Still from Twenty Cigarettes, James Benning, 2011. Courtesy of Lincoln Center and NYFF.
Introducing James Benning before the screening of his video Twenty Cigarettes (2001) at Views from the Avant-Garde, Gavin Smith noted that he and series co-programmer Mark McElhatten had been late in acknowledging the filmmaker. They’re not alone. Though Benning has maintained a dedicated following throughout much of his four-decade-long career, it was not until he began making a series of long-take landscape films in the late 1990s that he became recognized as one of experimental film’s living masters.
The self-assured stylistic consistency of these later films has somewhat obscured the breadth of Benning’s filmography. Though a fascination with place has driven his practice since the beginning, he has examined the American landscape through an array of approaches: unconventional narratives, mathematical structures, and perceptual exercises, to name the most significant. I was surprised to discover that in Time and A Half (1972), one of his earliest films, he had even attempted Maya Deren-style psychodrama.
A 14-second shot from that film serves as the basis for the other Benning piece at Views, John Krieg Exiting the Falk Corporation in 1971 (2010). Stretching those few seconds of film into a 71-minute video with slow-motion manipulations that make full use of the strange optical consequences of the differing frame rates, John Krieg dramatizes Benning’s own recent shift from celluloid to digital. A film enthusiast with a firm grasp on the medium’s particularities, he held out on video technology until making Ruhr( 2009), an exploration of the contradictions and continuities of Western Germany’s topography that appeared at last year’s Views. Though Benning was as sensitive to his materials as ever in that work, it felt like film by other means—a continuation of the project that commenced with Deseret (1996). The interventionist approach he takes in John Krieg signals a closer embrace of video’s possibilities. Showing the hard dimensions of the film image flattened by the transfer and the slowed speed, it points to the fissures inherent to the illusory continuity in the long takes of which Benning is so fond. Rendered as video, the disjunctive, often overlapping film frames produce an image more like single-frame representations of motion by Étienne-Jules Marey or Marcel Duchamp than anything in the early cinematic traditions that Benning’s late work resurrects.
Twenty Cigarettes operates on a naturalistic durational calculus that would seem to closely align it with the films Benning has made over the past couple decades. But here, even more than in John Krieg, he adjusts his strategies to video’s unique spatio-temporal characteristics. The video consists of twenty portraits of the filmmaker’s friends smoking, the length of each single shot tableau determined by the time it takes the subject to finish. Benning, a lifelong non-smoker, insists the film is not about cigarettes, and while it is difficult not to draw some conclusions about the activity from so many contiguous depictions—not to compare the variety of styles and rhythms, or notice the odd prevalence of American Spirits, not to wonder at the apparent lack of satisfaction the act provides—the individuality of the subjects comes to the fore.
In contrast to the Warhol screen tests that inspired the video, these people—with two notable exceptions—do not mug for the audience, performing only so much as is unavoidable. Adjusting to the intrusion of the camera into their ritual, most of the smokers are at first visibly nervous, and their discomfort creates a two-way tension between viewer and viewed. But as they inevitably relax, this bond dissolves, freeing our eyes to wander the sparse, but suggestive frame. Though the backgrounds of each portrait sometimes provide a hint of the lives these people lead, there is none of the August Sander-style typological scene dressing that still appears in much film portraiture. Benning once again emphasizes the flatness of the video frame, situating most of the subjects against muted backgrounds.
Like all of Benning’s films, Twenty Cigarettes heightens and narrows our attention by stripping away unnecessary adornment. But where the landscape films (and John Krieg) command a rapt retinal-cerebral concentration that relies on a suspenseful feeling of inevitability, the uncharacteristically cool and even lighting and the visibly arbitrary determinations of shot length in Twenty Cigarettes keep us attuned to the evolving present. We are forced to double back on our initial impressions of each subject, and form new ones that are then themselves thrown into doubt as the camera holds steady. The people on screen do not reveal an essence or an articulable impression, but instead a slippery, complex sense of being. In allowing them this, Twenty Cigarettes becomes a kind of anti-portraiture that shows us how easily the camera transforms people into symbols, and how little empathetic attention is required to make them more.