Concentrated Nonsense (cinema edition)

James Benning’s 13 Lakes, Landscapes, and a brief note on Mt.Mayon
December 6, 2007, 7:23 am
Filed under: festivals, interviews, notes, quotes | Tags: , , , , ,


Slovenian critic Nil Baskar begins his introductory essay on the films of James Benning for the catalog of the Ljubljana International Film Festival:

Fernand Léger, a versatile avant-gardist, once said that the essence of cinematographic revolution lies in “making visible, what used to be merely noticed”. At the same time, he forgot to ask what would happen when the “revolution of the visible” was completed – when the film had shown almost everything? When all the time everything can be seen, and nothing merely noticed? This is the question posed by the films by James Benning, another versatile avant-gardist.

The films also offer the possibility of an answer: they allow us to notice the most obvious again.

There is a beautiful level of contemplation achieved by landscape films when they are done right (that contemplation need not only be of serenity, but even violence, and naturally all that lies between). Benning’s magisterial 13 Lakes screened last month at the Ljubljana International Film Festival (aka LIFFe) as part of a small focus on his recent work. Benning was in attendance and I jotted down these notes during the Q&A that followed the screening.



Why specifically 13 Lakes?
“Because 13 was how long I could pay attention, and how long I thought the audience could last. It could have been shorter but I wanted to push it a little. And I like the number 13, a prime number.”

Were there lakes that you filmed that you didn’t use? What was your shooting ratio? And why only lakes in the US?
“I filmed Lake Champlain and I didn’t like it. I added Lake Superior because I felt we needed more winter shots. 15 were shot in all but I always planned on 13. The shooting ratio was about 3 to 1.

“I’d lived in California for 9 or 10 years before I shot there with this film. I felt it was about time. Why only the US? I’d like to make films about my country, to explore it more. Though for my next project I’ll be making something in Germany.”

Do you look through the viewfinder when shooting?
“I don’t look through the viewfinder when shooting. I look when setting up the shot but I don’t when it’s recording. People look at you more when you’re doing that so if you don’t they’re less inclined.”

Do you set-up or plan the shots (i.e. shoot when you know something in particular will happen)?
“For the shot with the jet skies yes. The race was a few hours so I knew that I had time. The two ducks was fortuitous, first there was one, then another. For another shot it started to rain and it got much harder after I stopped. It would have been great to get that but it just didn’t happen. But it was nice to catch the subtlety of the rain on the water.”

Do all the films feature diegetic sound?
“Yes they all do.” [though later outside Benning explained that in one particularly memorable scene with gunshots, the sound of the gun was recorded at a different time than the image, though at the same location. It was mixed-in during post-production to create accurately the feeling of the location].

All the shots in the film feature half of the lake, and half of the sky above it. Why frame the horizon in the middle?
“I wanted the sky to have equal space as the water. What I wanted to do was document the light falling onto water, changing. I chose the lakes for particular values that they had. I had originally wanted to shoot the 13 largest lakes, but several are frozen most of the year so I thought that wasn’t good.”

How did you decide on the arrangement of the shots?
“I knew how I wanted to start and finish: begin with the sun rising and the water moving away from us, and end with the sun setting and the water returning to us.

“I made 13 notecards and shuffled the order around until creating something that I was happy with. Since I had the first and last set, it was actually 11 note cards that I jumbled around. The factorial of 11 equals over a million (editor’s note: it equals 39,916,800), so I know I don’t have the best order.”



Attending the Berlinale Film Festival in 2005, I met up with filmmaker and devout digital-convert Jon Jost (see his website), as he was schedule to come to Manila the following week for a festival I was helping with. Jost was not in Berlin for the festival but just happened to be living there at the time. When I asked if he intended to watch any films at the festival, he answered that the only ones he was interested to see were the two works of James Benning that were screening: Ten Skies and 13 Lakes. He quickly followed that by saying, “his films are beautiful but he really should start shooting on digital!”, referring to the difference in cost and effort between working in the two formats.

While walking from the Slovenian Cinematheque to the festival center Cankarjev dom, I related this story to James Benning, curious to hear his reaction. Benning, who has shot (and remarkably distributed) all of his films exclusively on 16mm since his first film (did you ever hear that cricked sound, 1971), replied, sternly, “He’s right…it’s just too expensive and too much work, you know? I plan to buy a nice digital video camera and editing system next year.”


From Scott MacDonald’s essay “James Benning’s 13 Lakes and Ten Skies and the Culture of Distraction” included in the book JAMES BENNING published by the Austrian Film Archive:

Benning’s ‘California Trilogy’ – El Valley Centro (1999), Los (2000), and Sogobi (2001) – and 13 LAKES and TEN SKIES represent an epitome, a quintessence, of his career, and they may signal a kind of conclusion: recently Benning claimed that “When I finish casting a glance, which is supposed to show at Documenta this summer, I plan to buy a DVD camera and start a new career. No more 16mm filmmaking: the lab work is too stressful, and projection is getting worse than terrible. I’m going to make small DVD works and only show them to friends (…)” Whether Benning lives up this claim – and if he does, whether his digital work will in fact represent a new direction – remains to be seen. But there are good reasons to look carefully at 13 LAKES and TEN SKIES as capstone works in a long, distinguished career.


I wonder why, despite such a varied and often breathtaking landscape in the Philippines, local filmmakers rarely seem compelled to raise their cameras and concentrate them on nature, or their environment. Perhaps they believe it too frivolous for cinema? It is certainly something that has not escaped the attention of Filipino photographers.

The only film I can think of in this vein — and I haven’t seen it myself, unfortunately, so this is my understanding on the basis of what I’ve heard — is Tikoy Aguiluz’s short 30 Views of Mt. Mayon (Mayon is a perfectly cone-shaped Volcano located at the southern tip of Luzon). 30 Views of Mt. Mayon would be a wise film to show alongside Lav Diaz’s latest opus, Death in the Land of Encantos (read Noel Vera’s review), a mix of documentary and fiction that addresses the physical and spiritual devastation wrought on the town of Padang, Bicol last year, by the arrival of Super Typhoon Durian and the massive boulders and debris it brought down from Mt. Mayon. The Volcano lingers in the background throughout most of Encantos— sometimes demanding to be addressed by those on screen; sometimes silently whispering its presence. It is a horrifying, beautiful sight; and a staunch reminder that nature must never be ignored.


— “James Benning: When Film Has Shown Almost Everything” (essay by Slovenian critic Nil Baskar, quoted at beginning of this entry) *scroll to bottom of page to read.

— “Nudging the Mind: James Benning’s 13 Lakes“: Andrew Chan on the film for The House Next Door (from where I borrowed the lovely stills of the film).

— Austrian Film Museum’s book JAMES BENNING. All but one of the books 17 essays are published here for the first time. Also includes a thorough appendix with a detailed timeline, filmography, list of selected screenings and exhibitions, and bibliography of texts on Benning.

— Other interesting books published by the Museum in English or bi-lingual editions: Dziga Vertov, Peter Tscherkassky, John Cook, Owen Land, Josef von Sternberg: The Case of Lena Smith.

A postcard (two in fact) of Benning from Ljubljana, and photo of the cover of the book.

— Beautiful article by Benning for Frieze Magazine ongoing series Life in Film.

Post by David Bordwell, apparently written at the same time as mine, that has a significant section on Benning (who apparently was his Teaching Assistant at one point).

Update: April 8, 2008
— Mark Peranson does an in-depth interview with Benning for Cinema Scope.

6 Comments so far
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[…] Just learned about an informative interview with Jim Benning here, with more ravishing shots from 13 Lakes. This entry also includes several other links to web […]

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Thanks for this terrific post. 13 Lakes was my first exposure to Benning and it really astounded me, as seeing did Ten Skies a week later. I hope I can find a way to view more of his films. If switching to video helps his future work become more easily available, I’m all for it, though I have to admit I would have been less interested in trying his films out in the first place if they hadn’t been presented in 16mm prints.

Comment by Brian Darr

I’m not familiar with films, Fernand Léger, or James Benning. But that’s a beautiful quote – “making visible, what used to be merely noticed.”

I guess making something visible entails holding it up for appreciation or questioning. And merely noticing something involves a sense of taken-for-grantedness. Constantly making things “visible” therefore demands continuous reflection of social norms and ideas that shape our behavior and thinking.

Like the line “to notice the most obvious again” seems to suggest (if I’m not wrong), this reflection may never end… For taking ideas and behavior for granted is necessary in order to go about our everyday life. Even the simple act of saying “hello” and expecting a “hi” in return…

Comment by hui hsien

Hi Brian: Thank you for the kind words. Yes, I’m quite curious to see how Benning will work with digital as well. The quality of his photography using 16mm is impeccable, though I’m certain he’ll make the best use of this new medium as is possible.

An interesting side note regarding the future availability of his work: I was told that at an earlier lunch in Ljubljana, when the discussion of the cinema and the internet came up, Benning remarked that when the resolution (and speed) of watching film from the internet was “good enough”, that he just might put his entire filmography online, for free. At which point he would be ready to die.

Hi Hui Hsien: I clicked on your name and noticed you attended the Southeast Asian Symposium in Singapore. I hope you enjoyed it. Would be glad to hear your feedback, both positive and constructive negative. Were you one of the presenters?

I think you’re correct in your understanding of the quote.

Though she doesn’t make landscape films in the vein of those of James Benning, I think the work of Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin works on similar principles. Have you seen her films?

Comment by Alexis

Alexis! How was Jakarta? (Or were you not there?)

Comment by amir muhammad

Amir! No, I wasn’t there unfortunately. Am in Vancouver spending Christmas with my family. Have been meaning to ask those who attended how things went.

Comment by Alexis

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