By Anna Bielak | February 7, 2013
Memories from the Frozen Roads, A Conversation with James Benning
“I could make sense out of the abstraction. Abstract questions give me lot of room to wander around,” said James Benning just after we had sat down on two comfortable armchairs to chat for a while about his attitude towards cinema, conceptual art and mathematics. But we spent about forty minutes talking about trains, roads, lost thoughts, found images, Andy Warhol and his worshiped body. In Benning’s world, past and future are non-existent categories; all is nothing more but a frozen picture — “appealing to the mercy of the fire, in a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire, leaping higher, higher, higher…”
Anna Bielak: You love trains and empty roads, don’t you? According to Erik Erikson, the American psychoanalyst, the most important events in life take place in between two certain points.
James Benning: My obsession with trains and roads comes from my childhood. By the time I made the film RR in 2008, what interested me the most about trains was the way they cut through the landscape. I like the concept of scenery defined by the trains. Trains and lands develop sort of symbiotic relationship. One needs the other. While shooting film I found myself having the similar kind of relationship with trains. They were actually collaborating with me. The shoot had to be as long as the train was. Its dynamics was dependent on trains’ speed. Yet, what I found most curious after I had finished the film, for which I had been standing around the railroads for over two years, was the weight of over-consumption and amounts of the commodity transported back and forth. It made me feel the false sense of need we have nowadays. Transport is like a cog in the machine that makes capitalism work. My relationship with trains has been evolving ever since. As I got older, I have learned more about trains and the politics of lands. I found out to what extent corruption was involved in transport and what kind of money certain families in America have made. The basics for my romance with trains became very down-to-earth.
AB: What is hidden in between your movies’ frames? What could be lost when we try to translate the language of images and emotions into words?
JB: It is interesting, because if you ask what’s hidden in between frames, you need to remember that my movies are shot on 16mm — which means you have 24 frames for each second, that gives you 23 gaps between those frames! That, what is missing, blurs in the blackness… What is this? It’s a mystery of all films; perhaps my films in particular, because I allow audience to fill in those blank spots with their own memories, fantasies and doubts, bring their own lives into it. Therefore, I hope what my films do is engage the audience to be more proactive. I like when they search around the frames. Some films allow you to wander within your own mind. To be focused directly for one hundred and fifty minutes is difficult, so I do not mind if sometimes, during the screening, you think about the laundry you should do in the evening [laughs]. While doing that kind of stuff the viewers hopefully come to some conclusions, they become focused on their own history. What you carry with you is the collection of the prejudices that were formed from what you have experienced; yet, I use the word “prejudice” not necessarily in a bad way. Having lots of experience may be good too, because it makes you think in a particular way; however, you may always reevaluate your value systems while watching my films by judging what you see. Reevaluating one’s position is important part of living. I give my films a lot of credit by believing they could push the viewer to do it; yet, I strongly believe that by giving the viewer a totally different cinematic experience than what they are accustomed to, I can count on unconventional responses.
AB: Usually, when we think about memory in terms of conceptual art, what we have in mind is the idea of stream-of-consciousness, which is itself deprived of a certain structure. Your movies stand against this habit; they are like tapestries weaved from memories, abstract and precisely organized at the same time.
JB: Well, I have to admit I am always more interested in structures than memories when I’m building a film. I like the cleanliness of that kind of structure and how the film is determined before it is made. Maybe it is because I studied mathematics at university, though. When I made The California Trilogy [El Valley Centro (2000), Los (2001), Sogobi (2002)], I wanted each of those films to have 35 different shots, but each shot had to have the same amount of time. The idea to cut all shots with the same length was to make them very democratic. Every single portrait is equally important, even if some viewers may search for a pecking order. What I did was pick the locations that people are not familiar with. Hollywood makes us believe what LA should look like. Many of the The California Trilogy viewers could not believe they are looking at the very same city!
AB: While speaking about time and space in your movies, you mention two very interesting phrases: the spacialization of time and the temporalization of space.
JB: I have been thinking a lot about the time and its functionality lately. If you draw a timeline, beginning in the past and going towards the future, you see us at that certain middle point which is the present. We are always there. We do not move on the timeline because we cannot go into the future and back into the past. Although people claim that they are able to do that, I do not believe it is possible. Present is just one point, timeless in itself, because it does not have any dimension. It is not any time at all, it is instantaneous. The present appears to us instantaneously and then immediately becomes the past. For that reason everything that we experience can only be a memory. Moreover, any kind of movement lives in the memory only. There is no movement in the present. All is nothing more than a frozen frame… Where am I in time, then?
AB: I would rather ask when art became present in your life. I like what Ani Di Franco said once: “Art is what I do when I get up in the morning.” You’ve mentioned that you come from a family that has never read.
JB: I grew up in a lower-middle class family. We did not talk much and there were no books in the house. I had no idea what art was or that you could consider becoming an artist as a profession. I have only thought of it as a hobby. It took me a long time to understand how complex art can be. It all came through my own experience. When I finally got the chance to see actual art on exhibition, I felt extremely strange looking at the objects, which had been taken out from its real environment! At least the museums allowed me to see things that were objectively valuable; yet, I would rather see the artist’s studio and connect the work to the artist’s daily life. My daughter Sadie, who is an artist as well [an experimental visual artist, video maker and musician], has been asked many times how much I might have influenced her. She always answers the question very interestingly by saying that I have never openly encouraged her to do anything, but what she appreciated most is that she saw me working as an artist. She had an opportunity to observe how obsessed a man may be with his art; therefore, she knew at a very young age, that one could become an artist. None of the kids from her, also very poor, neighborhood knew that.
AB: You mentioned art galleries, but no films…
JB: Oh, well… I do not watch many movies. I do not like movies…
AB: What a statement!
JB: Yeah [laughs] well, I watch movies, but not in the way most people do. I teach in an art school [California Institute of the Arts], so I need to be up-to-date with contemporary cinema from all over the world. I consider many films to be good ones; yet, rarely do I see a film that excites me. It might have a good story or an interesting subject, but it does not make me think beyond what many other objects of art actually do. I am always hoping to find a filmmaker who will be able to develop a new vocabulary, which makes you think, look and listen in a different way. I do not want to create monsters or make people do films like mimes, but we certainly can make many different kinds of films. However, that is a big challenge.
AB: A lot of film critics do not look for a challenge, they link your films with typical cinematic realism. In my opinion, it is totally the opposite. While watching empty spaces or hurtling trains I am thinking about a mythical (non-existent) America, not the real one.
JB: I am not trying to recreate reality, I am rather trying to create an experience for you. Yet, I do not want to define what is and what is not real. When you are watching my films you may be seeing them from many angles — politically, socially or aesthetically. Thus, everyone in the audience has a different kind of experience. When we are watching whodunit stories and we are all trying to come up with the name of the murderer, we will all finally get the same answer. That is boring.
AB: While you were looking for your own way, did you come across the art of Michael Snow or Andy Warhol?
JB: Michael Snow is a good friend of mine and he has always been a person I certainly would like to be considered with; yet, I do not think I can be. Warhol has had a very big influence on me, but there are parts of Warhol that I have great problems with. Before he was shot, his doors had been wide open and people had been able to wander in and out of The Factory. It had been a really exciting place; however, once he got shot, that door got closed and Warhol became more or less a celebrity. All starlets have a similar problem, which is an inability to live a real life. Really famous people are always being hunted! Moreover, the politics involved in celebrity culture is just simply against my principles.
AB: You seem to be a man who is in love with places that he has never been to and people he has never met…
JB: What sort of a romantic am I, is that what you are asking? [laughs] I like to wander with my eyes wide open, I like to look and listen and learn from my experiences. That is actually a good definition of love. It excites me to see new things and to check what is under the surface.
(For the original Polish version of this interview, check out EKRANy Magazine.)