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.

French crime thrillers and their fading blue(s)

It started with jazz, yet some of the films seem to have the blues. The second part of the Austrian Film Museum’s retrospective dedicated to French crime cinema, this time 1958 to 2009, started off last month with Miles Davis’ music composed for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud following Jeanne Moreau’s “Je t’aime” whispering face (in Truffaut’s La mariée était en noir a man rightfully tells her – had he been a writer, he could have written an entire novel about her mouth).

The blues some of the films shown (mistakenly) seem to have are both chromatic and idiomatic – the films either feel or look blue. Perhaps it started with jazz because their blue(s) has/have already passed. It seems that it is at a moment when the characters have started to lose even their sadness and the chromatic blue of the films is starting to fade that the second part of the retrospective gets back to the French crime thriller.

The vibrant blue of the sea and of Alain Delon’s eyes while kissing a woman’s hand in René Clément’s Plein Soleil is followed by the sickened blue of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. (Yet Melville’s films were blue even long before that. Perhaps it was another shade. They started being blue when in that shocking moment of Le Silence de la mer Nicole Stéphane raises her limpid eyes.) Concurrently, even characters seem to have entered a state beyond blueness and darker than it. Perhaps it happens only in the films of Melville. But there are too few reasons in favor of avoiding to regard Melville as the guide mark.


Stronger than ever perhaps, this genre, in which people follow, misunderstand and often end up killing each other, seems to be all about the unbearable pain of human contact and loneliness – that loneliness announced by the Bushido quote at the beginning of Le Samouraï. The dilemma – loneliness is unbearable and contact might be deadly.

Of the killer characters for which contact seems to be more painful than loneliness (and of the films emanating that feeling) perhaps the most mesmerizing is Paul Vecchiali’s L’Étrangleur, who kills because he cannot bear seeing sadness. In the perhaps most pessimistic way of looking at it, the childhood trauma (in Le Boucher, a war trauma) is actually a source of inspiration. However, faced with the great sadness and beauty of the film, one should not bother to define it.

If there is a longing these films prompt, it is perhaps the desire to get a glimpse of those characters‘ /of those moving bodies‘ perception (in a sensorial rather than psychological way). Maybe that is also the reason why Delon’s walks through the streets of Mongibello in Plein Soleil are so fascinatingly frustrating. They seem to provide the moments nearest to a glimpse into that undecipherable blue eyed body’s perception the film offers. [Of course many films mirror in their aesthetics their characters‘ perception]. In a way, despite the verbalization of the strangler’s urges in L’Étrangleur, the recurring vaguely trembling and soundless nocturnal car drives (so Philippe Grandrieux-esque) also feel like that. Perhaps we look at Alain Delon in Plein Soleil like Alex “langue pendue” (Denis “The Dragon” Lavant) looks at Anna (Juliette Binoche) in Leos Carax’ (I feel the title has to be whispered so as not to break the film’s spell) Mauvais Sang.

Both L’Étrangleur and Mauvais Sang (the blue comes back and is more vibrant than ever) emanate a greater malaise. In Mauvais Sang it is spoken of as a disease that kills young people who make love without emotional involvement. Godard’s Alphaville, so intensely close to Mauvais Sang, vibrates with similar threats.


The quest for contact often ends up in the inability to deal with it when found. This seems to be what happens to also Chabrol’s butcher, played by Jean Yanne and the ex-convict played by Gérard Depardieu in Alain Corneau’s Le Choix des armes. The butcher puts an end to his urge to kill others by killing himself. Of course, this sort of character can not only be found in French crime thrillers 1958-2009 it is only that here the chances of the encounters being deadly is higher.

In the darkest of cases, it feels as if these characters who get involved in criminal activity have come to the conclusion that getting a bullet in your gut is the more bearable risk to take, the one necessary in order to avoid the apparently more strenuous process of refusing. Among  those many sicknesses (of the spirit) that perspire from the films, the cruelest one is perhaps Todessehnsucht (death wish, in its poor translation from German).

One also finds characters in these films, which seem to get involved with the world of criminality (it doesn’t matter anymore on which side, lawbreakers and polices officers dwell in the same spiritual misery) in order to escape their “habitants du placard” (inhabitants of the cupboard?), as Yves Montand’s ex-cop, (ex-)lawbreaker, alcoholic character, Jansen, calls them in Melville’s quite perfect Le Cercle Rouge. There are quite a few particularities of Jansen’s part that are reprised years later by Nathalie Baye in Xavier Beauvois’ Le petit lieutenant.

Not only criminals and delinquents dwell in this (spiritual? moral?) misery. In some of the films all various sorts of police officers dwell there with them as well. Perhaps the clearest example thereof comes with Michel Piccoli as Max in Claude Sautet’s Max et les ferrailleurs, a film in which the activity of the police is shown as significantly more insidious than the endeavours of delinquents. A similar portrayal of the authorities is to be found in Claude Chabrol’s Nada, in which an unnecessarily violent police intervention against an anarchist leftist group is ordered, just in order to provide a reason to downgrade the policeman in charge of the operation.

Aversions to either the police (the boys in –funnily enough –blue, though they rarely wear it) or relics of blue bloods (as is the case in Chabrol’s  La Cérémonie) does seem one of the few forces able to unite characters and shortly pull them out of their passive isolation. In these films the characters regain a strength to revolt and to act (which for example in the films of Melville, starting with Le Samouraï, it feels they have almost completely lost). In Série noire and in Le choix des armes by Alain Corneau the wind of revolt blows from the banlieus, as years later in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, as in many other films of this retrospective.

The evolution is not chronological, and ultimately all these are variations of the felling even films made in the same year perspire. After all, Melville’s Un Flic (which is not part of the retrospective) and Jacques Deray’s hilarious The Outside Man / Un homme est mort did appear the same year. Perhaps the retrospective started with jazz because saying that the films have the blues is too misleading and simple.