As with Ten Skies and 13 Lakes before it, James Benning's new film RR forms great ideas and unexpectedly voluptuous beauty out of modest and strict means, content, and style. Composed entirely of 16mm still shots of train tracks, each shot roughly beginning a beat or two before a train enters the frame and lasting until roughly a beat or two after after the train has left, RR is both more rigid and concrete than the undulating abstraction of Ten Skies, as well as more directly grounded in reality and the cinema.
Benning uses his landscapes, trains, and railroads as intrinsically American elements, from a visual standpoint. Calling to mind the romanticization of the West, the colonizing and expanding force of the railroads, Benning encourages a recognition of the historical might, impact, and influence of these engines across (and connecting) these spaces. At the same time, the film comes with a clear admission not only to the sheer breadth and size of the American landscape (and the nation itself), but also the tremendous amount of goods that these trains are hauling from one side to the other. What goods they contain, where they are going, and why are all questions that are asked but unanswered by RR, and this evokes a kind of abstract bounty of consumption and material wealth that remains unrooted by any real production, desire, or consumption itself.
Benning's soundtrack is a mixture of direct sound and additions, ranging from the chopper blades of a Huey helicopter over a shot Benning thought reminded him of Vietnam to far more direct references, such as a clip from Eisenhower's famed speech referencing the military industrial complex and a reading from the Book of Revelations. Thus the film takes on explicitly political dimensions not to be found in something like Ten Skies, connecting the suggestions of the landscape and the movement of the trains and overtly linking them to their national, historical, and religious connotations.
RR is not just a work about trains (or their politics), and is as much a comment on the pleasures and form of cinema. This meta-cinematic aspect comes into play directly in the factor determining the length of each shot: the duration of the train's movement, or sometimes the duration of the sound of the train's movement. (As dry as the film may sound, it is not without its humor, which comes most directly from two shots of particularly long trains that move so terribly slow that when one eventually realizes after a number of minutes that the goliaths are slowing down and about to stop, one cannot help but laugh at the lumbering absurdity and our investment in watched that movement.) RR therefore indicates movement—activity—as the most interesting facet of each shot.
Yet, somewhat paradoxically, while movement determines duration, it does not justify the shot itself. This is an important distinction, as it shifts a great deal of each composition's focus to the landscape itself, and the play of the train through that landscape. The landscape prefigures the train traveling through it, and thus while that journey is the temporal element in each shot (among other elements of interest: the texture, color, speed, and vector of each train), it is the relationship of that journey to the singular composition of land, rail, and frame that, in a sense, "determines" the content of the shot itself.
One of the many rich ways of looking at a film as deceptively simple as RR, then, is to see its actual subject—the trains—only as an abstract element that temporally structures our gaze at the shot, and due to its on-screen motion gives a temporal rhythm to this landscape, to the duration of the shot, to the rhythm of the film as a whole. Looked at this way, one could even see RR strictly as a landscape film, whose rhythm, length, and beauty Benning to a large degree gives up to the power and movement of American railroads.