The downside to calling something "avant-garde film" is that too often it sends viewers running in the other direction. Even normally adventurous cinephiles, attuned to the distended film-time of Ozu and Tarkovsky or the Cubist editing of Godard, tremble at the thought of losing conventional anchors like acting and plot. This is a shame, because if we strip away the labels and look at the films themselves, the space between international art cinema and non-narrative experimentation is actually narrowing by the day.
No current filmmaker exemplifies this hybridization better than James Benning. His work simply confounds any easy categorization. Avant-garde? Documentary? Landscape study? At this point, it's better simply to call him one of America's greatest contemporary filmmakers, hands-down. RR, Benning's 2007 feature-length study of American railroads, is one of his finest achievements to date.
RR, like Benning's other films of the last 15 or so years, comprises a series of meticulously composed, uninterrupted tripod shots, separated by a brief passage of black leader. In the case of RR, the length of time it takes the given train to enter and completely exit the frame determines the duration of each shot. A mere description of Benning's wprocess, however, utterly fails to convey the sensuousness and endless variety of his film.
In the first shot in Utah, we see a train clear the screen to make way for cars and pedestrians. In shot 4, we see black tankers bisect a small-town street; shot 15 is a kind of prolonged, real-life magic trick I won't spoil. The landscapes, the colors, the distances, the close-up-blurs-to-extreme-long-shots that intentionally recall the Lionel HO-scale train sets of the 1950s and '60s — Benning's film invites us to spend time looking at a fundamental feature of our world, one from which car culture, Internet life, and our general discomfort with the smell, sound and perceived danger of the rails keeps us separate.
That "danger," of course, used to be the romance of the rails, the urge to hop a boxcar and see where it took you. Today, train enthusiasts set up folding chairs and "trainspot," identifying what's left of North America's rolling stock as a hobby. These rail fans were part of Benning's interest in making RR. But one of the reasons this film, and Benning's work more generally, commands interest beyond the avant-ghetto is the fact that what he is showing us — these trains — are objects functioning at the junction of film form and political economy.
In cinematic terms, RR's unbroken shots are grammatically precise: a static situation with an object being moved from one place to another. But like so much of Benning's work, RR is also displaying vital movement along our nation's circulatory system, or what Woody Guthrie called "that ribbon of highway." (Guthrie appears on the soundtrack, as do President Eisenhower and NWA.) We aren't just watching pure forms moving on a screen. We're seeing capital in motion, and, just as often, stopping dead in its tracks.
RR is a film that requires a degree of patience and an adjustment of customary viewing strategies. But its rewards for that adjustment — and its implications as both an aesthetic experience and social document — are staggering.
James Benning will introduce and discuss RR at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 11, at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema. Sponsored by Scott and Mimi Manzler, the screening is free and open to the public.
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