by José Sarmiento Hinojosa
One of the most relevant things about James Benning’s films is how they immediately relate to their audience. Benning’s work statism and absence of occurrences (in the typical sense of the word), can defy the patience of any veteran cinephile, yet along any newcomer who would be immediately taken aback by the realization that “nothing’s happening”. Indeed, this gesture of the avant-garde instantly reflects on the spectator: Benning’s films are very much about them as they are about the subject who is watching them.
This sense of immobility of his films can be faced in different ways: from boredom to anger, from contemplation to revelation, from fleeting attention to an out-of-body experience. The fact is, that after minutes of self-imposed concentration (not mandatory, but often an illuminating exercise of respect to the work of art), the reaction happening inside our psyche relates often of how are we relating, not only to the work, but to ourselves. Why is there boredom when time is uneventful? How comfortable are we looking inside ourselves? Are our senses awake enough to see the vast number of things that are happening in front of us? Benning demands attention because art should demand attention, because in many of his most static works there are indeed a lot of things happening. It’s us who need to be awake.
In Benning’s L. Cohen, we’re witness of how the sunset unravels in an Oregon farm field landscape (something that brings to mind Tacita Dean’s Banewl, and her take on an eclipse event in a dairy farm). After 30 or more minutes of footage, a song by Leonard Cohen plays for a while. Nothing else happens, at least at first sight. But in the background, after a first look, the landscape reveals itself: its noises, the desolation, and the movement of civilization behind it. Leonard Cohen’s song could be seen as a tribute, or as a fitting accompanying piece to the film, either way it adds to the melancholy, and it’s a reward for the patient spectator.
This poetry of landscapes, the unraveling of the uneventful has made James Benning one of the most daring experimental filmmakers of his time. So it’s time for us to respect his art, and enjoy.
Director: James Benning