Part of Summer 2004
“Los is about my love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. It shows the way I see the city, an unusual point of view that most people haven’t seen. The city has been so well documented, in the background of Hollywood films at least, that people who come there for the first time think they know it already. When they see my film they realize they don’t really know it at all.” (James Benning)
For the middle installment in James Benning’s acclaimed California Trilogy, the director turns his eye to the urban environment of Greater Los Angeles, and reveals a city much like any other big city. Los consists of 35 two-and-a-half-minute shots, here of such normally overlooked locations as a highway, factory, garbage dump, cemetery, prison – everyday representatives of urban public space. As usual, Benning’s compositional eye is stunning. Each indelible shot, which relates to the next through the use of similar horizon-lines and repeated motifs, is characterized as much by absence as presence. The images are accompanied only by the on-location sound, and, as the camera remains static, viewers are given the room to contemplate the clash between nature and humanity that both gives Los Angeles its life and is contributing to its death.
“Perhaps no filmmaker is as fascinated by the geographical, historical, and social aspects of our national landscape as James Benning, who has been creating 16mm portraits of American spaces for four decades.” (Austin Chronicle)
Circling James Benning: The California Trilogy and Beyond
This interview with James Benning was conducted by Neil Young at the Berlin Film Festival 2002. It took place shortly after the world premiere of his film Sogobi, completing the California Trilogy after El Valley Centro (2000) and Los (2001)
You live near LA, but apparently try to avoid the place. Is this correct?
I just don’t have a need for it – it’s too spread out. I’d much rather drive the other way, I can drive to the desert in 45 minutes, or the mountains, or at the ocean, or I can hop on my motorcycle and be at all three of those places, a nice leisurely drive through backroads. I’d rather do that than go to the city. Before I moved to the LA area I lived in Manhattan, so I had eight years in a huge city. I love New York, but I didn’t want to move to LA and look for New York there. It’s a different place.
How did you find the locations used in Sogobi and the other films?
I drove round, but I also hiked, because a lot of the things are a way back in the middle of nowhere. Some of them were actually, kind of dangerous – like with the snowstorm, that was very cold, and I was in very deep snow. The opposite was the sandstorm, where it was 120 Fahrenheit in that valley that day. Those kinds of things were maybe a little more ‘on the edge’ than when I filmed in the Central Valley, or in Los Angeles.
When did the California project take its final form as a trilogy?
I knew I was going to make a trilogy in the middle of Los, which I made using the exact structure as El Valley Centro, so I knew then that Sogobi would follow the same structure. Sogobi was originally going to be a wilderness film that wouldn’t have any evidence of mankind in it, but as I went around it was hard to find true wilderness any more. I easily could have given you 35 shots that had no people in it, and no evidence of human life, but I kept finding mysterious things in the middle of nowhere, so I decided to add some of those things.
After El Valley Centro, Los felt like a movement away from the countryside towards the city, approaching its borders – like the walls of a medieval town, perhaps. Los was like an act of probing those walls, and I’d expected this the final film to jump over, into the middle of the city.
Los does jump in, in a few places – the joggers in Santa Monica…
Is there a practical reason for not doing more in the middle of LA itself, in that your camera would attract more attention in a fully urban environment?
I’m pretty good at taking my camera out shooting and getting out of there before they know I’m there. Though I was stopped in one shopping centre in downtown LA, for using a tripod. I had to shoot that without a tripod, so I taped the camera to railing that was there. That was actually a better idea anyways, because the people didn’t notice it – if I’d been on out the pavement with the tripod they’d have been looking at the camera. I was told that ‘professionals’ can’t film there without permission, and apparently you’re not a professional when you take it off the tripod…
How strictly did you apply the mathematical structure of the previous films in the Trilogy, such as the idea of having 35 shots?
It’s the same structure – all three films have 35 shots, each shot is two and a half minutes long. I wanted to present landscapes over a period of time, because the only way one can understand landscape is through time. Landscape is actually a function of time. If I show something for two and a half minutes and not much happens, you learn that. From a still photo you wouldn’t know if there was activity or no activity. So I was very interested in recording these still images that would have very little movement – the initial idea was to present 35 of those shots with very little movement at all, so it would be an extremely minimal experience watching the film but it would accumulate into an interesting space that would happen, a kind of meditative space. I didn’t stay with that, because I realised that in the first two films I had cross-referencing: there were ships in both, and a billboard, and cattle, so I decided to keep that running structure through all three films so you have recurring images in different places.
Were you alone when you drove around? What camera do you use?
I use a small electric Bolex with a built-in motor. And I do everything myself, from buying the film at Kodak to cutting my own negative. I don’t have a crew – I shot all these shots in synch sound, but I also take additional sound at the location, so I can also post-synch if I want to remove some sounds that I don’t like.
Have you never considered using a different size of film than 16mm – super 16 or 35mm perhaps?
They should be 70mm of course, but then I couldn’t make the film. Because most of the images in all three films are somewhat stolen. A lot of times I’m illegally on land – I’m doing things where I have to go in very quickly and get out of there very quickly. Especially when I’m in the middle of a military installation, or a cement quarry – those kinds of places where they don’t like you filming there. It would be difficult to steal those kinds of images. I also want to keep making films cheaply – all three of these films were made for less than $15,000. I want to make films at that cost or less… I kind of find it criminal when it costs more than that, because there are better places to put money.
If money is always a pressure, why not use video to make the films?
Because then they’d be video. I don’t know, maybe high-definition DV might be a way I could work. Perhaps with projection improving they would actually look better that way. I have to think about that, because it’s still a different kind of image. It’s made differently, doesn’t have grain in it. I would have to work with it for a while to find out how to use it. 16mm projection gets worse and worse and worse every year. You put a $1,400 dollar print on it and wreck it in one screening… it’s unbearable. So it’s kind of near the end I think, 16mm – I might not have a choice, actually.
Video and DVD would make it easier for more people to see the work.
If I thought that the DVDs had a particular standard then I would do that. It would make it a lot more democratic, wouldn’t it. As of now, a “privileged few”, if you’re in the right place, get to see my work. It’s something I’ve never been concerned with, because I’ve never really made films for an audience I’ve really made films to define my own self better, to understand myself better. I thought by making films I could look at things that affect my life.
And do you feel you’ve succeeded in doing that?
I’m still on that quest… but I think I know myself a lot better now than when I first started it.
Do you have faith in film to provide the answers you seek?
For me it’s not necessarily the film, but the process of going through to make the film, that I learn from. The film is kinda like the residue of that process. And that’s what I hope affects other people – obviously some of the process is captured in the film. That’s where the strength of my films lies.
Is this why they so often take the form of journeys or varying kinds?
I think so. I’m very interested in place itself, and the difference of place – a journey is necessary to make those kinds of comparisons. I think journey is a way to put things both in political and social perspective.
And is there also a spiritual dimension to this ‘quest’?
Well, with a small ‘s’, I would perhaps agree.
Do you accept the term ‘avant-garde’ as a description of yourself as a film-maker?
I’m certainly not a mainstream film-maker, and certainly am an independent film-maker, because I do everything myself. I don’t think ‘avant-garde’ is necessarily a negative term, I wouldn’t disagree with it. But “advance-guard” of what, I guess is the question. Dealing with the personal is the thing that I try to do.
Even in the Trilogy films, which seem more distanced?
I think they’re highly personal because they’re investigations of things I’m interested in – I’m interested in work, and who does work, and who makes money off that work, and who participates in the profits and who doesn’t. El Valley Centro is very much trying to negotiate that. I’m interested in place, so I’m interested in the Valley as a place, in Los Angeles as a place, and wilderness as a place, and how those places are somewhat distinct, but at the same time they have connections.
Would it be fair to say you’re a geographical film-maker, but also a mathematical and political one?
I think mathematics influences my work… just because they have a rigid structure doesn’t make them mathematical films. But I studied mathematics and I’m very aware of the kind of thinking that you use when you work in higher mathematics, and becomes quite abstract. Not even higher mathematics, even – there’s 1,000 different proofs for one particular theorem, maybe 10,000… and some of them are so beautifully elegant, because they’re very simple, or very graphic. I like the idea that there are many solutions, but a few that stand out as being totally elegant, and it’s the kind of thing I try to work with when I make a film, to find the elegant solution to a problem. In a more direct way, my structures are… arithmetical.
What about the political element – to me, that’s the primary motivation, certainly with El Valley Centro and Los.
When I was much younger I did a lot of political work at a grass-roots level. It became very apparent to me that this was something I could exhaust my life with, and I hadn’t even begun to define who I was. So I stopped doing that kind of work, and I started making films to look at my own life. At first, I thought I had to make really apolitical films, because if I wanted to do politics I should go back and do what I was doing before. And by doing things that are much more aesthetic I could define my life more – but I quickly realised that my aesthetics developed forms that were somewhat radical, and that’s political in itself. To make people look at a screen different I think is a really radical position to take. So even though I was making apolitical films when I made 11 x 14 (1975), it became really a political film because of its structure. And then what I didn’t realise was that I was documenting a culture in the mid-west – any culture has political overtones too, so this ‘apolitical film’ that I made, now, when I look at it 30 years later I see it as something very political. And as I made more and more films I became much more interested in looking at different histories, and putting my life in a larger context and then politics came back into the films in a more direct way. Though I still try not to be completely dogmatic with my politics, even though I think it’s quite evident that they’re fairly left wing.
That’s evident in Los and El Valley Centro but less so with Sogobi, which presents nature much more in the raw – and nature isn’t of itself political.
Until it gets attacked.
But nature isn’t really attacked in most of Sogobi… shouldn’t this be the first of the Trilogy rather than the last?
It’s purposely the last one because it shows that there’s something still left, but it might not last that long. After you see the first two, you know that it’s going to be scraped away… There’s evidence of that already – the cement quarry, where they’ve torn out half of the mountainside now. Then there’s the shot as simple as the one where Highway 14 is cut through the side of a mountain, exposing the San Andreas fault – showing the disregard for landscape.
Do you ever feel tempted to make a more conventional documentary on such subjects?
I admire people who try to do things that will cause political change to better this world. I admire that, but at this point I’m much too selfish for that. I’m much more interested in making films that make me understand life more, and hopefully that changes things. In an indirect way. I think I can be more passionate that way. When I look at documentaries that address issues I think need addressing so many times the way they’re made is so corrupt I almost want to change sides… they’re so dogmatic in their approach, so overly conventional, so conservative in their style, it somewhat contradicts its own message.
What are you working on now?
I have a huge project planned, but I’m not sure whether that’s feasible or not. It’s to travel around the perimeter of the the continental United States in one year, going an equal distance each day, which turns out to be about 55 miles, and doing one one-minute shot a day. I would also like to steal conversations each day – at least a minute’s worth of a good conversation, that would be put on as sound over maybe two-thirds of the shots.. It would take a year to do to it, and it would be six hours and five minutes to be shown all in one section. I had a working title when I wrote some proposals … Circling Sweetgrass, because the town that I would start at in northern Montana is Sweetgrass, Montana
Are you planning to do any more narrative films afterwards?
I think all my films are narrative films. I never stopped having narrative concerns. I could use actors again, maybe, I don’t know. But I think the trilogy is a narrative, there’s recurring themes and images. And there are ‘stars’ in it – different ships, cattle, tumbleweeds…