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

One Way Boogie Woogie/27 years later von James Benning

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.

Ghatak’s Clunker

Serge Daney, “Le tacot de Ghatak”, first published in Libération, 31 October 1986.

Translation from the French by Arindam Sen & Ivana Miloš.

It is a love story set in Ranchi (at the border of Bengal and Bihar). Bimal unreservedly loves Jagatdal, who returns his affections. He is a taxi driver and Jagatdal his vehicle, a very old Ford. The laughing stock of his neighbourhood, irascible dreamer Bimal avoids all human contact except for one child. We are in 1959, a time when modern cars are making their appearance in India. Bimal has no fondness for them; he loves, yells at, repairs only Jagatdal, the decrepit car, the pile of metal that breaks down, agonizes him and howls and screams in love and pain.

Ajantrik Ritwik Ghatak

It is a story that makes little sense. As in many Indian films, there are always neighbors and „friends“ who attempt to reason with Bimal on human-machine relations. It is a waste of time. There is without a doubt a reflection of Ghatak in Bimal’s personality (enacted by Kali Banerjee with frowning eyebrows): someone who needed to experience the real (or the unreal, as in the case of the Ford) before „creating“ something with it. And who, like a patient fighter, took his time. „As an artist,“ Ghatak said in 1964, „I cannot record TIME. It advances slowly, in our subconscious.”

Time does not hold the same meaning for Ghatak as for Satyajit Ray. Ray is an aristocrat, Ghatak was an agitator. Both are Bengali, but Ghatak was born in 1926 on the „wrong side“ of Bengal, in Decca, not yet capital of East Bengal, later Bangladesh. Ray knows how to evoke the past in mists and clouds. Ghatak, on the other hand, is a man with a clean slate. There is no nostalgia in him, or rather there is a nostalgia so strong (for an undivided Bengal) that it is everywhere and nowhere.


By prolonging Jagatdal’s usefulness beyond its limit, Bimal goes against the law (of both karma and mechanics). There is revolt in his stubbornness, but he will gain something from it in the end. After one last attempt to miraculously prolong the vehicle’s life (a final act of love), Jagatdal breaks down, and a greedy, mole-eyed scrap merchant offers to buy it by the kilo. Suddenly, the sound of Jagatdal’s air horn is heard – a child has picked up the object turned toy. A tear runs down Bimal’s easily excitable face. It is as if the director had replaced the abstract law of karma with the human recycling of matter.

Ghatak, a leftist, a loser and alcoholic (he died in 1976 in poverty), is the one who, much more than Ray, the young Indian generation relates to. He is a man given to fragmenting who takes the time to try and put the pieces back together. This is why Ajantrik is a film that breathes. Sometimes with terrible asthma, sometimes with miraculous ease.

In the history of cinema, the sound aligns the film with the old tradition of the silent “murmur” of the thirties, while its narrative associates it with the tradition that has been liberating narrative from the shackles of screenplay from neorealism to the nouvelle vague. Bimal’s story is predictable enough, but the story’s landscape is made up of the unexpected, of digressions, and waking dreams. On Jagatdal’s final journeys, we even pass genuine bits of late ‘50s India. As for the sound, it is composed like a radio score featuring classical music (Ali Akbar Khan), tablas beats, metallic clanking and air horns weaving a canvas between dream and reverberation.


As the clunker weakens, the story takes flight. Engine failures allow for chance encounters. And then the film changes direction, transforming into something dreamlike. On the day Jagatdal embarrassingly stalls on a narrow mountain road, drum beats are suddenly heard. Bimal rushes down a slope and arrives at a religious ceremony with advancing dancers who impart a sense of unreal, as in Murnau’s Tabu. Bimal is lost; he gets drunk and disappears.

We want to follow the dancers, we catch bits and pieces of what they are saying. We learn that Ghatak lived five years among this tribe (the Oraons of the forest) and that the idea of a few shots was enough for him to make his film. Cinema was once terribly open to what was not cinema. This was, in all likelihood, the cinema of Ghatak.


Passages through the Third world: A few thoughts on Kidlat Tahimik’s Why is Yellow at the Middle of the Rainbow?

How does one begin to describe these eclectic offerings as films by the Filipino maverick Kidlat Tahimik aka Eric de Guia?  Even at a first glance they seem to associate themselves in a not so self-conscious way to a mesh of cinematic history, of identifiable names of non-Classical genres such as the diary film, autofiction, third cinema, ethnographic film, essay film, home movies and so on and so forth that combines an unmistakable anti neocolonial pulse that characterises the early film works of Fernando Solanas with quirky, humorous action-autobiographies of Boris Lehman. Indeed Tahimik inspires such unlikely bridges across history and geography. Why is Yellow at the Middle of the Rainbow? (1994) is complemented by a voice over that functions as a dialogue between a father and a son, Tahimik and his own son, navigating the turbulent political landscape of postcolonial Philippines between 1981-1991. The US/us dialectical antinomy frequently used in wordplays is central to Tahimik’s films,  US is not merely the face of neocolonial imperialism that operates from a distance. Tahimik is primarily interested in exploring it’s everyday manifestation in the lives of his Filipino countrymen. While other generic projections can often be sustained fleetingly, the one that Tahimik definitely refers and aspires to is the Third cinema and its relationship with the broader identity of the Third world.


Completed in more than a decade after Sinong lumikha ng yoyo? Sinong lumikha ng moon buggy? (1982) what concerns ‚Why is yellow…‘ unmistakably are questions of modernity and identity. Like many artists from the ‚Third world‘, the sustained struggle seems to exist within the process of a negotiation between a formal freedom from dominant modes of media culture, to challenge hegemonic universalities and to model an artistic form that borrows something from ethnic history and it’s formal inscriptions- something that underscores works of many filmmakers like Haile Gerima and Govindan Aravindan. On the other hand, one would be hard pressed to label Tahimik as some kind of virgin artist, abstracted from transnational currents, the corruption of modernity- an eternal fascination of many western critics. The long and short of it being that Tahimik, even for his brief role in Werner Herzog’s Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (1974) notwithstanding, seems to have touched and have been touched by various fluxes of cinematic practices. His films are improvisational, satirical and reflect oddly on the means of production, not necessarily in the same vein as the consciously anti-representational strand(s) of experimental filmmaking, but the projection of the poorly exposed, grainy strip of 16 mm would indeed be a ‚Third world projection‘ or a projection of the third world. The history of third world cinema and indeed the history of cinema itself is a history of struggle for the resources of production, a history of lost films, abandoned films, films damaged beyond redemption, films perceived and discarded in thoughts, diaries and sketchbooks or merely confiscated and destroyed. Haile Gerima showed excerpts of his unfinished film at the Cinematek in Brussels earlier this year in order to draw funds and to be able to complete the film. The production history of Tahimik’s last film, Memories of Overdevelopment (2011) that has a 25 year gap somewhere in the middle, can be titled a Kalatozov sequel-like ‚A letter that never reached‚. These films reside within such paradoxes- between the arch of Western institutions, a sense of self-inflicted gentrification and the lack of cultural patronage in emerging economies. Like Gerima, Tahimik underlines that the face of neocolonialism has changed color from White to Black or Brown, and that the anticolonial struggle is an everlasting one. At one point in the film, the voice over anguishes that it is harder to fight the dictatorship in us than that of the US – in yet another comical articulation of the us/US divergence.

Closer home, Tahimik’s films share much more in common with the films of Nick Deocampo than with the dramatic traditions of Mike De Leon or Lino Brocka. In ‚Why is yellow…‘, usually a shot lasts for a few seconds splashed with frequent moments of brilliance. A travel diary suddenly becomes a passage to a Ruizian imagination of a child’s nightmare, the next shot becomes the classic anti-illusionist Brechtian allusion- a return to the documentary roots followed by a shot that takes us indoors, a resort to a typical home movie aesthetic.


Often Tahimik uses rapid montage to cut between the personal and the political. Televised news of the murder of Benigno Aquino is followed by a high pitched operatic voice that struggles against the ruffling branches of trees melting into window panes, a meek figure of a boy encountering the storm, a political upheaval around the corner cut to marches on the streets of Manila and TV images of street demonstrations. This entire sequence of shots last less than a minute, each individual shot, again, barely a few seconds long. We are transported briefly into a Situationist world where the fragments of a rational world are rattled in a frantic spin to be traded for a revolutionary vision.

‚Why is yellow…‘ also has passages of pure ethnographic nature, the term ethnographic used in a broader folkloric sense than the western construction of a means to encounter its others. Here Tahimik mounts his critique of tourism as a force of neocolonialism, and reflects upon the ecological and anthropological challenges posed by it. Tahimik directs our attention to rhythms of bodies and movements of people working, a glimpse at third world labour. He seems very keen on costumes and engineering caricatures. He has a penchant for school kids participating in costume dramas clad in ambitious colours, for metal discards beyond their cycle of usefulness.

Much like Boris Lehman, Tahimik infuses this film with body actions (later recycled for Memories of Overdevelopment), he enacts the life of a Magellan’s Filipino slave. The film rolls along with animation, TV reportage, newspaper cuttings, costume plays, toys and scrap metals, each an important cog in Tahimik’s political wheel. We witness a meticulous deconstruction of the ‚Third world‘, sometimes through images of mechanical labour and sometimes the voice over darting pointers at the nature of labour. In yet another enigmatic sermon from the father we hear, “In third world, owning a piece of land is about building your own home, in first world, buying and selling land is about making profit”.


At various moments in the film, Tahimik recovers Chris Marker’s cat, in another particularly striking series of rapid cuts, between two shots of television, one with Ronald Reagan and other with members of Filipino militia we see an amused cat, and later, the same cat exhausted, lying on the floor dejected.

The possible associations that ‚Why is yellow…‘ implores in just under 180 mins is endless. To say this is by no means to suggest that this is some kind of pastiche, in fact quite the opposite. ‚Why is yellow…‘ truly and completely embodies a Dadaist universe, in each fragment we discover something essential of the material world.

Before concluding, a brief reflection on a particular visual constituent of the films- miniature toys. Watching this film sometimes feels like intently observing a Manny Farber painting recalling the realisation of ‚My Budd‘ in Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Routine Pleasures (1986). These plastic/artificial parts complete the film like the painting as a “scale model of the world” (as referred to by Bill Krohn).

On a broad narrative scale, if one is concerned about navigating a nation’s significant historical period and the metamorphosis in a personal life, the film instinctively reminds us of David Perlov’s Yoman (1983).

More importantly, in the history of Cinema, a selection of notable filmmakers like William S. Hart, Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Pierre Etaix, João César Monteiro and definitely Boris Lehman have often thrust themselves at the center of their cinematic world only to reorient us to be able to view the world uniquely. Kidlat Tahimik most definitely belongs to such a ‚tradition‘, if one can call it that.

Found Footage films: a strong case against representation?

Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch

The paradox of representation is as old as modernity’s rational turn at the dawn of the French revolution. Peter Tscherkassky notes that when art emerged from the dusk of Classicism into a more autonomous form, slowly starting to question the ‚why‘ and ‚how‘ of aesthetic conventions, it’s representative role was starting to dissolve. [1] He writes:

“Liberated from the catalog of artistic regulations, the function of representation was incrementally abandoned: Art steadily began to develop in a direction of increasing abstraction”.

Modern art and indeed modern cinema has grappled with the paradox of representation and has tried to fight it’s lingering spectre. But can cinema really free itself completely from the malaise of representation? Is it only a constant struggle and if so, what form of cinema has resisted most valiantly?
While conventional fiction and documentary films have tackled representation within the confines of the frame, experimental films have done so at the realm of the film-surface/projection introducing/allowing a heterogeneity of meaning by simultaneously obliterating a singular relationship between an image – the signifier and it’s signification. And yet, are these efforts merely anti-representational in their primary impulse? What happens to the reality at which the camera is oriented? Peter Gidal notes:

“There is the representational ‚reality‘ one is aiming the camera at. This remains true even if the representational content is pared down to the filmstrip itself being pulled through the printer. In fact this isn’t necessarily a paring down at all” [2]

The above is perceived under the assumption that aiming the camera and filmstrip being pulled through the printer are part of a singular continuous process of film production where the two acts are merely different stages of production. But what if the ‚reality‘ of the person aiming the camera is abstracted from the person pulling the filmstrip though the printer by a spatial and temporal dislocation? This brings us to the curious case of Found Footage and it’s relationship with representation.

Both found and archival footage has been extensively used within the larger pantheon of experimental cinema to uncover cached synergies within these footage. From the onset it is important to make a clear distinction between Found Footage and what is known as Archival Footage with an emphasis on the word ‚found‘. A clear distinction often overlooked, while archival footage is the historic testament deemed important by institutions and hence culture (for example the colonial archives of Britain), the ‚found‘ footage is the discarded bits deemed unimportant, the waste, the extra, perhaps industrially expired film stock that can be literally collected from streets, the garbage bins, personal collections or junk stores. The ‚found‘ footage is non-indexed and thus, there is a possibility of stumbling upon it without the prior knowledge of it’s production history. The representational reality of the found film is therefore either obfuscated or even obliterated since the one handling the film is now partially aware/unaware of the ‚reality‘ at which the camera was previously aimed at. The question I am pondering upon is whether Found Footage film can be purely the representation of the image producing apparatus, the camera and production of the film stock and nothing else?  William C. Wees has discussed in considerable length the questions of representation in the context of Found Footage in 1992 [3] where he presents the classical case for modes of anti-representation in the process of working with Found Footage in the true vein of any modern art. But do Found Footage films make the strongest case for anti-representation even within structuralist/materialist practices of experimental filmmaking which is consciously revolting against the illusionary nature of time in films?

Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch

Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch

Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch

Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen von Gustav Deutsch

In this context, I would like to look at two films closely. These films are of particular interest within the context of this discussion precisely because in one case the notion of ‚found‘ is underscored and in the other, clear economic constraints regulate the choice of used film stock.
In a discussion with Scott MacDonald, Gustav Deutsch reveals how he stumbled upon the 35 mm reels of a popular Bombay film while taking a walk on the Boulevard Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah in Casablanca [4] that eventually became Film/Spricht/Viele/Sprachen and was used for the trailer of Viennale in 1995 (for the curious head, this was Mohan Kumar directed Amir Garib starring popular film stars in India, Dev Anand and Hema Malini). The intriguing part here is the element of chance that prevails over a conscious decision in the sense that though Deutsch decided to use this footage once the opportunity of the Viennale trailer presented itself, the physical presence of the film was realised as a matter of chance, an accident. The act of aiming the camera at a subject has been abstracted, the ‚reality‘ dislocated, what remains is the reality of the film bearing the imprints of time.

Storm De Hirsch speaking of her short film Divinations in an interview with Jonas Mekas recounts:

“…I wanted badly to make an animated short and had no camera available. I did have some old unused film stock and several rolls of 16 mm sound tape. So I used that – plus a variety of discarded surgical instruments and the sharp edge of a screwdriver – by cutting, etching, and painting directly on both film and tape.” [5]

This is an instance where the possibility of aiming the camera and shooting something is limited by economic constraints, hence used/available film stock have to suffice. The two examples are presented to underline the axes of chance and viability within the Found Footage film tradition that in the least help to add a layer of abstraction between the representational ‚reality‘ and the finished film, a further step away from the reproduction of the dominant order of the world, an anti-representation that is at worst is the representation of the process that produces the image.

Divinations von Storm de Hirsch

Divinations von Storm de Hirsch

Divinations von Storm de Hirsch

Divinations von Storm de Hirsch



[1] Peter Tscherkassky, “The Framework of Modernity. Some concluding remarks on cinema and modernism”, translated by Eve Heller, in: id. (Ed.), Film Unframed. A History of Austrian Avant-Garde Cinema, 2012, p. 311-316.

[2] Peter Gidal, “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film”, first published in Studio International 190/978, November/December 1975.

[3] William C. Wees, “Found Footage and Questions of Representation”, in: Cecilia Hausheer and Christoph Settele (Ed.), Found Footage film, 1992, p. 37-53.

[4] Scott MacDonald, “A conversation with Gustav Deutsch (Part 1)”, in: Wilbirg Brainin-Donnenberg and Michael Loebenstein (Ed.), Gustav Deutsch, 2009, p. 64-94.

[5] Jonas Mekas, “An interview with Storm De Hirsch, July 19, 1964,”, in: id., Movie Journal: The rise of New America 1959-1971, p.155-157.