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NYFF 2011. James Benning's "Twenty Cigarettes"

Somewhere "between 'hypnotically fascinating' and 'squalidly tedious.'"

"Benning's titles are 'Snakes on a Plane' direct," wrote Michael Sicinski in dispatch to Cargo from Toronto, "and this one consists, as you'd expect, of 20 shots of individuals smoking a single cigarette. The shot lasts however long it takes the given participant to mow down that cancer stick. As Benning explained (although the piece makes it fairly obvious), the ciggie is but an excuse for sustained time-based portraiture; each shot is a close-up, and the action, much more so than the smoking, is the subject forgetting his or her self-consciousness and existing as a face."

"Last year's festival brought his debut on digital, Ruhr, a massively beautiful meditation on duration," writes R Emmet Sweeney at Movie Morlocks. "Twenty Cigarettes is more of a lark, a way for him to work and hang out with his friends at the same time, kind of an avant-garde Ocean's 11."

"There's a palpable sense of transformation in nearly every smoker as they settle into their nicotine groove," writes Phil Coldiron at the House Next Door, "but unlike the films of Warhol, which are the most obvious point of comparison here, there's rarely a sense of self-aware performativity (these aren't James Benning's superstars), which makes the subtle, and occasionally not so subtle, ways that they do perform all the more meaningful. It's perhaps only logical that the two individuals whose time on screen I find the easiest to read are the two whose personalities beyond these few minutes I'm most familiar with, Sharon Lockhart and Thom Andersen. Lockhart, framed from the lowest angle in the film, is the only smoker to turn her back to the camera, a move that, coupled with her continually searching gaze, makes her look like a John Ford hero, a real free women; Andersen distills his best qualities as a writer and filmmaker by obstinately refusing to acknowledge the presence of the camera while smoking at what might generously be called a leisurely pace; it's the funniest scene that I've seen all year."

"Benning presents each of his multi-ethnic 'performers' before visually congruent, unfortunately on-the-nose backgrounds that combine with his human figures to produce totalizing spatial fields," writes Michael J Anderson. "If Twenty Cigarettes thus suggests the possibility of an important new direction for Benning, that is in his movement from landscape to face, the filmmaker's HD latest is in every other sense a minor achievement, the product of spare moments plotted and captured during Benning's itinerant globe-trotting. Twenty Cigarettes is a smoke-break in Benning's rich body of work."

"Given that James Benning's oeuvre has some of the most perfect, stunning, hyperbole-justifying stunning shots on record, it may still seem unfair to complain that Twenty Cigarettes is, visually, a relatively drab experience," adds Vadim Rizov at the L.

"On one side," writes Bart Testa in Cinema Scope, "there is the film theory mythology about the human face in film, associated with photogénie and promulgated chiefly by Béla Balázs and Jean Epstein in the 1920s, that suggests the close-up frame produces some kind of revelation of personality or a delicately registered inspection of physiognomy that is film’s special privilege…. An alternative perspective is to see serial portraiture of this kind as a gathering of types into a catalogue, which is ultimately more fitting to Benning, who seems with Twenty Cigarettes to have created a catalogue of his portrait preferences: in the case of the men, oddball-to-decadent variations on the old, weird American loner (from filmmaker Thom Andersen to the Wilford Brimley-lookalike dog-talker); for the women, a kind of descendant of frontier-farmer America, with good bones, steady gazes, and little visible sophistication."

"Tied as much to cinema history as it is to the stereotype of the French intellectual, it takes a lot to make smoking anti-cinematic," writes Blake Williams at Ioncinema, "and yet it is presented here lumped right on the line between 'hypnotically fascinating' and 'squalidly tedious.' One of Benning's initial intentions with the project was to study how his non-acting performers relaxed from their stilted self-consciousness into an unknowing mode that could allow for moments of true portraiture. At the expense of alienating the audience for large portions of his film's duration, he managed to achieve just that."

Earlier: Neil Young. Interviews with Benning: Dennis Lim (New York Times) and Mark Peranson (Cinema Scope). Alt Screen's roundup features a nine-minute clip of Benning discussing the film in Berlin.

Updates: Darren Hughes talks with Benning here in the Notebook.

CW Winter at Moving Image Source: "James Benning's John Krieg Exiting the Falk Corporation in 1971 (2010) is a single-shot silent video — a slow pan to the left following a man as he exits a Milwaukee factory, crosses a street, and then stands on the near street corner with his back to the camera. The video is a revisitation of an early Benning film, Time and a Half, a 17-minute narrative that premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. Krieg is a 14-second segment from this earlier film slowed down, by a process of recapture and manipulation, to 71 minutes." Benning has "created a space of internalized circular causality in which the act of watching is 'non-linear, recursive, and multi-directional all at once... as if history has moved not forward but backward, then forward again.' The result is a heavy, immersive drone of feedback." Screening at 5:10 pm each of the four days of Views.

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