Directed By James Benning
Reviewed by Megan Shaw Prelinger
Friday, May 4 2001, 2:21 PM
I was recently lucky enough to catch a screening of James Benning's new film, Los, at the San Francisco Cinematheque. This is the second in his installation of three documentary films about California landscape. The first, El Valley Centro, is a portrait of its titular subject. The third, Sogobi, is currently being filmed and will be a portrait of California's wilderness. This second film, about Los Angeles, has been created using the same technique that will characterize the entire trilogy. It is composed of 35 shots of 2 minutes, 30 seconds each, shot from a stationary camera. There is no narration, and no soundtrack excepting the ambient sounds recorded by a microphone at 35 shooting sites.
This technique is carefully constructed to produce a seemingly unconstructed experience, and it works. The images in Los, as in El Valley Centro, are indelible, as a result of the duration of the still-camera shots. Because the camera is still, the viewer's eye has to do its own work to follow whatever motion occurs within the frame. Searching the frame with one's own eye, and having time to choose what to watch within each frame, creates a simulacrum of first-hand experience that is rare in film. In other words, after seeing Los, I remember some of the sites portrayed in it as if I had stood there looking at them myself for two-and-a-half minutes.
The images themselves are an assembly of labor, structure, nature, infrastructure, and to a lesser extent, social space. Los is a constant reminder of how anthropocentric many films are, because of the extent to which it is dominated by unpopulated spaces, or spaces populated by people who are tucked inside of cars or trucks. Los portrays human labor by letting us watch gravel-moving trucks move around a hillside, forklifts move wrecks around a wrecking yard, and cargo ships moving in a shipyard.
It also focuses on the landscape that remains after humans have laid their hands: The concrete LA river bed; paved streets stretching out into sand dunes, waiting to take you to un-built housing developments; the California aqueduct; a foggy freeway viewed from a great height; the parking lot of a mini-mall with Korean shops; a pulsing steam plant.
The social spaces, while few, are carefully chosen. There is footage of women and children emerging from a jail after making visits, of homeless people having dialogue on the street, and of blank stares on yuppie pedestrians crossing Arco plaza. These images portray the social alienation of the Los Angeles landscape as affecting all classes, though not equally. The image of the families departing the jail is most starkly memorable.
This assembly of images is quite evocative of a Los Angeles landscape not traditionally represented by the local culture industry. But the odd similarities between Los and the sweeping perspectives of El Valley Centro bely the filmmaker's ambivalence about his subject. The broad, sparse spaces that occupy this film don't come close to depicting the crowded reality of many of Los Angeles' denser areas. The film was named Los instead of Los Angeles for exactly this reason. Benning admits that he "avoids" going to Los Angeles, and that he was not prepared to attempt a filled-out portrait of the city.
This makes me wonder why Los Angeles was the necessary middle component of James Benning's valley/urban/wilderness film trilogy. I have no idea whether he could have been less ambivalent, and therefore more engaged, regarding a different urban California landscape. The background sound of auto traffic is pervasive throughout the film, even in the segments that depict "empty" spaces. This sound portrait sometimes gives more of a clue to Los Angeles' density and human presence than do Benning's images.
My biggest complaint about Benning's films is how little they are shown, and how little they are promoted. I'm certain there are thousands of people who would be fascinated and impacted by these films, yet will probably never know of their existence. Small venues such as the San Francisco Cinematheque have extremely limited outreach resources: my corner coffeeshop has bigger ads in the local entertainment weekly. In light of this situation, it is extremely unfortunate that Mr. Benning reportedly does not believe in videotape and declines to allow his films to be transferred, distributed, or shown in that medium. The combination of these factors results in a culture of inaccessibility that surrounds Mr. Benning's films, in addition to many other avant-garde productions. While his commitment to the integrity of the film medium is understandable, the cost to the potential audience who will never hear of his work is very high.