"The guard is down and the mask is off, even more than in lone bedrooms where there's a mirror. People's faces are in naked repose down in the subway." —Walker Evans
"So, have you ever smoked?" I laughed when James Benning asked me this question at the end of our conversation. "Honestly, I've probably smoked about twenty cigarettes," I told him. "I'm a child of the 70s and 80s. Nancy Reagan told me to say ‘no.'" That was almost the full extent of our discussion of smoking, despite the fact that Benning's feature-length video, Twenty Cigarettes, is constructed solely of portraits of smokers. The duration of each of the twenty shots is determined by the length of time it takes each subject to light, smoke, and discard a cigarette. Benning composed each shot, staged the person in front of a flat backdrop, and then walked away from the camera.
We didn't discuss smoking because, as Benning is the first to admit, the cigarette is just a gimmick—the excuse he needed to get people in front of a camera long enough for them to relax, lose their self-consciousness, and reveal their "real faces." There are precedents for this kind of thing. Jon Jost does something similar in Plain Talk and Common Sense (Uncommon Senses)  when he invites strangers to pose for a photo and then asks them to wait patiently while he pretends to fix a problem with the camera. Walker Evans was likewise on the hunt for the "real face" when he took his hidden camera into New York subway trains in the 1930s.
In "America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly," Susan Sontag calls Evans an heir to Walt Whitman's "euphoric" humanism. "To photograph is to confer importance," she writes, and Evans' photos, or so the argument goes, democratize their subjects by leveling the playing field—"leveling up," Sontag notes. I suspect Benning shares Sontag's faith in the transcendent image. There's a kind of prelapsarian nostalgia in Twenty Cigarettes.
I spoke with Benning the day after Twenty Cigarettes played in the Wavelengths program of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. See also Neil Young's excellent essay about the film, "Tobacco Roads".
NOTEBOOK: Last night during the Q&A your expression changed when you began talking about Twenty Cigarettes as a tribute—both to the people in the film and also to your own accomplishments. You looked proud.
JAMES BENNING: That didn't occur to me when I was making the film. It only occurred to me after it was finished. There's a black woman from Milwaukee in the film, and that just wouldn't have happened when I was a young boy. That might seem like nothing, but to me it's like going to the moon. There's no analysis of poverty when you're growing up at the edge of poverty yourself. Poor whites and poor blacks were played off against each other. All of those fears I grew up with came true: The neighborhood became degraded because we all had the same problems but we all fought each other rather than trying to make each other better.
I was aware that I was trying to bring diversity to the film because I wanted to sort of map the world into a package of cigarettes. The last time I watched it, I thought, "Well, there's such diversity but everybody has similar gestures and similar anxieties, no matter whether they're young and old." The boy gets a little more playful. You see youth in him.
NOTEBOOK: He holds the pose a bit longer.
BENNING: Yeah, although he quits. He couldn't stay with the smoking as long with the camera in his face. He quit after about half the cigarette and walked off. [laughs] I kept that one exit in the film.
NOTEBOOK: You end Twenty Cigarettes with a running scroll that names all of the smokers and the locations where you shot them. It's another gesture toward the film as a tribute. I assume you never would've imagined as a child that you'd travel the world like you have.
BENNING: Absolutely. My parents never traveled farther than northern Wisconsin. We took one trip to Chicago, but otherwise they were always within just a few miles of their house. That's just the way it was.
NOTEBOOK: Are you at a point where you've begun to measure your accomplishments? Are you taking stock?
BENNING: I began taking stock twenty-something years ago in the late-80s, early-90s when I came up with a new way of working: I would make films that would take me to places I enjoyed being. I'd make films that would make me understand my life better. Since that time I've come to understand my own history through really looking and paying attention. These films are continuing that, of course, and I think Twenty Cigarettes does that well. It makes me feel like I got somewhere.
NOTEBOOK: There's a woman who reminded me slightly of my mother, and it made me realize that I've never stared at my mother's face for five minutes without interruption. It's a very intimate experience. It was the woman who is standing in front of an orange door. I think I could hear Al Michaels on the TV in the background?
BENNING: It's actually poker.
NOTEBOOK: Really? [laughs]
BENNING: Yeah, Texas Hold ‘Em. She shouldn't have been smoking. She'd had heart failure and bypass surgery not too many years before that. And she died about three weeks later. She was older than she looks. 74, I think. She looks like she's in her early-60s to me. She lived near me up in the mountains. She was a postal worker in Bakersfield for many years. Very funny. I live in a poor white mountain town with a lot of prejudice, so she also reminded me of my parents. She had a blind prejudice against Mexican people, and then ironically her best friends were Mexican. [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: Sure. [laughs]
BENNING: They were different. [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: The "good kind." [laughs] Sounds like my experience of the South.
BENNING: [laughs] It's strange.
NOTEBOOK: I assume it's a very personal film for you. You seem almost sentimental talking about it.
BENNING: Yeah, I think I am, actually. I like all of those people.
NOTEBOOK: I recognized a few of the faces in the film, but I'd assumed that a few of the subjects were strangers who you'd just invited to participate.
BENNING: No, the person I knew the least I'd met only a few times. I feel like I know them all well now. It's a funny thing. When I watch it now there's a point in each shot when I feel the person. Thom Andersen is a good example. He controlled his image the whole time and tried to not give you who he is. He was able to act. But he's like that. He was very cool. I like that shot.
NOTEBOOK: It's a slightly different composition from the others, isn't it?
BENNING: He's leaning back against a wall, so, yes, he has a more comfortable stance rather than standing up like the rest. He's in his house and the roof is at a slant, so that also makes the space seem more confined.
I put them all in awkward positions. You generally don't smoke that way unless you're on a smoking break and you're standing outside by yourself, quickly getting the nicotine you need. But most people sit down, read a book, or they're on the phone or drinking coffee or sipping whiskey.
NOTEBOOK: There are obvious pros and cons, structurally, to flattening the visual field to two dimensions.
BENNING: I wanted to have a space behind them that would give you clues as to who they were but not a space that would divert your attention. I wanted the person to be the center of focus, so the backgrounds are all pretty minimalist. The guy in his workshop has a lot behind him—it's kind of busy and there's a lot to look at—but he's so captivating you don't really look beyond him. He just takes over the frame. He's the only one who needed to talk, to change the rules. I mean, I didn't tell him he couldn't talk. [laughs] He's a pretty wonderful guy.
NOTEBOOK: The flat visual field certainly opens up the space outside the frame.
BENNING: He calls the dog over. The dog starts growling and biting at him. So you become very aware of the off-screen space. Janet Jenkins in Chicago is the woman smoking in front of elegant drapery. That was shot in a high rise next to the train tracks and you can very lightly hear trains going by. In Dick Hebdige's there were some gunshots that went off at quite a distance, which adds to the paranoia in his face [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: When I saw RR here in Toronto three years ago, I thought, "This would be the perfect film to show art students who are learning about perspective." My mind never stopped racing through the variety of ways you carve up geometric space in that film. Twenty Cigarettes strips away those possibilities.
BENNING: Again, I wanted the portrait to stand out against the flat backdrop. But I'm also very aware of how sound works in off-screen space. The woman in Houston is actually looking off to one side, watching somebody work outside, but I later recorded the sound of dishes being washed, so it looks like she's looking over at the servants.
NOTEBOOK: Last night you said the picture and sound had both been touched in post-production, that "films are never what they really are." I assume the cover of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" was one of your additions? [laughs]
BENNING: [laughs] Yeah, that was kind of a joke. A friend of mind collected 120 versions of “Ghost Riders in the Sky." I used the Deborah Harry one. The guy in that shot is Dominican, and it looks like he's in front of a warehouse, and I thought, "Well, it's kind of like he's the doorman at a disco." [laughs] I created my own narrative in a few places. But I also wanted to refer to work in the film—that he could have been working there rather than being staged.
NOTEBOOK: Smoking is the excuse you needed to get your subjects in front of the camera, but it obviously has an iconic history in the cinema too. I can imagine one or two of the women in your film picking up the habit after watching Anna Karina and Jean Moreau smoke on screen.
BENNING: Yeah, just like the railroad has a history. Some of the first filmed images are of trains. Smoking in the 30s was portrayed one way, and today I don't know if it's even portrayed at all. It's hidden. Today, maybe it's the villain who's smoking, whereas it used to be seductive. I grew up when four out of five doctors smoked Camels, which isn't an ad you'll see anymore [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: Is finding the "real face" a new interest for you? Is it a problem you've been trying to solve?
BENNING: Over the last ten years, I've had very few people in my films. I remade One Way Boogie Woogie (1977, 2004) and found the same people I'd filmed 27 years earlier, and that got me interested in looking at people again. But also I remade North on Evers, which was a film I made in 1990 when I went on a motorcycle trip and filmed landscapes and made portraits of 65 people. In that film there's a hand-written text that runs through the bottom of the frame that is a diary from the year before, when I made the same trip. On that second trip in '90 I rode on the same motorcycle and went to the same places and met the same people, some of whom were friends and others who were just acquaintances, but I would find them on the same barstool a year later. [laughs]
Then, two years ago I saw the Warhol Screen Tests again, and that got me thinking about what portraits I had made. So I reshot North on Evers with my digital camera. I just shot the portraits. Each was about ten seconds long, and I slowed them down six times so that they became a minute long. I made an hour-long film from those portraits. I showed that in Berlin two years ago, and then I read the text that ran through the whole film, which took another 45 minutes. The 1990 film became an hour-long silent film with a 45-minute performance. And that got me interested, really, in filming people again. I've only done that film twice—one in Berlin and again in LA at my school—but it was so successful I should probably try to do it a few more times.
NOTEBOOK: Was slowing the speed of those 65 portraits essential to the experience?
BENNING: What I liked about the Warhol Screen Tests is that there was time to look at the people. Warhol looks at them for four minutes. He shot them in hundred-foot rolls and at silent speed so he got almost four minutes out of each roll. I'm not sure how much direction he gave, but they don't have anything to do, they're confronted by the camera, so they become more playful. They want to act. And I think it's because it's in The Factory, which had this zany quality—a tinfoil-covered nightclub, in a sense. The people who would drift in then were rather hip, so you had this hipness to the whole thing. I tried to stay away from that.
When I made North on Evers I didn't have a tripod with me—the whole film was shot hand-held and it has 650-700 shots in it, which is probably more than all of my other films put together. [laughs] The camera was spring-wound and I was doing editing in the camera, so each portrait is like a still shot, maybe with a slight pan or a little movement. When I slowed them down, it just gave you more time to look at the people. They didn't go by so quickly. Slowing down and being silent is a very different experience. Plus, I just liked the idea of having a silent film for an hour and then doing a reading for 45 minutes in the dark.
NOTEBOOK: Oh, it's not simultaneous?
BENNING: No, it's after, so it become retrospective. You retrospectively come to know the narrative that those faces have created.
NOTEBOOK: Interesting. So then the viewer also reworks the material through memory.
BENNING: Yeah, you think, "Now, which person was that?"
NOTEBOOK: I grabbed some pizza with friends after the screening of Twenty Cigarettes last night, and we did the same thing—trying to remember who was who.
BENNING: That's why I like the scroll at the end. It makes you re-remember what you watched.
NOTEBOOK: What is the current status of your old films? They're being archived, right?
BENNING: I gave away all of my 16mm work to the Austrian Film Museum, and they are slowly archiving it all. This November they're finishing the first two films. They made 35mm protection copies of American Dreams (1984) and Landscape Suicide (1986), and they're putting out a double-box DVD of the two. I'm hoping they're going to make hi-def copies so that I can release them on Blu-ray.
We're going to hopefully archive everything that way, but it's a huge project and it's very costly, so I don't know how many we'll get through. They chose to start with two middle works, and then I think they want to do the California Trilogy (El Valley Centro , Los , and Sogobi ) and then some newer works. At least those two will be available soon. Otherwise, they won't be seen. The prints are wearing out and fading, and it's so hard to get good 16mm projection, which keeps destroying the few prints I have left.