is the fact of it in pixels an excuse for not experiencing it in flesh and particle, and how much a critical reminder? Not necessarily in terms of Benning's authorial intent, but as cinema. What can it give us and how ready are we for it? In line with these issues, I would be curious to know more about why it is disorienting for you to look at places in this manner, and what your Bazinian sensibilities are missing? Trust, the ability to believe? I confess I am mulling over those myself.

Musing on filmmaker Peter Hutton, whom Benning paid a tribute to in his thinking of red, the clash between the two filmmakers couldn't seem more apparent, though the question remains: how is it possible for the kindness and generosity in Hutton's work to survive every strip of black leader he places between his wondrous image worlds, whereas in Benning the blackness almost kills something precious in the images? It seems like seclusion and stillness play a role in this, as if the isolation and duration of Benning's chosen shots bring out the brutality in their endings. His mathematically exact approach to shot duration, altitude and precise recording of the hour of shooting become all the more striking when expressed in these sudden blackenings that come as a shock to the system every single time. The world really does cloud over, doesn't it? Bringing to mind another master of ellipsis, Paul Celan, whose creations could be approached only by an imaginary combination of Hutton's wonder and Benning's gravity. Alongside and partly brought about by the specificity of these characteristics, there is an inescapable monumentality to Benning’s work that calls to Chronos and bears beautifully tough fruits. Similarly as in Two Cabins and Stemple Pass, where he dealt with the contentious figures of Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski in studying the solitude and light of their habitations, Benning seems to have an eye for the darkly lonesome starkness of nature, especially and increasingly (in his later work) that devoid of human beings. It is also why human appearance in measuring changefeels almost like a separate film to my mind, or possibly another film, one on ghosts. It is also the peculiar power in his recordings of this one, only one view, at the same time so bare and rich as only a moment can be. This sparsity is perhaps the reason why I could all but believe him when, in the Q&A between the screenings, he said that he was interested in making a remarkable film from what he called unremarkable images. For the sparsity is not alone; it is accompanied by a flurry of what could be. Another time, another altitude—where will they take us in the future that is to be our present?


thinking of red

Dear Ivana,

Why do we need Benning to look at nature? I like this thought of yours very much. Do we? Maybe sometimes we need cinema to see certain things, to take the space and time for certain things. Maybe cinema helps us, reminds us of certain things. It does for me. It is a focus in a given time. I am no longer sure it is nature we were looking at in those films by Benning. Isn’t it more like an individual perception of nature our eyes and ears are confronted with? Benning’s perception is filled with a sort of patience, awareness of time and even cruel nonchalance (which we can very well interpret as a critical reminder, I think). When he films a tree in Spring Equinox, at first I see a tree. A tree is a tree is a tree here—and then something happens because he gives me time to really look at the tree. So, it is not just a tree anymore, it is the possibility to look at a tree from a certain perspective. And this specific perspective only exists because of Benning. It is like you wrote: “It is also the peculiar power in his recordings of this one, only one view, at the same time so bare and rich as only a moment can be.” This reminds me of Jean-Luc Godard’s wordplay with “juste une image” and “une image juste.”  With Benning, I feel, we don’t just see a tree, it is the fair image of a tree.  

I don’t want to forget Jean Epstein’s photogénie here, something I very much believe in, this idea of a cinematic specificity that works beyond subjectivity, or at least in an unconscious way where it only touches what we desire and gives us something else instead. I feel there is a close bond between Epstein, Hutton and Benning concerning this idea of photogénie, which can be described as an intense transformation of our perception of the material world due to cinema’s technological and formal capacities. So, if we believe in photogénie, we don’t need Benning to look at nature, but Benning will live in our way of looking at nature.

When Benning states, as you mentioned, that he was interested in unremarkable images, maybe the (digital) photogénie that lives in all things we have an emotion towards thwarted his aim for the plainness of images. Maybe the idea that there is such a thing as an unremarkable image is wrong anyway. As you wrote, something might open there, a new path, a new way of looking at things. When you write about the human beings in measuring change, I wonder whether you perceive Benning and his presence behind the camera as human? Or does it feel more like a machine is recording here with all that data and gravity. Is it the technology and form, is it just the image you feel or is it the person? As you have asked me about those Bazinian sensibilities and what they are missing, I can maybe try to answer it with another question.

Does nature need Benning to look at it?  For me, Benning’s films don’t feel as exigent any more since he moved to shooting digitally. I sort of get the political undertones connected with what you described so well as the “brutality in their endings,” but at the same time this brutality comes too easily. Films like Landscape Suicide or Deseret carried with them the blood, sweat and time of their making; there is an honest need for every image, whereas now, especially with a film like thinking of red, he seems to make a film, well, because he can. There is a camera with his laptop, so why not shoot a moment of reflection after a friend has died... I don’t like this very much, there is cynicism to it and a giving in to the arbitrariness of images. This arbitrariness is not only connected to technological availability but also to the way he edits. More than giving us a feeling of real time and space, he shows us some data and black screens; more than showing us what it takes to be at those places, he decides to show us isolated images that he (and he alone) connects with intertitles or extradiegetic framings (“I shot this right after Peter Hutton died,” and so on) we are supposed to believe in. I am still not convinced, or rather: the film didn’t convince me that those shots of Spring Equinox have really been shot on the same mountain road. Whereas with Celan, whom you rightfully mention as a master of ellipsis, I feel that every jump, every gap talks about what lies between two words, two thoughts or two feelings. The gap can only exist between those two specific words and it gives each of them a new meaning, gives life or death to them, I think. He makes the pain, the desire that lives in an ellipsis palpable, whereas with Benning it sometimes feels like a conceptual, mathematical idea that has nothing to do with let’s say the tree in the first and the grass in the second image. This very much counteracts the fair image and what I would call the inherent truth of a Bazinian image. Of course, cinema is allowed to lie, but maybe not when filming nature. 

So, if this is supposed to be political, it is political in the manner of someone who posts images of his terrace view on Facebook after Trump got elected, asking young people to maybe do something because he is old and kind of happy (though the comment seems to have meanwhile been deleted by him). The same feeling of nonchalance and giving in is also visible in his remake of Michael Snow’s Wavelength called wavelength. Consisting of two digital images Benning found on the internet which he zooms into and thereby creates a fast forward remake of Snow’s amazing work, the film aims for a critical reevaluation of how to make a film today. Not really a film on its own, this is a proof of someone spending too much time on YouTube and telling us: look what I can do nowadays. Well, now I have been grousing about something I enjoyed most of the time. You were mentioning ghosts entering those frames and possibilities of different films. I am very interested in those doors leading to a different film within the films. Can you tell me more about it?


Fall Equinox

Dear Patrick,

It is piercingly on the mark to ask whether nature needs Benning to look at it, and I believe the answer has, ever since he moved to digital filmmaking, steadily been transforming itself into a “No.” In appreciation of the endless filming capacities he can perform with a digital camera (or, indeed, laptop), also mentioned in the Film Museum Q&A, his more and more theoretical eye makes even nature unremarkable in his own view. It is the eye of the machine more than the person, as you rightly discern, that I feel is taking charge of measuring change, as the variations and metamorphoses, however small they might be, do not give in to measurements, but are made to do so.

In this sense, the brutality of cuts in the Equinox double feature is truly simpler than it could be, hauling the magical state of in-betweenness down into an idea that resembles more of an equation. Thus the phantoms walking and leaping down the Spiral Jetty can go on into infinity, as can the sun, and even the unseen ebb and flow, but their lure falls on deaf ears when the decision-making lies with a tape measure and a digital clock. For me, the measuring of change takes more than the precision of numbers provided by another particular of a medium whose reaches and consequences are still unexplored. It seems dangerously nonchalant to complain of the “restrictions” of 16mm now that there are none such to be found, because it begs the question: what is left in their wake—freedom? That strikes me as too simplistic, and possibly isolationist. If the forest were to ask a question, would there be no means of answering it because the next ten-minute shot is right around the corner and there is no time? It also brings Thoreau to mind, and the fact that Benning has referred to his ideas as utopian when speaking of Two Cabins, something that has been disturbing to me as it also remained veiled in the kind of mysticism only books everyone is supposed to have read but hardly anyone has can possess. Thoreau’s is an escape to a terrace view (in this case next to a pond), as his withdrawal has more to do with fierce misanthropy than it does with the kind of potential I associate with utopian wings.

But I digress, and there is still so much to be reminded of by cinema, by this one tree or blade of grass, and this fog that never is or was only one, but legion. But this is a great power of images in Spring and Fall Equinox: the act of bringing together what our gaze roams over within a single shot, of the collectivity brought about by what you so aptly call the “means of perception.” Some of what is hidden right before our eyes emerges in Benning’s work, uncovered, revealed and, ultimately, given. Ghosts and phantoms dwelling on the edges of frames never have been anything other than elusive, hovering on the verge of focus and individual perception, completely heedless of our presence, our possession or lack of patience. Still, the doors they open turn into potential entryways not only into different films, but also different eyes, which we could hone and use at our discretion.

Thus I feel that the calm of Benning’s work invites activity, be it in those rebellious bushes (almost) on the aforementioned edge of the frame line in measuring change, shafts of sunlight or the relentlessly buzzing flies in some shots of Spring Equinox, or in our realm of perception that would practically teem with life when catching sight of all the slight changes in the “collective” gathered by the shot. Our gaze could and should deepen. As you have already established, this also brings Epstein and his notion of photogénie to mind, and beautifully so: “I want films in which not so much nothing as nothing very much happens.” The endeavor within Benning’s shots is subtle and it summons our mind to revel in metamorphosing our perception and whatever stands before it by the grace of filmic reproduction. In this sense, cinema changes trees, too; at least those that live in us. You said that cinema is allowed to lie, but perhaps not when filming nature. It is this vivid thought I would like to give more ground to in savoring memories of that Film Museum screening as Stanley Cavell and my own experience taught me to: through interest and devotion to the seen and felt, and a replanting of luscious images back into the world. Let us see how these will flourish and judge their truth accordingly.

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