Sharon Lockhart and James Benning: Decelerating Cinema

American professor of Art History Scott MacDonald introduces James Benning’s and Sharon Lockhart’s work, especially their single-shot movies, which last more than tens of minutes.

BNSF (James Benning, 2012)

By the end of the 1960s, commercial advertising on American television had accelerated: the typical ad was a montage of image and sound that modeled in its form the expanded habit of consumption that the advertisements themselves promoted: the ads asked us to eat, drink, buy, use more and more of whatever products were being sold and to habituate ourselves to processing more and more images per minute. Not surprisingly, some filmmakers soon found this tendency problematic—at least psychically, if not yet environmentally. The result was a series of attempts by independent filmmakers to make films that worked against this tendency: that is, to retard the rate of image consumption. Bruce Baillie, Robert Nelson, Larry Gottheim, J. J. Murphy, Robert Huot, Hollis Frampton and other filmmakers experimented with single-shot films—often using the two standard lengths of rolls of 16mm film: 100 feet (a bit under three minutes), 400 feet (about eleven minutes)—to determine their duration. In other instances a series of shots of extended duration slowed the process of image consumption: Peter Hutton’s Landscape (for Manon) (1987) is a signal instance.1) Landscape (for Manon) begins with a series of comparatively extended shots: the first six last 27, 27, 11, 27, 18, and 27 seconds. And then, the film slows down: midway through, each shot is on-screen for nearly 50 seconds. Hutton’s decision to shoot in black and white, to separate most successive shots with a moment of dark leader, and to forego sound make the individual shots seem even more serene than their lengths alone might suggest. Hutton always focused on creating “a bit of a reprieve” for audiences—whether he filmed rural environments as in Landscape and in the more recent Skagafjörđur (2004) or in urban spaces, as he did in his series of New York Portraits.

By the 1990s James Benning and Sharon Lockhart were working to see how far they could stretch viewer patience for contemplating urban and rural environments. Each film in James Benning’s California Trilogy—El Valley Centro (1999), Los (2000), and Sogobi (2001)—was made up of thirty-five 2 ½-minute shots; and at least at the beginning Benning asked that all three films (which focused, respectively, on the agricultural, the urban, and what was left of the wilderness dimensions of the California landscape—with an implicit emphasis on water issues) be presented on a single day. In 1997 Sharon Lockhart completed Goshogaoka (1997): six 10-minute shots of a Japanese basketball team doing exercise routines/choreography. Goshogaoka was followed by her Teatro Amazonas (1999), a 40-minute, 35mm single shot of an audience in a theater in Manaus, Brazil; and by (2003), which created the illusion of a single 32 ½-minute shot of two Japanese farmers working in a field ( includes one nearly invisible cut). Lockhart’s experiments with increased duration were having an impact on Benning, who adopted the 10-minute shot for the remarkable diptych: 13 Lakes (2004), thirteen shots, each of a different American lake; and Ten Skies (2004), ten skyscapes filmed in the area around Benning’s home north of Los Angeles. Lockhart returned to the 10-minute shot in 2007 for Pine Flat, twelve shots of children in the rural environment of a small town in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.


Goshogaoka

I understand all of these films as attempts to use cinema as a form of perceptual retraining—a retraining meant to model a resistance to the determination of modern corporations to promote hysterical consumption of their products, a tendency that has considerable environmental costs. Young people growing up in the new millennium are immersed in a mediascape awash in advertising that urges them to eat more, buy more, travel more, fill their lives with more things and activities—and to never slow down to think about where they are and how their habits of consumption are transforming the planet. I have worked with many of these films in my teaching, and have found that once students have become adjusted to the demands of these unusual viewing experiences, they are recognized as a form of liberation from psychic overload.

The digital revolution has helped to accelerate daily life and to promote the habit of multitasking, which usually means consuming images, data, energy resources at ever-increasing rates, but it has also allowed filmmakers (and has caused some of them) to expand on the possibilities of what has come to be called “slow cinema”—in imitation of the idea of “slow food” (that is food produced organically). Two particularly notable instances are Sharon Lockhart’s Double Tide (2009) and James Benning’s BNSF (2012). For Double Tide (2009) Lockhart created an experience of two 45-minute shots of a woman (Jen Casad) clamming in Seal Cove, Maine, during the rare double tide that allows for clamming at dawn and again at dusk on a single day (each of these two “shots” is, in fact, made up of several shots, but the transitions from one shot to the next are for all practical purposes invisible). Double Tide was shot in 16mm then transferred to high-definition digital video for distribution.

There have been other films made from single shots longer than the 45-minute shots in Double Tide—Alexander Sokurov’s 96-minute Russian Ark (2002) is a notable instance—but these other films usually involve either considerable action or substantial narrative development or both, whereas the action in Double Tide involves Casad slowly working her way around the considerable space delimited by the film frame, reaching, again and again, into the muck of Seal Cove to pull out clams. Casad is consistently in long shot, so that the particulars of her labor are not visible—she is not really a character in a narrative sense, just a laborer working at a distance from us. The “action” in Double Tide is the combination of Casad’s patient labors and the gradual changes in the scene around her: for much of the first shot, there is considerable mist that at times obscures the details of the surrounding landscape and creates subtle changes in light. In the second shot, taken in the evening from a slightly different position in Seal Cove, the gradual ending of day causes a different set of subtle light variations; sometimes, in the far distance, one can make out other people, presumably other clammers. The minimal visual action in Double Tide is contextualized by a variety of environmental sounds, most of them off-screen.

The “labor” of experiencing Double Tide—a labor for which Casad’s clamming is a metaphor—has a number of rewards. For those viewers who can accept the film’s challenge to their patience, the experience is serene and quite beautiful, in a rather classic sense. As she planned and shot the film, Lockhart was aware of the considerable tradition of nineteenth-century American landscape painting, and at various moments Double Tide evokes Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, Winslow Homer, George Inness, Martin Johnson Heade, and other Luminists and the Tonalists—painters many of whom helped to inspire in an earlier generation an appreciation and concern for the natural environment.2) All in all, Double Tide is a paean to a traditional form of labor—and to a “slow” form of food production—presented in a manner that simultaneously evokes the first environmentally conscious movement in the American fine arts, while offering a form of contemplative cinema as a tonic for modern, media-overloaded viewers.

As filmmakers Lockhart and Benning have been in dialogue for going on twenty years, and Benning’s switch to digital filming after 2007 has allowed him to build on Lockhart’s work in Double Tide by extending the possibilities of the single-shot film well beyond her 45-minute seemingly continuous images. BNSF (the initials stand for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corporation) is Benning’s most extreme durational experiment to date: a continuous 194-minute single-shot experience.3) He recorded the imagery in mid-August, 2012, “about 8 miles west of Amboy, CA along old Route 66, which is just off frame—no cars passed by during the entire 3 plus hours…,” from about 4:00 in the afternoon until 7:15 in the evening (“it was about 100 degrees”).4)

Benning has always been fascinated with both the natural environment and with industrial sites, including the immense railroad network that serves American industry. Indeed, his fascination with railroads has grown during recent decades, even as general societal consciousness of the railroad has diminished, at least in the United States. Until BNSF, Benning’s most elaborate exploration of the railroad system was the feature RR (2007): forty-three continuous shots of trains moving across the American landscape, each shot beginning at the moment when the train enters the image and lasting until the moment when that train is no longer on-screen.

On one level, both RR and BNSF can be understood as implicit allusions to the Lumière Brothers’ canonical L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), the (single-shot) film that is often seen as an emblem of the arrival of the medium of cinema at the end of the century that had produced the industrial revolution. RR’s conflation of the duration of a shot and the presence of a train pays homage to the shared mechanical and chemical technologies of the train and cinema: both involve movement along tracks (train tracks, image and sound tracks), that are held stable by spikes/sprockets; and both, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch suggested half a century ago, are technologies of movement that create new ways of seeing the world.5) Presumably Benning knew RR was his last celluloid film (at least for the foreseeable future) and wanted to say goodbye to what had long been his preferred medium.


Double Tide

Hollis Frampton’s description of how cinema, the “Last Machine,” functions within culture provides a way of thinking about Benning’s switch to digital recording soon after RR and his use of the new medium to recommit to extended duration (and to trains as a subject):

As one era slowly dissolves into the next, some individuals metabolize the former means for physical survival into new means of psychic survival. These latter we call art. They promote the life of human consciousness by nourishing our affections, by reincarnating our perceptual substance, by affirming, imitating, reifying the process of consciousness.6)

BNSF’s widescreen image (approximately 16 x 7) reveals a dirt road and telephone poles (it is not immediately clear that the road follows railroad tracks) and some desert vegetation. In the background there are the distant ranges of the Bristol Mountains at the southern edge of the Mojave National Preserve. The composition of the BNSF image, like the imagery in Double Tide, is reminiscent of the tradition of landscape painting—in BNSF the dirt road that winds gradually into the distance evokes Claude Lorrain’s use of roads and paths to draw the eye into the deep space of painted landscapes, and the two nearest telephone poles echo the use of trees in many landscape paintings as coulisses to frame extended vistas—devices that remained popular in the landscapes in the Hudson River and the Rocky Mountain schools of American landscape painting.

At first, BNSF seems to be simply a landscape film, until a distant train whistle is heard, followed by a train’s entering the image from the left, moving slowly along railroad tracks that lead the train down a gradual grade, first into the deep space of the image, then horizontally to the right and out of the frame. During the three-plus hours of BNSF thirteen trains pass by, five moving east and eight moving west. It is obvious that this is an unusually busy length of track, according to Benning one of the busiest tracks in America: an average of thirty-six trains pass by this spot every day.7)

The arrival of the trains into what otherwise seems a relatively unspoiled landscape evokes particular nineteenth century paintings—Thomas Cole’s River in the Catskills (1843), for example8)—but also the history charted by Leo Marx’s canonical American studies book, The Machine in the Garden, which traces the arrival of the industrial revolution within the American Eden as it is represented in American literature—for example in the regular appearance of the trains of the Fitchburg Railroad that pass by Walden Pond in Thoreau’s Walden.

Three kinds of action are evident within BNSF. The most obvious is the movement of the trains. The size of the trains and the kinds of cargo being hauled vary considerably: there are many trains pulling single- and double-stack container cars; others pull tanker cars and coal cars; and still others, autoracks. Particularly given the minimalist nature of BNSF, the arrival of each train provides immediate suspense, since it is unclear how long this train will be. In some instances trains are so lengthy that their engines are exiting in the left foreground while cars are still entering from the distant right, well over a mile behind. A second form of action, the gradual transformation of the natural landscape, is more subtle. The most obvious movement is the wind: we can see the movement it creates in several bushes in the foreground of the image, as well as in the gradual motion of the clouds. More intriguing are the subtle shifts in shadow and light, visible on the distant mountains and along the plain between the tracks and the mountains, caused by the movement of the sun behind the camera and the varying densities of cloud that move across the sky. These shifts can seem magical: a particular distant mountain will for a moment seem to be black (BNSF is in color), but a few seconds later will have disappeared into the range of hills it is part of. A final form of “action” involves the transitional moments between our scanning of the landscape for movement and the arrivals and departures of trains; once a train can be heard, then seen, its motion dominates our attention until it leaves the frame. As we hear the train, no longer visible, moving into the distance, the sounds of the landscape and various kinds of subtle motion within it reassert themselves, becoming, once again, the foreground of our awareness.

As is true in Double Tide, the experience of BNSF can be read as a metaphor. In the Lockhart film, our “labor” in searching the image for something to look at is mirrored by Casad’s laborious search for clams. BNSF offers a different metaphor, one that ultimately dramatizes a paradox of cinema itself, at least within a context of what has come to be called “ecocinema.” Benning, as he was making BNSF, and those audiences that assemble to experience the film, are caught between two realities: on one hand, we work to respect Benning’s depiction of the natural landscape by fine-tuning our seeing and hearing to catch the gradual changes that we know are always occurring; but this challenge to our perceptual awareness is regularly interrupted by the arrival/departure of the trains, which overwhelm the senses and cannot be ignored. Of course, these trains are an essential part of the industry of consumption, and the continual shifting of our attention between the demands of the (relatively) natural landscape and the mechanism of industry is an emblem of our extra-cinematic experience of trying to live thoughtfully, with a sincere consciousness of our effects on the environment, within a larger consumption-oriented society that continually interrupts our best intentions, forcing us to find our way back to awareness, over and over.


BNSF

For a major show at the Kunsthaus Graz in Graz, Austria, in 2014, Benning designed “RR/BNSF,” an installation that juxtaposed RR and BNSF. He contextualized the two films with several quotations from Thoreau’s Walden, including these:

The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard. Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay. And here's your pay for them! screams the countryman's whistle; timber like long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city's walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them. With such huge and lumbering civility the country hands a chair to the city. All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city. Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woolen; up come the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.

Now that the cars are gone by and all the restless world with them, and the fishes in the pond no longer feel their rumbling, I am more alone than ever. For the rest of the long afternoon, perhaps, my meditations are interrupted only by the faint rattle of a carriage or team along the distant highway.

BNSF creates much the same experience that Thoreau describes.9)

Benning’s cinema has often allowed viewers to meditate and ruminate, to use cinema as a counter to the assumption that our job is to consume. In the current moment, the most obvious new forms of consumption involve the products of the digital revolution: laptops, tablets, digital phones, iPods, have become ubiquitous, even in movie theaters; and these new products, electronic rather than mechanical, represent a new form of industry and an expansion in our potential for consumption: we have learned to multitask, to consume in multiple ways at the same time. Benning’s move from celluloid to digital cinema, reflects this development—indeed is part of it—but as he has always done, he uses the options made available by the new digital cameras to, in Frampton’s sense, reincarnate our perceptual substance and reify our process of consciousness. That is, digital filmmaking is Benning’s Trojan Horse, a way of using, to paraphrase Godfrey Reggio, the coinage of the time in order to raise questions and expand consciousness about that very coinage.

One final level of paradox, implicit in Benning’s work in general and in BNSF in particular, is that cinema has never been an ecologically friendly medium. The chemistry of photography and celluloid cinema has always involved considerable environmental damage. This has been exacerbated by the fact that it has sometimes been a matter of pride in the industry, and within the history of some forms of independent film as well, that filmmakers might shoot a hundred hours of footage for a two-hour finished film—waste and the inevitable environmental costs be damned. And of course, even filmmakers like Benning and Lockhart who have shot with more care and less waste, have created some of the same damage, at least when working in celluloid cinema. Benning’s switch to digital, a change virtually necessitated by the film industry and its move to digital production, distribution, and projection, has not meant that environmental damage is no longer an issue. The new, digital regime of both industrial and more artisanal forms of cinema, including even the most radical forms of “slow cinema,” require new high-definition digital projectors that involve substantial expenditures of electrical energy. And surely, as time passes, we’ll learn, and will need to come to terms with, the environmental damage our fascination with these new digital tools must be doing.


 


Quoted films:

8 ½ x 11 (James Benning, 1974)
11 x 14 (James Benning, 1976)
13 Lakes (James Benning, 2004)
BNSF (James Benning, 2012)
Double Tide (Sharon Lockhart, 2009)
El Valley Centro (James Benning, 1999)
Goshogaoka (Sharon Lockhart, 1997)
Landscape (for Manon) (Peter Hutton, 1987)
Los (James Benning, 2000)
New York Portraits (Peter Hutton, 1979–1990)
Nightfall (James Benning, 2012)
(Sharon Lockhart, 2003)
One Way Boogie Woogie (James Benning, 1977)
Pine Flat (Sharon Lockhart, 2007)
L´arrivée d´un train à la Ciotat (Louis Lumière a Auguste Lumière, 1895)
RR (James Benning, 2007)
Ruhr (James Benning, 2009)
Russian Ark (Alexandr Sokurov, 2003)
Skagafjörđur (Peter Hutton, 2004)
Sogobi (James Benning, 2001)
Teatro Amazonas (Sharon Lockhart, 1999)
Ten Skies (James Benning, 2004)

Notes:

1) The father of both these tendencies is, of course, Andy Warhol, whose early films not only tended to use roll-long shots, but to assume that the resulting films would be projected not at 24 frames per second, but at 16 frames per second. From the beginning, Hutton was committed to patient cinema. And James Benning’s One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), 8 ½ x 11 (1974), and 11 x 14 (1976) show Benning working in a similar fashion at the same time: One Way Boogie Woogie is a series of one-minute shots of an urban landscape in Milwaukee; 8 ½ x 11 and 11 x 14 are, respectively, half-hour and a feature-length narratives using extended shots about several characters whose trajectories cross (in 8 ½ x 11) or separate (11 x 14) as the films develop. Hutton and Benning were friends and admirers of each other’s work for decades (Hutton died in 2016).

2) I asked Lockhart about this connection; Lockhart: “[Winslow] Homer, of course, is a constant presence in Maine, and the museums of New England are full of many of the painters you mentioned. I researched lots of painters and read as much as I could about seascapes and fishing. However, it wasn’t a particularly American perspective that inspired the film. There’s Millet, Manet, Turner, and there was also this fantastic show of Courbet landscapes and seascapes at the Getty not long before I left for the east coast.”

3) Actually, the first film Benning made after switching to digital, Ruhr (2009), concludes with a single 60-minute shot of the coking tower in Duisberg at work (a coking tower is where coke is produced from coal); the Duisberg tower is, according to Benning, the world’s state-of-the-art facility: the most efficient coking tower in the world (see http://twitchfilm.com/2010/03/darkest-americana-elsewhere-ruhr-a-few-questions-for-james-benning.html). In 2012 Benning made Nightfall, a continuous 98-minute shot of a forest in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains at the end of a day. The long single shot has remained Benning’s most characteristic stylistic gesture.

4) Benning: “my camera can hold two S x S Cards [Sony 32GB memory cards], each can record about 58 minutes, so i had to reload the cards to get over 3 hours. but I can exchange a card while the other card is recording so that’s no problem. but my battery was getting low after about 2 hours so i had to change batteries once, which meant a 10-second break which is hidden by a dissolve, so it’s technically two shots but there’s no need to admit to this for it’s negligible”—email to the author, August 19, 2014..

5) See Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

6) See Hollis Frampton, “For a Metahistory of Film” in Circles of Confusion (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop, 1993): 112.

7) Email to the author, August 19, 2014.

8) In Cole’s painting a locomotive is just barely visible within a panoramic vista of the front range of the Catskills; it seems quite at home in this landscape—likely an image of the healthy balance of nature and culture Cole was hoping would continue to exist in the Hudson Valley.

9) Benning’s Graz show also exhibited a version of Benning’s “Two Cabins” project, which is both installation and feature film: it focuses on Thoreau and the cabin at Walden Pond and on Theodore J. Kaczynski, the “unibomber,” and his cabin in Montana.