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Easy Rider dir. James BenningEasy Rider dir. James Benning
24 Oct 13
In a Landscape: James Benning

Any regular attendee of New Horizons Film Festival will likely be familiar with James Benning; if not the man himself – he is a regular presence in Wrocław – then certainly his films, which have screened almost every year here. For five decades Benning has been producing work that has re-mapped the American landscape. Moreover, few filmmakers have given us the opportunity to examine images the way Benning has. Though resolutely cinematic – he balks at the notion that his films could be screened in a gallery space – there is a painterly element to Benning's work.

This is the first time that any of Benning's films have screened at the American Film Festival and audiences have the chance to see a loosely-linked diptych and an engaging documentary that draws parallels between Benning and another maverick of contemporary US cinema, Richard Linklater.

Benning's work engages with American society and its past through the changes in its landscape. A ruralist at heart – as evinced by his recent Two Cabins project, which explored the philosophical underpinnings of both Henry David Thoreau and the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski – his films focus predominantly, though not exclusively, on sparsely populated areas, hinterlands or what remains of the American wilderness. Though not political in any institutionalised sense – his work transcends contemporary ideological stances or political doctrines – it is political in its engagement with nature and our relationship to it.

Benning's early work documenting the Midwest – 11x14 and the acclaimed One Way Boogie Woogie (both 1977)–saw him hailed as a new voice in America's avant garde scene. American Dreams (1984) and Landscape Suicide (1986) continued to explore the notion of landscape as "a function of time", before Benning changed tack in the 1990s with a series of films, including North on Evers (1991) and Four Corners (1997), which employed text onscreen to juxtapose history against location.

In the last decade, Benning's minimalist style has been pushed further. After the success on the festival circuit of 13 Lakes and Ten Skies (2004) Benning produced Ruhr (2009), one of the few films to be shot outside the US and the first in which he swapped his trusty 16mm Bolex for a digital camera. The change allowed him to extend the duration of his shots. (The film's first part is split into a series of average-length shots – for Benning, at least – of the German industrial region, while the second part, stretching for almost an hour, focuses on an immense coking tower.) This new freedom was taken to a logical extreme with Nightfall (2011), part of the Two Cabins project, which features one shot of a forest, just prior to dusk that runs for 90 minutes. (The effect is not dissimilar to standing before an Anslem Kiefer canvas, albeit with the shafts of light penetrating the immense forestry gradually diminishing with each passing minute.) It's an approach the director describes as democratic, although with certain drawbacks, in Gabe Klinger's fascinating conversational documentary Double Play.

Klinger's film is a recorded encounter between Benning and Richard Linklater. They have known each other for two decades, ever since Linklater invited Benning to his film society in Austin, Texas. The result is a fascinating insight into both directors' work, identifying similarities in their  different styles of filmmaking. The film is also the perfect introduction to the screening of two Benning works. (Richard Linklater's trilogy of films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy screens on Sunday.)

Benning has created his own versions of John Cassavetes' Faces (1968), and Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969). This cinematic diptych draws on the respective directors' vision of America, albeit shot through with Benning's own preoccupations. Faces (2011) is the more intense of the two. It focuses, in a manner similar to the director's recent Twenty Cigarettes (2011), solely on people's faces. Formally precise, the faces occupy the same screen time that their respective characters' did in the Cassavetes original. Where it differs is in the lack of dialogue – and, ultimately, story – allowing audiences to engage with unspoken emotions.

Benning's take on the Fonda and Hopper counter-culture classic has, with some justification, been referred to as a remix of the original film. Benning travels along the same route as the Fonda and Hopper characters and we even hear snippets from the soundtrack. However, like Benning's re-working of his own 1977 film One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later (2005), he employs the film as a commentary on how America, Americans and the American landscape have changed. That vision, albeit filtered through the work of two other filmmakers, is ultimately, resolutely, Benning's own.

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