Naming the Nebulous: An Excerpt from "Ten Skies"

Erika Balsom's book on James Benning's film is the second release in the series Decadent Editions, devoted to masterpieces of the 2000s.

This is an excerpt from Erika Balsom's Ten Skies, available to order from Fireflies Press.


Despite the fact that it has never been officially issued in a digital format, TEN SKIES is available on YouTube, able to be swiftly downloaded, remixed, quoted. You can see the third sky now, without waiting for a 16mm screening. You can make it your own – if you want to.

Boosters of so-called videographic criticism exclaim how wonderful it is that films are now directly, easily quotable. This branch of activity uses prosumer software to produce cinephilic commentary through audiovisual means, bypassing the pesky task of evoking the object of study through writing. Why torture yourself to laboriously describe a shot in words when you can just excerpt it in a video essay? This, more than anything else, seems to be the great enticement of the proliferating form. Faith in the power of showing relieves a heavy burden. It promises to remedy criticism’s dependence on the reader’s memory and imagination, banishing the mental image summoned by language in favour of the actual image, excerpted and re-presented as support for the critic’s claim. 

Writing in 1975, theorist Raymond Bellour suggested that film is ‘peculiarly unquotable, since the written text cannot restore to it what only the projector can produce.’ Stills can offer some help in suturing the gap between viewing and writing, but the wound nevertheless gapes. No longer. The moving image used to slip away in the flux of time, but these days what Bellour called the ‘unattainable text’ has stopped playing hard to get. 

I don’t make video essays. And by now it should be clear that there are no film stills reproduced in this book. Though this decision was not my own, I welcomed it. Somehow it seemed right that any encounter with the images of TEN SKIES should be absolutely separate from my words. I don’t reproach those who wade into the electronic waters of videographic criticism, yet I can’t help but feel that something is lost in the abandonment of, or at least the reduced dependence on, the writerly task of evoking the absent film, impossibly arduous as it may be. 

Description is already a kind of interpretation, and a special kind at that. Many works of videographic criticism seem to say, see, isn’t it obvious? They tend to traffic in select methods of analysis: side-by-side comparisons, the accumulation of motifs. We can see precisely how a recent film pays homage to an earlier work; we can see all the frontal compositions of an indie auteur mashed together. This trust in the self-evidence of the visible is one way the practice differs from its (distant) relative, the essay film, a mode that embraces hesitations, gaps, uncertainties. It is also a way it differs from writing. I admit that videographic criticism can do valuable things that text alone cannot, but amidst the pervasive tendency to equate new with better, what has been less remarked upon is what writing can do that video does not, and how differently the relationship between critic and object takes shape in each case.

In Benning’s third sky, I struggle to say what I see. The many mutable flows of steely grey push leftwards across the frame, muddying the distinction between figure and background. These amorphous layers of condensation yield few forms to grasp, have no stories to tell. Aside from a small black bird that passes through the frame, there is nothing to aid in discerning the scale of what is represented. I can say that this dreary day in Gorman, a town best known as a roadside rest stop positioned on top of the San Andreas fault, looks nothing like the stereotypical weather of southern California. It is moody and damp. I can turn to figurative language: when the brooding bank of cloud is pierced by sunlight, it becomes cheerful, capricious as a teenager whose angst evaporates into whimsy as she leaves her parents to join her friends. I can try a different approach, attending to the mediation of the camera: light streams down, hitting the lens to flare into a glowing orb of pale incandescence, barely visible. I can inscribe my doubt: the faintest rainbow, so faint I question whether I imagine it, spreads across the bottom right; cottony whiteness grows, pushing away the nimbus of melancholy almost but not entirely. I can say all of this, I could say more, but no matter what, this third sky – like any of these ten skies – will escape.

Bellour casts written film analysis as an anguished activity, an insatiable longing for a body that will never yield. It ‘constantly mimics, evokes, describes; in a kind of principled despair it can but try frantically to compete with the object it is attempting to understand. By dint of seeking to capture it and recapture it, it ends up always occupying a point at which its object is perpetually out of reach.’ No writing will ever master, ever exhaust, the film it chases after. Neither will any piece of videographic criticism. But unlike the latter, which desublimates the cinematic experience, grabbing at bits of the film, carving it up into tender morsels, writing leaves the film whole, unscathed. It hovers nearby without touching.

It does not touch, but it tries to come close. Even if I know the sky over Gorman will escape, I try to get it right, to get as near as I can. The formulaic shape of TEN SKIES might seem to help in this effort. It’s ten 10-minute takes of the sky. Done! But what does that really say? Delve into the interior of its formidable structure and the film baffles. Without narrative, without human figures, with both form and content pruned to a minimum, it releases the writer into the highest heights (or lowest lows) of this ‘principled despair’. How to discern the significant from the insignificant in a film interested in troubling this very distinction? The Godardian dictum ‘It’s not blood, it’s red’ can refer to a filmmaker’s embrace of artifice – the gloriously garish scarlet of Godard’s own Pierrot le fou (1965) or Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973) – but it also names two poles of how one can approach an image: as a referential trace (as blood) or as an array of painterly surfaces (as red). TEN SKIES pulls forcefully to both ends of this spectrum at once. What vocabulary to use? The film punishes she who writes about it. 

TEN SKIES ranked seventh on Film Comment’s poll of the best avant-garde films made between 2000 and 2009, one spot above Benning’s RR (2007), a film in which the length of each shot is determined by how long it takes a train – that eminently cinematic motif – to enter the frame, pass through it, and depart. It also placed well above 13 LAKES, which tied for eleventh. In the overall tally of filmmakers, Benning came in second, behind only Nathaniel Dorsky. Scholar and critic Elena Gorfinkel has shown with humour and intelligence that lists are terrible, a blight on film culture. I agree with her but invoke this poll nevertheless to sketch how widely celebrated TEN SKIES was around the time of its release, in general and in relation to Benning’s other works of the period. The best films are not necessarily the ones that get the most votes or the most ink. Yet it is curious that despite this critical recognition, TEN SKIES has been written about far less frequently, and certainly in less detail, than many of Benning’s other major recent works.

When TEN SKIES does come up, it is often a passing mention on the way to something else. Perhaps this can be explained by its lack of landscapes; the sky ostensibly offers less fodder for the ecocritical approaches, popular in academic film studies, that have informed a recent wave of interest in Benning, enlarging his reception beyond the confines of the experimental film community. I wonder, though, if it also has something to do with the particular challenge posed by the film’s apparent emptiness, its flatness and refusal of representational hierarchies. When I told Benning that my interest in writing a small book about TEN SKIES came partly from a masochistic feeling that it would be especially difficult to do, he agreed, suggesting that writing about RR would have been easier: ‘This one’s harder, just like it was harder to make.’ 

That it depicts almost nothing but clouds helps little. Clouds are vague and ill-defined, as the etymology of the adjective ‘nebulous’ reminds us. Each is unique, and newly so with every passing second. The cloud that speaks as the first-person narrator in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s extended prosopopoeia ‘The Cloud’ (1820) is decidedly mercurial. In the song ‘Both Sides Now’, clouds provide Joni Mitchell with a metaphor for the enigma of love: its inscrutable, fickle face. When ‘ice cream castles’ and ‘angel hair’ transform into bitter mothers of rain and snow, Mitchell resigns herself to unknowing, admitting, ‘It’s cloud illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all’.

Yet despite – or because – of this romantic fluidity, beginning in the early nineteenth century, cloud enthusiasts sought to describe their objects of affection and devise classifications for them. In her compelling study of these efforts, historian of science Lorraine Daston echoes Bellour’s account of the ordeal facing the film critic: ‘When it came to clouds, art and science faced similar challenges of description: how to capture almost infinite variety and variability? … Clouds stretch the resources of description to their breaking point and beyond. At one extreme, they invite … endless ekphrasis, as words multiply, never quickly enough to catch up with their protean referents.’

At the other extreme, these unruly phenomena are corralled into categories that deny their uniqueness. Luke Howard proposed the Latinate terminology still used today – cirrus, cumulus, stratus – to assert a distance from colloquialisms that varied across vernacular languages. Even though the Latin monikers he chose remained, like most folk terms, based in metaphor, they had the merit of escaping the more immediate associations of familiar expressions. They seemed more neutral. Were the French ciel moutonné or ‘sheep sky’, the Spanish cielo empedrado or ‘cobbled sky’, and the English ‘mackerel sky’ all the same? Each term directs thought in its own way. Clumps of lambswool, paving stones and fish scales might all share a general shape, but each summons its own textural associations. When someone calls a given sky fleecy, do they conceive of it differently from the person who names it cobbled? 

Howard and those who followed in his footsteps sought to put an end to this by creating a taxonomy that would enable all to see the same sky. Even though these men met with a considerable measure of success, there is something quixotic about the project of reconciling the chameleonic character of clouds with the rigidity of names – and they were well aware of it. According to Daston, ‘From [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck’s and Howard’s pioneer attempts around 1800 to the latest edition of the International Cloud Atlas in 1975/1987,’ almost every publication ‘begins with a tetchy paragraph defending the whole enterprise against skeptics who point to the notorious mutability and evanescence of their subject matter.’

Howard lived in North London, not far from where I do, in what is now a boarded-up house awaiting redevelopment, bearing a blue plaque that commemorates the ‘namer of clouds’. Long before English Heritage deemed it worthwhile to laud his efforts, Goethe did, composing a series of honorific poems, one of which is reproduced untranslated at the start of the third edition of Howard’s Essay on the Modifications of Clouds. Goethe begins by painting the sky as a screen of imaginative projection. We see in it what we wish. Like Aristophanes and Shakespeare before him, the poet animates a scene of zoomorphic pareidolia, glimpsing the exotic shapes of a lion, camel, elephant and dragon in the sky, only to have them disappear as in a dream. He then celebrates the valiant Howard for putting an end to this experience of unstable signification, ‘reining it in’, determining the indeterminate. It was an achievement he saw as deserving the world’s gratitude. The anxiety of formlessness – or at least the anxiety of forms so changeable, so tied to individual fancy, that they scarcely merit the name – could be calmed.

The codification of clouds depended on watching the skies, but subsequently changed how the sky was seen. The precondition of naming was, in Daston’s words, a practice of ‘directed attention that focused exclusively and consistently on some features at the expense of many others,’ but then, ‘once fixed, description in turn channelled the observer’s attention.’ We see what we have been trained to recognise. Avant-garde cinema has its own version of this lesson, found in Stan Brakhage’s famous line from ‘Metaphors on Vision’: ‘How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”?’ Whereas for Goethe determining the indeterminate through naming offers reassurance, building a shared repertoire of stable reference, for Brakhage the reductions of language discipline perception and thus merit contestation by artists. Both, however, recognise that linguistic description does less and more than mirror the world. Less, in that it is inextricably bound to selection and exclusion. More, in that it does not simply produce a duplicate, but possesses the power to make readers see things differently. 

Writing about film does something similar. It attempts to grasp the ungraspable but never fully can, producing an imperfect translation from one medium to another. It excludes some details and amplifies others. Descriptions of films rebound back, hitting the films described, changing our understanding. The travails of Howard and his fellow nephologists speak not just to the specific difficulty of describing clouds, a difficulty TEN SKIES stages acutely for its critic, since it contains little else; more broadly, they point to the losses and gains that colour the practice of description, a cornerstone of criticism. Ekphrasis, the verbal account of a visual text, is never tautology. It excludes, amplifies, transforms. In trying to stay near, it can go far. As they chased after clouds, I chase after TEN SKIES.

This analogy, admittedly, is not perfect. First, because Howard and company had it worse than I do; at least moving images, unlike clouds, are repeatable. Replay helps greatly in the production of description. In fact, film became an important research aid for these hunters as early as 1911, when Sarah Jane Dugdale Harland, wife of British meteorologist Napier Shaw, documented cloud transitions with a motion-picture camera. It enabled them to embalm their prey. Second, and more importantly, my writing is devoid of taxonomic ambition. It is far more akin to Goethe’s account of metamorphosing cloud-animals than it is to Howard’s lasting terminology, even if it does share with the latter the volition to draw out selected features from a riot of detail. 

As writing strives to catch up with a film perpetually out of reach, desired as we desire only what we cannot possess, it unavoidably verges, Bellour suggests, on fiction. I love when critics look askance at what a film tells them is important, preferring to search elsewhere for their own privileged moments. It is one definition of cinephilia. Sometimes, these details lead nowhere and are fetishised in their own right; sometimes, they lead back to what is essential, more directly than those elements the film itself marks out as significant. Both are pathways to delight. Here, film criticism courts its inevitable relation with fiction rather than shooing it away. As much as I admire this approach, it feels impossible to deploy with TEN SKIES, since it depends on first perceiving cues and then ignoring them, cues Benning does not give. In TEN SKIES, an anarchy of time and meaning calmly prevails: each moment is equal to any other. Faced with one hundred minutes of heaven – a place where, as the Talking Heads say, nothing ever happens – the writer is released to her own devices. Here lies a second opportunity to court the fiction always lurking within the enterprise of criticism. Benning gives no grain to read with or against, soliciting only idiosyncratic responses. For the writer, it is a kind of punishment, but also a kind of freedom. 

TEN SKIES at once rewards a close attention to detail and sanctions wayward drift. In these pages, what I want to mirror is not the film itself, which can never be made present, but something of this double movement, writing now closer, now farther, from its images. Knowing I can never catch up, I am let loose to roam. Michel Foucault wrote that ‘it is in vain that we say what we see.’ But still he tried, writing deep into Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas (1656), manoeuvring around the Infanta, the dwarves and the dog, through pictorial illusion and reflexivity, to reach the absence of the sovereign. Between seeing and saying, there is love, thought, confusion, suffering. There is a delay in time, a transformation, a necessary infidelity. Rather than attempt to breach this chasm – as the practitioners of videographic criticism and the namers of clouds do – I fall into its depths. 

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Erika BalsomJames BenningFireflies Press
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