CalArts, Bijou Theater
James Benning will present El Valley Centro.
El Valley Centro (1999, 90 min., 16mm) is the first film of the California Trilogy, including Los (2000) and Sogobi (2001).
El Valley Centro - James Benning
by Caroline Koebel
Comprised of 35 two and a half minute shots, James Benning’s 16mm experimental documentary El Valley Centro (2000) presents a curious taxonomy of California’s Great Central Valley. In the process it frames a tug-of-war between the land and the uses humans find for it: natural wonders—and their demise into wasteland, agribusiness and corporate cattle ranching, tract housing and anti-drug billboards (“where meth goes violence follows”), water, nuke and wind energy. This is a place where some people are and others are not, but the geography imaged here is the singular vision of one visitor to the region.
“Benning takes from his travels what nobody has to give...only what he in turn can share as his reflection on the land. In his quest—equipped with Bolex camera and Nagra recorder—to order the world he comes upon (such as “an oil well fire with flames high into the sky”), Benning argues that sheer contemplation of place (or more specifically, understanding of self in relation to non-self, in terms of how we perceive ourselves within and apart from our surroundings) is a spiritual, political and also ethical act. The knowledge gained from such observation must either be willfully denied or acted upon.” The film, in its 35 scenes, conveys not so much how a given geographic (and sociopolitical) zone can be dissected for evaluative purposes but rather how the land buckles against imposed standards and rebukes monotony with a wilderness of difference. Benning’s remark about El Valley Centro, “landscape is a function of time,”2 underscores that place is relative and that meaning is not static.
Patience (and/or incredible good fortune) is key to the filmmaker’s presence in the environs. A landscape of wetlands, featuring competing asymmetry and balance as curves contrast with the horizon line, is an alluring composition—the sense of being able to step into the frame and keep moving into the distance dramatic. The scene appears to be the way it is and seems like it will remain the same—the viewer sensing nothing lacking—when waterfowl rise from the water’s surface en masse. The snow geese fly toward the camera, leave the frame and eventually re-enter and return to the same spot on screen they were before.
The camera’s perfect stillness here and everywhere allows for the deliverance of such magic. The proximity of Benning’s oeuvre to still photography and early cinema and the wonders of an inventor such as Méliès is manifest here in his radical departure from such convention. Likewise, he is worlds apart (and millions of dollars away) from entertainment cinema: no explosives, i.e., ignite the flight of the snow geese nor are they the effect of CGI.
The rare shot is more theatrical, introducing the possibility of being staged for the camera. The film’s 14th scene features cowgirls practicing for a rodeo: one pins, and on cue releases a goat so that the other approaching on horseback can rope and subdue it. The action repeats, and an intricate rhythm is established. It is here that I’m cognizant of the mutual admiration between Benning and Sharon Lockhart, i.e., in Goshogaoka (1998) her stationery camera on the mesmerizing movement of the girls basketball team choreographed based on their training drills.
In a few scenes Spanish figures prominently on the soundtrack, and there is no mistaking that the field workers and grape pickers of American agribusiness are migrant laborers from Mexico. Perhaps if more followed Benning’s lead and observed where food comes from in the first place, then a decade after El Valley Centro the scapegoating of “illegals”—in the face of the “Great Recession”—for the country’s economic woes would be seen more widely for the ruse it is.
If what defines being human is the struggle to make sense of the world, then the possibility of calm reflection and firsthand experience proffered by El Valley Centro is all the more beckoning in our post pre-social media consciousness. If in the connected universe we’re all everywhere together all the time at once, what’s the point of solitude—a state that arguably can subsequently but not simultaneously be shared with others?
Caroline Koebel is a filmmaker and writer in Austin.
(From program notes 10/2013 Jack H. Skirball screening series at REDCAT)
About James Benning
Benning has been dubbed a structuralist and a minimalist, but these stylistic taxonomies do not adequately describe the filmmaker’s oeuvre over 30-plus years. His early collaborations with filmmaker Bette Gordon gave way in the 1980s and ’90s to portrait films that often embraced explicitly autobiographical elements, for example, Used Innocence (1988); and to experimentations with image and text, such as Landscape Suicide (1986) and Deseret (1995). Since the late ’90s, he has embarked on a majestic series of “portraits of place,” including his hallmark “California Trilogy” (El Valley Centro, 1999; Los, 2000; and Sogobi, 2001), 13 Lakes (2004) and Ten Skies (2004). Throughout, Benning has matched a passionate wanderlust to an exacting formal rigor, mapping a multivalent American landscape that is as awe-inspiring as it is desecrated, wild as it is laden with political and historical memory. His is a cinema of attentiveness, of long takes that invite the viewer to look and listen and consider the consonances of space and time, onscreen and off.
“After completing North on Evers, I decided I would need only two criteria to keep making work. One, make films that would take me to places where I wanted to be. And two, make work that would put my life in a larger context. Both somewhat selfish reasons, but very workable,” says the filmmaker.
Born in 1942 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Benning began making films in 1970, after first studying mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This “master framer of landscapes,” in the words of film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, has worked in small-gauge film – producing, shooting and editing the films himself. With Ruhr (2009), he switched from 16mm to digital filmmaking.
His work has shown at many international venues, from festivals like Cannes, Hong Kong, Rotterdam and Sundance to museums and cinematheques including Centre Georges Pompidou, Harvard Film Archive, the Pacific Film Archive, Tate Modern and the Walker Art Center. Among his many awards are two National Endowment for the Arts awards, two Rockefeller Foundation fellowships and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. In 2007, he was the subject of a career retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. In addition, the Museum has been endeavoring to digitally restore and preserve his work, and published James Benning, a collection of essays about his work, in 2008. He is the subject of a documentary by Reinhard Wulf called James Benning: Circling the Image (2003). Benning lives in Val Verde, outside of Los Angeles, and has taught film and mathematics at CalArts since 1987.
“[E]arlier... I was doing political work at a grassroots level. It became very apparent to me that this was something I could exhaust my life with, and I hadn’t even begun to define who I was. So I stopped doing that kind of work, and I started making films to look at my own life. At first I thought I had to make really apolitical films... but I quickly realized that my aesthetics developed forms that were somewhat radical, and that’s political in itself. To make people look at a screen different[ly] I think is a really radical position to take.... And as l made more and more films, I became much more interested in looking at different histories, and putting my life in a larger context and then politics came back into the films in a more direct way.... I still try not to be completely dogmatic with my politics, even though I think it’s quite evident that they’re fairly leftwing.” – James Benning, interviewed by Neil Young at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival