California Trilogy (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Michael Sicinski

El Valley Centro (U.S., 1999) directed by James Benning. DVD, color, 87 min.

Los (U.S., 2000) directed by James Benning. DVD, color, 87 min.

Sogobi (U.S., 2001) directed by James Benning. DVD, color, 87 min.

Two-disc DVD, color, total running time of 261 min. An Edition Filmmuseum release.

El Valley Centro  is made up of shots of California's Central Valley

El Valley Centro is made up of shots of California's Central Valley

First things first—hopefully you have access to the necessary equipment to view DVDs in the European PAL system. Granted, this can mean a significant outlay of money for the hardware. Although international and region-free DVD players are relatively inexpensive if you check the Web, high-quality HDTVs with international, multisystem capability are a different matter. They tend to run many hundreds of dollars higher than their standard NTSC (U.S. / Canada) counterparts, but without a television that can display a true PAL signal, rather than converting it to a (fuzzy) NTSC image, you may be better off just watching foreign discs on your computer, something we all have to do sometimes but which I certainly do not recommend.

But, of course, this entire problem of cross-media translations and multiplatform compatibility is a materialist problem. Lots of techie magazines and chat groups miscast these considerations as a fetishist’s arena, but if we are assuming that there is an end result to all of this movement of a signal through multiple hurdles—an artist’s visual ideas, coming to us with greater or lesser clarity and strength—then we have to face the fact that shifts in image technology on both the artist’s and the viewer’s end are always imbricated with the availability or the lack of money. In writing for an American publication in order to review the latest DVD set from a European arts consortium, one which contains representations of low-budget but visually stunning 16mm films by an American artist, there is hardly a question of who can see the films. But the question of how well one may see the films still remains.

I begin with what may seem like a nitpicky point because DVD, as a democratizing tool for greater access to film history, has a far more uneven growth pattern than we typically recognize. It moves in an amoeboid fashion, jutting a pseudopod first this way and that. In terms of the ongoing saga of experimental cinema’s reckoning with the digital medium(s), the skepticism of some filmmakers, the embrasure of DVD by others, and the slow reconciliation by still others serves as a microsociological sample. The avant-garde, so uniquely attuned to the properties and potentials of the different media for recording image and sound—35mm, 16mm, Super 8, PortaPak, U-Matic, VHS, Hi-8, and eventually the digital modes—is, on the whole, making its peace with the DVD format. But its members and makers are doing so with constant reminders about the compromises it entails, both for them and for the viewers who end up watching the films on the home-video format. Naturally, these compromises are endemic to the wholesale shift in cinema’s business model, if not its basic consciousness. But most other areas of production have gone down without a fight.

The death of 16mm film is greatly exaggerated, of course. Many artists are still making it, and dozens of microcinemas around the world are still dedicated to showing it. Nevertheless, certain facts are unavoidable. Film stocks are being discontinued left and right. Labs are closing. It is more and more difficult to find the necessary parts (including bulbs) to fix projectors once they go out of commission. Universities are less likely to allocate funds for 16mm film rentals. And, as a result, 16mm rental co-ops like San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema, one of the only services in the U.S. that rents artists’ films to exhibitors and individuals, is in desperate financial straits. In a truly depressing turn of events, the latest edition of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s textbook Film Art has excised mentions of films by Bruce Conner and Robert Breer because, according to Bordwell, “they are available only in 16mm, and most teachers and readers don’t have access to them.” (He and Thompson replaced the examples with Jan Švankmajer and Koyanisqaatsi.) Make no mistake. Experimental filmmakers are not facing the end of their chosen medium since, despite all the gloom and doom above, creative individuals have always found ways to thwart industrial imperatives and harness fragmentary resources to make art on their own terms. This is the spirit that gave rise to the various historical avant-gardes in the first place. But what is certain is that filmmakers are having to cope with radically reduced options.

The third and latest set of James Benning DVDs by the Austrian Film Museum (released by the Edition Filmmuseum label) features the release of what has come to be known as Benning’s “California Trilogy,” three films he made between 1999 and 2001. The booklet that accompanies this release, not surprisingly, speaks directly to the issues I’ve been addressing above. Why, after holding out for so many years, has Benning decided to begin releasing his films on DVD? How are we to compare the experience of viewing these films on disc at home to the unique properties of their 16mm existence? Do these DVD releases make the films more “accessible,” and if so, at what cost?

The major essay of the booklet is a fine discussion of the “California Trilogy” by critic Claudia Slanar (adapted from her essay in the Filmmuseum’s 2007 James Benningmonograph, which Slanar coedited). In it she articulates Benning’s formal method, his political interest in California, and the shifts in his depiction of landscape across the three films. But bookending this longer essay are two shorter statements, one by Oliver Hanley, who supervised the DVD production, and one by Benning himself. Hanley tells us a few things about Benning’s decision to begin releasing his films on video. For one thing, he explains that the DVDs are a result (or possibly a compromise) related to a larger project, which is that Austrian Filmmuseum’s preservation and restoration of Benning’s back catalog. The museum, then, is creating new 16mm preservation prints alongside digital masters. The Benning issues, then, which in addition to the “California Trilogy” have so far also included four other Benning films—American Dreams (1984); Landscape Suicide (1986); casting a glance and RR (both 2007)—reflect a project not unlike that of the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Avant-Garde Masters discs. (Incidentally, the next NFPF avant-garde collection will reportedly include an early Benning short.)

Hanley also explains that the “California Trilogy” set’s conspicuous lack of DVD extras is deliberate, and speaks to both the Filmmuseum’s and Benning’s philosophy regarding these pressings. The films are here to speak for themselves, not to be gussied up with a lot of needless bells and whistles. Hanley remarks on Benning’s distaste for the idea of a director’s commentary track, which is not only a wise stance but also an absolutely necessary one. Benning’s cinema is generally quiet, but relies on subtle interaction between slow visual events—gradual changes within a stationary field of operation—and the counterpoint of off-screen noises, gradually approaching sonic objects, or just the palpable sound of air on a microphone. To replace this crucial compositional element with any other element would be sheer folly. This isn’t to say that Benning’s comments and stories about the films do not add immensely to our experience of them. They certainly do, and seeing the films with Benning present is a treat. He is a seductive, erudite raconteur. But it is vital that one see the films first. Besides, the voice of the author, as it were, is a reasonable “bonus” for Benning to hold back, making it available only to those who come to see his films in theatrical projection.

In Benning’s own statement in the DVD booklet, a short essay entitled “Digital Versatility,” the filmmaker articulates the evolution of his own position regarding digital media. This is a lovely artist’s statement that is both deeply specific to Benning’s own thinking and journey through the terrain of technological evolution (or deevolution), and a more general portrait of the ambivalence and reconciliation that permeates the present-day avant-garde. “For the first twenty years of my career” Benning writes, “there was no alternative. The only way to see my films was in projection.” He goes on to note that during that time, the equipment was in good shape and the projectionists were skilled professionals. 16mm was a reliable presentation medium. This infrastructure made it easier for Benning to continue to reject DVD.

“So what has changed?” he continues. “Everything.” Benning explains that, in addition to the improvement of digital technology, which allows for more accurate color correction and contrast control, he is increasingly concerned with becoming “more democratic.” That is to say, Benning recognizes that DVD is the dominant mode—“the least expensive consumer format”—and but one position along a continuum that includes Blu-ray, 4K presentation, and of course 16mm preservation prints. He recognizes that “16mm projection is dying while digital projection is getting better every day,” but also holds out hope that “now that you [the DVD consumer] know about [these films], perhaps you will seek them out in a theater and get a chance to see them as they should be; projected as 16mm films.” Here, we can perceive the very crux of Benning’s compromise, not as capitulation but as a democratic intervention, and a subtle form of dialectical materialism. Digital, including DVD, will serve not only as one preservation mode, among others. These discs will allow Benning’s films to circulate more widely, albeit in slightly diminished form. But in so doing, they will serve as ambassadors for the original 16mm objects. (I would really like to put that term out there, so we can studiously avoid the language of “promotional materials.”)

In order for there to be a demand for 16mm films, and the institutional apparatus that must be maintained to afford them a future, films such as Benning’s must be better known. This is the hope, the democratic intervention, that is reflected by projects such as Edition Filmmuseum’s. Of course, the counterarguments are obvious. Too many people will stop at the level of DVD, never even bothering to seek out the actual films should they ever make themselves available. There has been ample evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that the rise of DVD availability for various films corresponds directly to the precipitous drop off in university classroom rentals of the 16mm originals. At the same time, I would contend that this drop off would be inevitable, in part due to university cutbacks and an increasing “mainstreaming” of many film-studies curricula. We are in a deep trough period for 16mm. However, I firmly believe that only by keeping alive the critical consciousness of the vital cinematic contributions made in small-gauge media (especially among our students) will we plant the seeds for a renaissance.

I realize that I have spent the lion’s share of this DVD review speaking to the broader issues surrounding the release of James Benning’s cinema on DVD, and have thus far refrained from addressing the films themselves. This has been intentional to some degree because, like Benning, I think the three films of the “California Trilogy” ought to mostly speak for themselves. However, here are some things any potential viewer ought to know about the films on this two-disc set. Each of the three films consists of exactly thirty-five stationary shots, and each shot is exactly two and a half minutes long. These shots, along with a concluding set of closing titles, which also last two and a half minutes, combine to produce a ninety-minute running time for each film. (However, the frame-rate discrepancy between 16mm film and PAL video means that each film clocks in at a mere eighty-seven minutes on the DVD set.) The precision of the overall shape of these films, one could gather, is an aesthetic approach adapted from Benning’s loose affiliation with so-called structural film in the 1970s and early ’80s, as well as the filmmaker’s own background in mathematics.

Benning’s trilogy adopts a modular approach to composition and editing, an organizational scheme that could be said to recall that of minimalist sculpture. The minimalists, much like the structural filmmakers, were interested in creating works that were the result of compositional decisions made prior to the artist’s direct engagement with the materials themselves, so that the final artwork reflected a collusion between the substrate and physical parameters of the materials, on the one hand, and an abstract or theoretical project or principle, on the other. Also, the works typically asked their viewers to adjust their framework of attention, in terms of conventional notions of change or development, such that smaller variations within a narrowed frame could, ideally, take on the character of heightened aesthetic drama.

These are the most basic, schematic ways to explain Benning’s approach in making the “California Trilogy.” But such ideas are really only starting points for deeply sensual, fully cinematic experiences, which envelop the sympathetic viewer through their combination of patient observation and rigorous attention to classical tenets of pictorial composition. Each of the three films is radically different. El Valley Centro zeroes in on the Central Valley, California’s agricultural center. In addition to showing the process of mechanized farming, and the often-unseen individuals who make it work, Benning shows us everyday life in the surrounding towns (Stockton, Modesto), along with the aqueduct and pipelines that provide the infrastructure making not only the agribusiness but the entire U.S. economy functional. Los, by contrast, is a primarily urban film, depicting L.A. as a multiethnic collage of satellite suburbs and fringe communities, all forming a constellation around a mostly empty center. Prisons, stockyards, megachurches, and, of course, freeways, are all shown by Benning to be nodes in a massive network that, while qualitatively different than that which comprises the Central Valley, is no less piecemeal, and is equally imbricated with capital.

The final film, Sogobi, appears on first glance to be the least evocative and least overtly political of the three films. However, I’ve come to realize that it’s actually the subtlest, and probably the one film in the trilogy that most relies on the other two for its meaning. A study of the wilderness of (mostly) Northern California, Sogobi seems at first to represent a retreat from the power-inflected spaces of the previous two films. We see the oceanside, the forest, the desert. But gradually, Benning shows us wildfires, a lonely billboard, a logging depot . . . The third part of the trilogy, then, is a bit of a bait and switch, in that it seems as though it will provide respite from overt considerations of political economy. (The ultimate bourgeois indulgence—“Let’s go to the mountains and get away from it all.”) But instead, Benning shows us that there is no escape from private property (or governmental/institutional “management”), from the despoliation of the environment, or from our own position vis-à-vis the contemporary power structure. Like El Valley Centro and LosSogobi ends with a list of each of the thirty-five shots in the film, along with the name of the companies or trusts that own the land seen in that shot. So with the “California Trilogy,” Benning reminds us that his assemblage of slow, luxurious Bazinian camera views represents, among other things, 270 minutes of illegal trespassing.

Michael Sicinski is a writer and teacher living in Houston, Texas, and a Contributing Writer for Cineaste.

To purchase the California Trilogy, click here.

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2