James Benning’s California Trilogy takes a long, hard look at our backyard.
By D-L Alvarez
"Where Meth Goes Violence Follows" reads a billboard in Stockton, a working-class California neighborhood. Here in a land where methamphetamine is a large part of the economy it's both produced illegally on some out-of-the-way ranches, and, because of its cheap high, has become a favorite of the state's many depressed populations the threat of violence looms over a sunbaked, dusty street, no doubt watching over games of tag-football on days when the heat isn't so pervasive. This (literally) inhabited tableaux stands out in a film where most of the shots are of rural landscapes. Still, its tone works together with every other shot in the film to portray the strong division of class, and the killing jokes played on this valley and its inhabitants.
The film, James Benning's El Valley Centro (1999), a 16mm portrait of California's Central Valley, is tranquil in pacing but confrontational in subject. It shows a land drastically transformed by the hands of man. The percentage of farm land one sees in the film corresponds directly with the percentage of land used for farming in the valley. With that in mind, it is telling that of the 35 locations featured in El Valley Centro, only one is of land in its natural state: a wildlife preserve and bird sanctuary just north of Sacramento.
The film's perspective is always carefully balanced, with the horizon line generally dividing the screen in half, and a consistent depth of field. Sound comes from the land itself, the ambient noises of exactly what we’re looking at — a series of direct views into which we can dive, explore and draw our own conclusions. The politics of water dispersal, class issues and history are subjects equal to, and tilled deep in, the valley.
After making El Valley Central, Benning decided that the film needed two counterparts, one depicting urban life, the other wilderness. “The urban and rural portraits needed the California wilderness to put them in perspective,” Benning explains.
These films follow the same format as El Valley Central, and play off the images set up therein. Each is composed of 35 shots, and each shot is of equal duration: two-and-a-half minutes. “It is the time it takes a rodeo champion to tie up three goats, a cotton-picker to traverse half a field, and an empty goods train to pass straight through the shot,” says Benning.
There’s a shot in El Valley Central of Mexican farm workers going about the back-breaking labor of harvesting a field. Another depicts a more privileged worker riding a tractor. What lies behind these images is the knowledge that the bulk of land we’re looking at is owned by corporations, or by people who remain unseen (in the film). These images are referenced beautifully in a shot in Los (2000), which avoids Los Angeles proper in favor of the urban landscapes that skirt the city in its great dusty sprawl. The social spaces, while few, are carefully chosen: a Latino gardener pushes a mower over a lush Beverly Hills lawn. This lawn, and a shot of an inner-city billboard, a DKNY advertisement, are the closest Benning gets to the sort of stereotypical Hollywood lives that “Tinsel Town” is famous for. In the billboard, one sees an idealized couple in a passionate embrace. They are lit, made-up and airbrushed to some film studio's idea of perfection. Their kiss is hung over the bleak, hot patch of an asphalt parking lot. The only other people one sees in Los are walking: going to work in offices, people visiting the incarcerated, people with nowhere at all to go.… It’s clear that none of them are models.
In the third film of his “California Trilogy,” Sogobi (2001), Benning ventures out where the hand of man is least evident but still undeniably present. It is in this final film that one becomes aware of what lengths Benning will go to capture a desired shot: a desert sand storm, a smoke-choked woods with the back fires still burning, views that require long hikes into wilderness. (Sogobi, afterall, is the Shoshonean word for “earth”.)
In Sogobi there is also a billboard — owned, coincidentally by the same company as the trilogy’s other two billboards, Outdoor Systems. It stands in the middle of a large expanse of land (somewhere in the Mojave Desert), not yet occupied by man, though the threat of occupation looms in its weather-beaten message: Black letters on a pale field read, “Available.”
El Valley Central starts with an image of water falling through a perfect circle cut into the surface of a lake. The image is surreal and even a bit frightening, the scale hard to pin down. In the last scene of the third film, Sogobi, we see the concrete device that makes this circle of disappearing water possible. The mechanism is exposed when the lake is low, and it seems somehow pathetic compared to the opening shot of El Valley Central . In between these two images, over the course of three feature-length films, we view water traveling through the pipes and concrete canals that make life in L.A. possible.
At the Berlinale this year, James Benning’s completed “California Trilogy” was screened in the Internationales Forum Des Jungen Films. Together, the three films set up a unique tension, the sort that accumulates slowly and, in the case of some images, almost subliminally. In truth, though the subject matter is collectively loaded, the trilogy itself is soothing, and one could even call the majority of it classically beautiful. The serenity one experiences is due, in part, to the films’ precise pacing.
Questioned about the uniform structure of the three films, Benning references the origins of filmmaking, when films were shot not to construct a story, but just to capture life itself. “People would film a train coming into a station and they’d use the whole roll of film,” says Benning, “capturing the moment from beginning to end. Or if they filmed a kiss, there was no editing to tantalize you, they’d simply filmed the entire kiss looking straight on.”
D-L ALVAREZ: In Los we saw cattle waiting in line at a slaughter house followed by a shot of a military cemetery. Surprisingly, however, you said you hadn’t meant to make any direct correlation between these two shots.
JAMES BENNING: This was pointed out to me at an early screening, but then I realized that the cemetery is such a loaded image. No matter where I put it in the film, it was read as a direct commentary on whatever proceeded it. Normally, I try to avoid creating narrative, and especially drama. But then again, it’s difficult to really avoid it. Our brains will always try to force narrative reading — anything time-based seems to automatically create narratives — so I've always been interested in using narrative, but with a different language and different form. In earlier films, I used minimal narratives as a context for formal investigations, because back then I thought, "People need narrative to watch. If I do non-narrative experiments they’ll never enter the film." But, I quickly found that people were actually interested in formal films. Nonetheless, it still took a while to drop narrative entirely from my work.
ALVAREZ: But you use locations that are loaded with histories. One shot in Sogobi, for example, is of a snow storm in the woods, and we only later learn that this was part of the infamous Doner Pass. Plus, there’s yet another layering of your own stories — one begins to see, through the magnitude of this work, that we’re also viewing a diary of sorts.
BENNING: In all three films I try to give little bits of information that refer to different histories that hopefully make you reread the [trilogy] in historical, political, and/or cultural terms. As to my own stories, those, of course, are all hidden in the image. No one can know that I almost died [laughs ] going out to the desert. I became delirious, couldn't even remember what I filmed, I was so dehydrated. So I went back for a second try and I thought, "Well, I'll be more prepared this time," but then it happened to me again. After that I decided, "I'm not going to do it three times. I’m not that dumb." And luckily, the first shot turned out to be great. It’s the one I used in the film.
ALVAREZ: You’re the only filmmaker in the Berlinale screening a trilogy, but there’s nothing posted here about your work (on the walls of the Arsenal Theater, which are covered with posters for most of the other films screening there).
BENNING: I spend my money on other things. I never made films as a business, never made films for an audience. I basically make films to — well, since the ’90s I have two criteria: to go to places where I'd like to be, and to make films that help me understand my life better... to put life itself in a larger context. I think I've always used these criteria but I didn't realize it, or formalize that in my mind, until around 1990. All of my text-based films grew out of that kind of thinking and so did [the California trilogy], of course. I like these films so much because I think they are an attempt to return to pure filmmaking, pure image making... but I know of course there’s always the prejudice of the frame.
ALVAREZ: But, at the same time that you frame everything, both with time and with the actual frame of the camera, you also succeed in freeing the image. The structure is so uniform, it allows each viewer to bring their own thoughts to the experience and to look where they please within the confines of the camera's gaze, which is reasonably broad.
BENNING: Absolutely. That's one of the main reasons to use a duration of this length, to give you time to think about the image while you're watching it... and the way you think about the image will change over the course of its duration.
ALVAREZ: Many of the shots are taken more than once. How much work goes into each two-and-a-half minutes?
BENNING: Well, the first two films had a very small shooting ratio. I shot 48 rolls of film and developed 37 of them. I just threw away the other 11 because it was clear I couldn't use them; a tractor stopped and somebody got off to ask me what I was doing... or I'd do a shot in fog and five minutes later I'd do the shot where the tractor came out of the fog, and it was so much better than the first one. But there were only 11 shots like that, so it wasn’t too difficult to pick 35 of the remaining 37 shots — which was true for both the first and second films. But in the third, I shot 130 rolls because I wasn't sure if I was going to make a film that was purely wilderness and extremely minimal, with no reference to people at all. That was my initial idea, but I felt also that each film should each stand on it's own. If I had made it that minimal, I suppose it would have still stood on its own, but I thought it would be more interesting if I introduced some human interaction, and then I could cross-reference more with the other two films. And finally, since I’d already done cross-referencing between the first two, I decided the third film should follow. But sometimes I think it would have been much more radical to have kept Sogobi pure — that is, entirely void of human presence. I'm still not sure I did the right thing. But a lot of the shots, like the train and the ship, are so spectacular, it would've been hard to throw them away [laughter ]. I spent two days on the Golden Gate Bridge to get that shot of the container ship. Although, by the time I edit, I try to forget the pain of shooting — because that can only disturb your editing process.
ALVAREZ: Is it possible to forget that pain?
BENNING: Yeah, I think so. Maybe when you first start making films it's very difficult to do, but experience teaches you not to get too attached. Even great shots sometimes must go. And of course, since I filmed over a ten-month period with each of these films, by the time I begin editing, I have enough distance from shooting that it makes it easier to throw things away. And then there's the competition of another shot saying, "No, I want to be there." When the shots speak, you have to listen.
ALVAREZ: You talk about filming places where you want to be and trying to gain self understanding. Your film Landscape Suicide (1986) was filmed in two states, the one where you grew up and the one you live in presently. Was it made while you were considering moving to California?
BENNING: No. I actually made that while I was living in New York, which is funny because when I lived in New York I found it hard to make films there. I decided to make films about California and Wisconsin so I could travel to those places. That was easier than just walking outside. I never felt comfortable filming in New York. From the very first film I made there, I never really enjoyed the experience. The second film I made there I made on an animation stand, so I didn't have to leave my house. Then I made Landscape Suicide . I grew up in Wisconsin so I knew rural Wisconsin very well. However, at the time, I didn't know California. That may show in the film. I think I viewed California with all the prejudice I have against it: the over-consumption, the hoarding of wealth, the lack of concern for the poor. Which of course is the focus of the first story in Landscape Suicide — it is perhaps what caused the young girl, the cheerleader, to kill. She was from a lower-middle-class family, living in a very affluent community, and she was tormented because of that. It was really a class issue.
ALVAREZ: Class issues are very strong in your “California Trilogy,” especially in the first two parts.
BENNING: It's interesting, I didn't realize until I started editing Los, how much the Hispanic communities surface in that film. Almost every time I went somewhere to film there were always Hispanic people. They make up a large part of Los Angeles. But I never went to look for quotas. Well, I went to Watts, but Watts is no longer just a black community, it's mostly Latino now as well. And, I filmed at a black church, which was fun. I went to the service after I finished filming. But then I used the shot of the Crystal Cathedral instead, because for me it represents the money side of religion. I selected that biased image instead, to give my impression of Los Angeles. Although, if I had used the black church — it was very animated. The people coming out of the church, the woman, were very colorful. I shot it on Easter so everyone was dressed in their finest. And the church is bright pink. It was very nice. But actually the main reason I didn't use it was because of the framing. I tried to get the whole church in, and had panned up slightly. I'm using a 10mm lens in every shot, but I try to never shoot at an angle, because it reveals the distortion of such a wide-angle lens. So it had too much distortion. The use of that lens was difficult in Los because, even though Los Angeles is very spread out, the downtown is vertical, and the 10mm lens makes it impossible to tilt up. The shot of the bi-level street was my answer to that. I could shoot forward and show depth, plus you could see the buildings reaching up out of the frame, so you get an idea of the vertical space.
ALVAREZ: One image that reveals much about the whole trilogy is the shot of the San Andreas Fault. You have these lines that look like the pages of a warped book, and you know there’s all this history in the land but it’s not immediately readable in our view of it from the film. And then there’s the present day — and it’s cargo zooming back and forth on the freeway in front of the Fault.
BENNING: The Fault is revealed because the land has been violently cut through so cars don't have to climb a hill. They can go through it. The exposed fault line looks very angry, very tortured. It’s a tortured landscape, both in reality and as metaphor. Somebody wrote about El Valley Centro saying, "It shows the land-scraped... plowed, blown away." [The writer] used a lot of adjectives describing the brutalization of the land. And of course, the Central Valley was completely transformed from something that was wild, with many marshes and lots of wildlife, into a more manageable place. Now, only five percent of the land remains as it was a hundred years ago. A number of large lakes have disappeared; all the rivers that fed the valley are now dammed and feed two irrigation systems, built with state and federal money. The lake bottoms are now irrigated, corporate farms having something like a thousand feet of top soil. The farms are very efficient; however, irrigated farming has a history of increasing salt levels, and it renders land useless somewhere down the road. Parts of the Central Valley are already showing that kind of wear.
ALVAREZ: So your film is not only recording that change but also documenting a landscape that will be history once that change takes hold. It's a time capsule of this strip of land that was once the last frontier in the eyes of U.S. settlers.
BENNING: Yeah, that's true isn't it. I'd been moving in that direction, westward, myself. I made one film, Deseret, in Utah, and soon after I made, Four Corners, in which one of those corners — the four “corners” of the U.S. — was Utah. For the forth story in that film I use Milwaukee, because I grew up there, but also because in the mid 1880’s Milwaukee was the far west. I try to develop these larger histories of land ownership or land use, and how the native peoples who were there were systematically removed. My own neighborhood was once poor, white and working class when I grew up there, and then the black ghetto moved in and took over. Now, there's these prejudices and misunderstanding between poor whites and poor blacks. Of course, ironically, they should be on the same side. They face the same problems. In Four Corners I look at the prejudices of my own childhood and compare them to the prejudices between poor whites in Farmington, New Mexico, and the Navajo people that live on the surrounding [reservation]. Or I look at the problems that the Hopis and Navajo Indians were having with land disputes — very similar to Palestine and Israel — you know, people squatting on land which they didn’t own but they've been there now for four generations. So what do you do? There is a whole history of the U.S. government botching negotiations, I suppose you could apply that to both the situation with the Indians and in the Middle East. The Hopis and the Navajo people finally told the U.S. government to screw off, and they negotiated peace themselves. It's still tenuous, but they're on much better terms now.
Anyway, when I made Sogobi I was working with that idea, of it being a time capsule of wilderness. I wanted to begin with shots that seem timeless, almost biblical. I ended Los with a quiet beach, so I started Sogobi with these giant, violent waves, crashing against the rocks. From this you go to the salt flat, which is almost like an Escher drawing with reflections... hard to tell what it is at first. Then to the middle of burnt land, which refers directly to the shot in Los where you saw the same land (on an Indian reservation) burning from a distance.
D-L Alvarez is an American artist currently living in Berlin. His most recent work will be featured in "a clean exhibition about messy situations" entitled "The Road to Hell Less Traveled." Incorporating horror-film imagery, heavy metal music, scary trees, and a ghost story, the exhibition will run from April 16 to May 18 at the Derek Eller Gallery in NYC.