NYFF08: "RR" (Benning, USA)

David Phelps


RRTracking shots betray morality; framing’s political. Of course, RR, James Benning’s single-take compendium of 40 or 50 trains passing through a still-frame, is beautiful. Like his last films, 10 Skies and 13 Lakes, Benning uses pastel-light 16mm to shoot forms that are, appropriate to the thinning colors, barely there: the skies recompose themselves throughout, as do, in their way, the lakes (glints of light suggesting points that are gone a frame later). Though it’s just as much about skies and water both, RR’s the earth film in the trilogy, and since earth hardly moves, the film simply takes up the standard cinematic metaphor for transience (and cinema), the train, and lets it—film, rail—roll. And so, like a Lumière bros. film, in which movement is developed out of photographic stillness, its pleasures are so primitive as to feel completely essential, as usual for Benning, and RR’s beautiful. It’s also smart.

Framing’s political: take the leather-black oil tankers hurling at the camera in shot four (http://newfilmkritik.de/archiv/2008-02/rr-location-list/). Benning frames at only a slight angle, so the cars hurl in at the viewer, grow larger as they approach, and the front-most car on screen, the one that nearly overtakes the camera and soundtrack, dwarfs the others as the immediate spectacle. These heady images of industrial takeover (both in their identical, mass-produced anonymity and in the oil they carry) are villains: they charge like a biker gang, or bullets. Benning hates this train. Whereas, in shot 31, old box cars, also into the camera, are framed at the edge of a pasture and emerging from a puffy sky. Like baseball or folk music—which will both sound off during the film—it’s a classic image of scrappy Americana: colorful pioneer, heart of the heartland and journeying into it, sets off across the corn fields. Running parallel to a forest, this train obeys the boundaries of the terrain, rather than tear into it, and heads off-screen far right of the frame. It sets itself off a safe distance from landscape and camera; the image is clearly, for Benning, idyll and idol both.

Trains connect places, bridge landscapes, are (figuratively, mostly) itinerant pilgrims forever passing through; trains demarcate land, settle it, and destroy it. The irony of American intrepidness—one of the themes central to the always-conflicted films of John Ford—is that pioneers set out to uncover the beauty of virgin territories only so that others can settle and upturn them, and like Ford’s trains, Benning’s, simply in the way they’re framed, seem to do both, if rarely at once. In the overhead shots of 27 and 35, the clean geometry of the rails bisects a forest and seems to divide a forest from a cliff; in shot 25, the train rides the horizon dividing water from sky; in shot 26, the train sanctions mountains from prairie, and, in shot 37, white snow from white sky even while the train itself blends in. At the same time, it fluidly connects a flat foreground of falling snowflakes to a flat background of solid mountains; throughout, these trains (like the Lumières’) bring the two-dimensional delimitations of a still-life to ostensible life, by moving along the z-axis to create the illusion of depth, and by moving on-screen and off to allow the potential of surrounding sights encroaching in (as they sometimes do, in form of birds or people, viewer surrogates, waiting for the trains to pass, their disruption our attraction). With the simple movement of a train, the rigid boundaries of a still-life seem to dissolve. Trains form boundaries and dissolve them: a simple lesson with political implication in a film that sounds off Woody Guthrie singing “This land is your land—this land is my land.” Yes and no. The land is shared and divided and shared.

There are different perspectives. Benning wants to hint at them all. Trains can appear abstract, as in shot 26, in which the far-away speckles of boxcars dot a field in various colors; or all too material, like shot 40’s sputtering old jalopy that drags by in bursts of a few feet at time. Trains can obstruct the landscape—and soundtrack—when they run by the camera and allow intimate inspection (train 39, for example—notably, a sleek commuter train blocking the terrain, or battered train 19); or bridge it, like train 38, which looks to rise west out of the horizon, or the few trains that cross actual bridges, and take their proper spot in the landscape. Trains can dwarf the landscape (21)—it’s all perceptual, of course—or be dwarfed by it (23, flattened in preposterous 2-D and forced to follow the path the landscape’s set for it). And Benning knows how to tell a structuralist joke in variations off the format (a car in place of a train, trains broken-down and left immobile with people standing by, more trains coming along). The best jokes, of course, are dirty, phallic pranks, from the shortfall of one train zipping by (“it’s so small!” “and it doesn’t last at all!”) to another’s lengthy hulking as train and shot go on and on and on. Such are the dialectics, and only in the last shot do a couple take precedence and still go unresolved. Shot 43: a colorful train bisects a rocky, tire-heaped foreground from the sublime, mountainous background to which windmills behind the train ascend. It’s dirty, minute reality (foreground of littered tires) up against the favorite shorthand of Don Quixote and Romantics (windmills, mountains). Realism and Romanticism. Benning’s train, as important for its symbolic value as its actual physical presence, straddles both.

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