Tobacco Roads: James Benning's "Twenty Cigarettes"

James Benning's new film on cigarette smoking.
Neil Young

Above: filmmaker Sharon Lockhart at Parker Pass in shot #11 of James Benning's Twenty Cigarettes.

James Benning largely eschews music in his films, but if there's one track which should have been used to accompany the latest work by the USA's leading avant-garde director—Twenty Cigarettes, comprising twenty shots of solo individuals each smoking a single cigarette—then (passing over The Platters' too-obvious Smoke Gets In Your Eyes) it's perhaps The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Take Five.

This is because the instrumental jazz classic—written by Paul Desmond in 1959 for the Quartet (whose magnificent drummer Joe Morello passed away March 11th)—gets its name partly from unusual 5/4 time-signature, and partly from the idea of "taking five" as in "taking a break." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, such usage dates back to 1929, and refers to "the approximate time it takes to smoke a cigarette.


The pace of modern life has evidently increased in the intervening 82 years: the 20 shots in Twenty Cigarettes, which (in theory) each begin with the action of lighting the cigarette and end with its stubbing-out, average a fraction over 4:38 each. But while Benning—who lectures at CalArts—could technically be termed an academic, it would be a stretch to interpret his project as a form of scientific research.


Benning has stated that the film is "about duration." And in theory the length of the shots is determined not by the director but by their subject—in interviews, Benning has stated that he started the camera running, then departed the scene and left his "collaborators" to the business of enjoying their cigarette (we gauge how much time is left by observing the length of the burning, diminishing stub).

This makes Twenty Cigarettes a kind of globetrotting travelogue companion-piece to Benning's RR from 2008, one of the last films he shot on 16mm (his preferred format since he started film-making in the early seventies) before switching to digital for the two-hour Ruhr (2009), the short Pig Iron (2010), and this latest enterprise. It happens to be the first of his digital films to be made "independently" and not as the result of a commission (the film festivals of Duisburg and Jeonju commissioned Ruhr and Pig Iron, respectively), thus returning Benning to the lone-wolf status he enjoyed throughout his 16mm period, while it's also by far his most "international" work to date (Ruhr was his first filmic foray beyond the USA).

In RR—short for "rail road"—the length of the shot was determined by the amount of time it took for an entire train to pass through the image. But it was Benning who decided the camera-placement, a crucial element in the overall time-equation—most noticeably in the very lengthy sequence in which a train snakes its way through the tunnels of a hilly landscape.

In Twenty Cigarettes, Benning partially abdicates his role as editor—but only partially. It's Benning and Benning alone who has decided to include the round number of 20 shots (perhaps because 20 is the smallest size of cigarette-packet on general sale in many countries), resulting in a movie which runs to a reasonably average feature-length of just under 100 minutes. And it is Benning who has dictated the order in which they are presented.

Even within the shots themselves, Benning occasionally "intercedes" in terms of editing. As in many of his films, Benning establishes a seemingly rigid structure only to slyly subvert it by means of singular exceptions which prove the general rule. Shot #18, for example  shows a young blonde woman (identified in the end titles as Margaret Haines, location Montreal) smoking in front of a stack of wooden pallets, her thumb bandaged, while the wind rustles through an unseen tree. The previous seventeen shots have ended after the conclusion of the cigarette-smoking—but with shot #18, Benning startles us by cutting to black before the young woman has finished.

Shot #12 (Dave Crane, Wolcott), of a bearded, corpulent Wilford Brimley lookalike sitting in what we presume to be his garage/workshop, provides even more of a jolt. The catalogue of the Berlinale Forum—where Twenty Cigarettes had its world premiere on 17th February, 2011—announces that the movie contains 'no dialogue'—but Crane chats to his (unseen) dog at a couple of junctures in his 3:56 of screentime: "Ratchet, come 'ere. Come awn dawg! ... Where the bird? We got bats livin' that light. Ain't that somethin.'"

Strictly speaking, this is monologue rather than dialogue. (Smoking, so often cited as a social—and sociable—activity, is presented here as something done silently, in solitude, apart from others—though as a famously ill-fated British advertising campaign of 1959/60 informed prospective purchasers, "You're never alone with a Strand.") But the Crane section marks a relatively radical departure from Benning's usual practice of silent contemplation, as most famously exemplified by his 2004 diptych of feature-length landscape/skyscape films, Ten Skies and 13 Lakes.

Benning has included portraits in his work before, but—with the exception of his one-off 2010 Berlinale performance-piece Reforming the Past—this might well be the first time he has foregrounded the human face in the direct, full-on way he does throughout Twenty Cigarettes (which has even been described by some commentators as his version of Andy Warhol's Screen Tests.) And as his second digital feature-length production it's a much more intimate, personal and quiet experience than the noisy industrial zones and untenanted urban spaces of Ruhr.

While the occasional off-screen voice is audible in pictures like El Valley Centro (2002) and even casting a glance (2007), to see and hear someone speak in a Benning movie is a strikingly unexpected moment—though of course, that only applies to viewers who have prior experience of Benning's work.

Indeed, the extent of one's familiarity with the Benning oeuvre is a crucial element in any approach to Twenty Cigarettes—which at 97 minutes forms a rather more accessible and straightforward introduction to Benning than the forbiddingly challenging and structurally lopsided Ruhr (its sixty-minute second half comprising a single static shot of coke-works chimneys going through a fume-belching cycle that indirectly prefigures the rather more small-scale smoke-exhalations captured here.)

To "innocent" eyes, Twenty Cigarettes functions as a coherent and intriguing, playful formal exercise. The film is certainly never (just) a drag, as it's fascinating to observe how individual personalities emerge from the everyday, innocuous act of smoking a cigarette, the way some smokers linger over each inhalation (a couple of shots run more than seven minutes apiece), whereas others engage in staccato, businesslike puffs (two smokers manage to break the three-minute barrier).

There's a surprisingly wide range of expressiveness in the way a cigarette can be manipulated—Peter Lorre found it almost impossible to act sans cigarette in hand, as he regarded it as a vital aspect of his ability to physically incarnate a role. Indeed, whole essays could easily be written on Twenty Cigarettes' implicit "dialogue" with the enduringly contentious history of big-screen smoking in Hollywood and elsewhere—Bette Davis and Paul Henreid at the climax of Now, Voyager (1942), etc.—and also in the light of cinema's relatively recent move towards the banning of lighting-up within its enclosed premises.

And just as the smokers range widely in terms of age, appearance, confidence-level and dress, there's also the matter of their differing backdrops—interiors, exteriors, parks, walls, urban spaces, rock-faces, a cafeteria, a house, an office, corrugated ironwork—and the soundtracks which locate each shot within a certain type of environment. We might presume that the whole film has been shot in the USA, as there are no international signifiers or "tells"—until the end credits reveal that some sequences take place in Bangkok, Seoul, Montreal and Mexico City (as well as all over the continental USA—Milwaukee, Boston, Houston, Joshua Tree, Marfa).

'Santo Domingo' is cited as the location for Smoker 15 (Kelman Duran) a young man of what looks like mixed black and Hispanic race sporting a beanie-hat, rapt in reverie as he listens to an uptempo, dance version of Ghost Riders in the Sky (sounds like 'Trance Remix' of the cowboy standard by Jani Keskitapio)—one of a small (cupped) handful of nods to cigarettes' "Marlboro Man" US-West iconography. But is this the Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic? Or the Santo Domingo in New Mexico, Puerto Rico, Spain, the Philippines, El Salvador, Ecuador, Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia or Chile? As always with Benning, certain information is given, but much is also withheld.

Each of the smokers may be named in the end titles—name and a location—presumably the place where the shot was taken. Apart from that, all we have is what we can glean from the period of time—from 2:36 to 7:43—in which they occupy the screen. Knowing that our "period of scrutiny" is limited, we latch on to the tiniest of details, accumulating "clues" which we may or may not be able to construct into a narrative. It's almost impossible to resist wondering who these people are, what their connection (if any) to Benning may be and, in more basic terms, what they are thinking. Could we even be watching an actual cigarette-break during work (this is the impression given by the fastest smoker, #14 [Tanya Barber, Wonder Valley]), or even a recreation/simulation of such a break?

There's the distinct sense that Benning is often teasing us, allowing us to glimpse certain fragments of information—but only so much. In shot #16 (Suzan Pitt, Mexico City), a piece of paper is visible on the wall behind the smoker—upon which is written "boy and a battery - R F Yates." This refers to a 1959 book, Boy and a Battery, aimed to budding young scientists.

But is it a "found" detail, one which just happened to be on the wall of this older woman with red lipstick and red dress (and who, unlike Smoker 12, has zero interaction with her heard-but-not-seen canine companion), or did Benning insert it for his own ludic purposes? A more direct in-joke can be spotted during #11 (Hye Sung Moon, Seoul), in which Benning is visible in a polaroid attached to the wall behind the young female smoker—though the identity of his companion in the photograph is considerably harder to ascertain.

Benning devotees quite quickly learn that what look like straightforward "documentary" records of landscapes and places are more often than not carefully constructed artworks, whose imagery and soundtracks may be manipulated or "doctored" for effect. In the case of Twenty Cigarettes, there is the "synch" sound of breath, but the "noises off"—planes passing, birdsong, traffic rumblings (regular concomitants in previous Benning movies)—may or may not have been recorded at the same time as the visuals. There's no way of knowing from the intrinsic artefact of the movie itself, though Benning is usually very open about his praxis in interview, and in catalogue-notes when his films are screened at festivals.

The general rule is, the more one knows about how Benning's films are made, and about what precisely is being shown in them, the more rewarding and multi-layered becomes the experience of watching. In Twenty Cigarettes, for example, the vast majority of the participants are "ordinary" folk, whom Benning has presumably encountered on his travels around the USA and farther afield. Some may be students from his CalArts classes—but nearly all are names which would be unknown to the general public.

Three of the smokers, however, do enjoy a certain level of renown—though they can hardly be classed as household names per se. The longest sequence in the movie is Smoker #10, 7:43 in which we see a rock-and-roll dude who looks to be in his mid-fifties, with paint on his fingernails and his watch worn workman-style on the inside of his wrist (further Marlboro Man iconography at play here.)

Some may recognise him as cultural theorist Dick Hebdige (a longtime pal and fellow-traveller of Benning's, and author of 1979's seminal Subculture: The Meaning of Style), others may not know the face but will spot the name in the end credits and spool back through their memories to see which one he might have been.

Hebdige is preceded by Sharon Lockhart (filmed in Parker Pass—near Merced, California), the director of several quite widely-screened avant-garde features and shorts such as Lunch Break (2008) and Double Tide (2010). Lockhart's sequence is the most "outdoorsy" of the twenty shots: wearing a plaid shirt, she's presented with a background consisting entirely of sky, giving the feeling that she's standing on some kind of exposed hilltop.

Surveying her surroundings like some pioneer settler-heroine, Lockhart transforms her appearance into a kind of semi-accidental performance-art, turning back and forth through 360 degrees during the course of her 4:50. At all times she displays an active and alert engagement with her environment (with which she interacts when acknowledging a passing car), glancing occasionally and unselfconsciously into the camera at several points in her weathervane-like circumspection.

This is all in the starkest of contrasts to the other film-maker who features in Twenty Cigarettes, Benning's CalArts colleague Thom Andersen—himself a significant "name" in avant-garde and documentary film circles thanks to Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) and the short Get out of the Car (2010). In segment #4, Andersen is presented indoors, illuminated by dim light, apparently sitting on what looks like an office floor, staring flintily into the middle-distance.

"His" shot is at 7:42 the second longest in the film, clocking in just a second shorter than Hebdige's, and the duration isn't a surprise given Andersen's distinctive, slow, ruminative smoking technique—most of the shot consists of Andersen brooding dourly, with no cigarette visible. Soon it becomes apparent that Andersen has decided not to glance into Benning's camera—the other 19 engage in varying levels of eye-contact—and over the minutes a kind of slow-burning battle of wills unfolds between film-maker and subject, Andersen exerting considerable effort to look at anything other than Benning's lens.

For those who know of Andersen and his connection to Benning, shot #4 is an especially tense and perhaps even deadpan-comic affair, but for everyone else #4 is of interest as Andersen is the first smoker we've seen whose face has been visibly affected by his habit: he has the papery creases and wrinkles associated with sustained, skin-drying tobacco consumption, whereas the very first smoker seen, Sompot Chidgasornpongse (Bangkok), who—as supplementary information reveals—had never smoked before, has the fresh, babyish face of a callow post-teenager.

The general rule in Twenty Cigarettes is that the older and more "weathered" the smoker, the more engaging and absorbing the sequence: Benning wraps up proceedings with an older lady and an older gentleman, their decades of experience visible upon their countenances (birdlike #19, Suzanne Dungan, Houston, is especially charismatic and poised), reminding us of the Hollywood dictum that the human face is the "ultimate special effect."

Twenty Cigarettes may therefore indeed be, as Benning himself reckons, "about duration," but not just in the shot-length way he means—the film is a testament of how the years alter us and how they change the way we present ourselves for the scrutiny of others. And these others may be some imagined future cinema audience, or a sixty-eight-year old director who has, just seconds before, disappeared from our view—entering The World Beyond The Frame, whose existence the film continually points us towards and reminds us of.

But did the perpetually camera-shy Benning ever consider including himself, as a kind of self-portrait? Or did he reckon that two directors, Andersen and Lockhart, were sufficient representation among the constellation of "regular" folks? It's tantalising to ponder what might have resulted if Benning had recorded himself smoking what would have apparently been the second cigarette of his life. But like the lady once said: don't let's ask for the moon; we have the stars...

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