A Passion for Cars: Two Films by James Benning on DVD

The Austrian Film Museum has a relationship of allegiance to James Benning. The new DVD consisting of two films: 11×14 (1977) and One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years later (1977/2005) is a forceful addition to an already impressive catalog of discs dedicated to the artist, American Dreams/Landscape Suicide, California Trilogy, Casting a glance/RR, natural history/Ruhr alongside a book co-edited by Barbara Pichler and Claudia Slanar. Additionally, the Film Museum devoted a full retrospective to Benning in November 2007, enthusiastically following it up with frequent screenings of his newer works. The genesis of the idea of these DVDs itself stems from the dedication to archiving and restoring the films demonstrated by the Film Museum. In a recent interview (from 2017) with Sight and Sound, Benning stated:

„When Alex [Horwath, the museum’s director] offered to store it I said he could just have it all, with the idea that they would properly archive it over the years, because I knew it was a huge job. As part of that archiving process, they thought they should also make DVDs to make the films available. And at that point I thought it was a great idea, mainly because there seemed to be a demand to see those early films, and I couldn’t provide a solution by renting prints any more.“

11x14 von James Benning

11×14 works on the margins of photography and film, the camera has a static, precise role, a tool that accords the one employing it a possibility of carefully demystifying the semblance of narrative bringing the subtle formal elements to the forefront. Shot on 16mm, these formal elements are stretched out on coordinates of geometric composition and texture, color, stillness and motion, and perception of space without the complete abandonment of narrative itself. The shots range from a few seconds up to several minutes, duration drains the possibility of narrative functionality of the images, they are salvaged from any symbolic burden, only the compositional elements are retained. An episodic structure is imparted by the deployment of black leader, shots interconnect so as to formalize what Benning refers to as a “spherical space”.

11×14 follows from a short film 8 ½ x 11 that predates it by 3 years. The dimensional ring to the titles is a reference to a photographic paper (11×14 inch) and a typing paper (8 ½ x 11 inch) that correspond to a general idea about the films, one where images act autonomously versus one where they form the building blocks of a scripted narrative.  The spherical space rendered by the non-absence of narrative and the ambiguous connectivity between shots, visual and aural cues that withhold and reveal in equal measure restore a degree of playfulness to the film. Narrative projectiles cross link shots across films.

11x14 von James Benning

Recurring visual motifs like the smokestack surface frequently in Benning’s body of work with textural and durational variance. Another such motif, the slow passage of an automobile across the screen, often encounters the perceived flatness of a surface or wall, the sharp contrast in our visual perception (2D vs 3D) of space is usually enhanced by striking color juxtaposition. These vehicles are omnipresent in both films, frequently crossing the frame within the length of a shot or merely standing, while still creating a striking mosaic or fragmenting the constrained space within a film. The vehicular obsession acts as an integral narrative device that channels most of Benning’s formal concerns. At times the perceived flatness is arrested by limiting the presence of a wall or a surface to only a portion of the frame, as the edge of the structure acts as a dividing line between flatness and depth. This rupture may exist in order to depict an adjacent space like a street or an alley, or as a demarcation of the horizon, or both at the same time. In such a frame, the slightest movement of cloud in the sky generates a duality of motion/stasis within a single shot.

The first part of One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years later retains similar compositional interests. Shot in the Midwestern town of Milwaukee where Benning hails from, the ebb of the town is meticulously chiseled. The duration of the film is doubled by a reshooting of the same locations revisited 27 years later.

The digital revolution has drawn a fault line across the contour of experimental film practices. In some circles, it is seen as an ultimate anathema, an ushering of doomsday, in others, it is a boon like no other, allowing for unprecedented possibilities of dissemination. Benning is in harmony with the second group, his more overarching concern is the severely diminished attention span that remains inadequate for an engagement with such works. Hence, the newest addition to the Film Museum catalog on Benning is worth cherishing – if not as a substitute for the films themselves, then at least for granting the opportunity of experiencing, albeit partially, what Jim Hoberman referred to as the “laconic mosaic of single shot sequences” devoted to the painterly study of the American Midwest.

One Way Boogie Woogie/27 years later von James Benning

The booklet accompanying the DVD set is bilingual and comprises the quintessential Benning interview with Peter Lehman & Stephen Hank from April 1977 (In English only), and Barbara Pichler on One Way Boogie Woogie (in German, translated to English by Ivana Miloš).

11×14 was restored by the Austrian Film Museum (Vienna) in cooperation with Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video art (Berlin) in 2017. Scanning and digital image restoration was carried out in 2K starting from the original 16mm color reversal by Austrian Film Museum in close collaboration with James Benning. Sound was digitized from a 16mm optical sound negative by L’Immagine Ritrovata (Bologna). The restoration was completed by the Austrian Film Museum, resulting in a 35mm negative for long-term preservation, a 35mm projection print (produced by Laboratório ANIM – Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema, Lisbon) and a DCP for digital cinema screenings. All analog and digital elements used for and produced by this restoration are preserved at the Austrian Film Museum.

One Way Boogie Woogie/27 years later von James Benning