I like to think of criticism as the art of reaction. The most common form of criticism is the review, a format that limits the critic’s powers to remaining in synch with their audience and explaining whether or not a film or book is likely to prove pleasing to said audience. Another common format is the academic article in which the critic’s powers are limited to discussing a particular work of art in terms of a finite body of theoretical literature.
While these may be the most recognised forms of criticism, critics can articulate their reactions in terms broader than either audience expectation or academic dialogue. At the root, criticism is all about voicing one’s reaction to a particular work of art and explaining the connections that were forged between the work you saw and the memories you have. Little wonder that popular criticism is starting to feature more autobiographical elements: What connection could possibly be more primal than the moment in which a work of art tells you something about yourself?
As someone who has produced a lot of criticism over the years, I find myself drawn to works of art that give me more room to elaborate my own reactions. Some works are well-curated and well-structured articulations of particular ideas that will speak directly to my favoured concerns but others are more elusive and so demand considerably more of me as a critic: The less obvious the connection, the more satisfying its articulation.
James Benning is a filmmaker I had not been aware of until Ian Sales recommended him to me. Born in 1942 and originally trained as a mathematician, Benning returned to university in his 30s before landing a job teaching film. While Benning’s work has been turning heads since at least the 1970s, he appears to have supported himself primarily through teaching and so has been quite adamant in his refusal to chase funding by doing what the film industry expects of its professional filmmakers. Until recently, Benning’s refusal to compromise even extended as far as a flat refusal to allow his films to be seen outside of proper cinemas. In fact, the only reason he stopped working with 16mm film is that the film stock was no longer being manufactured. In a 2012 essay explaining the decision to allow his films to appear on DVD, Benning said:
I’m getting older. It’s easier to give in.
In other words, Benning is a director who is extremely (some might say excessively) reluctant to accommodate his audience. This much was evident from the formal characteristics of the films themselves.
California Trilogy comprises three films about the state of California. The films are all just under ninety minutes long and are all made up of thirty five shots that are all two and a half minutes long. The camera never moves and – according to Benning – none of the shots were staged… Benning simply set up his camera, recorded chunks of Californian space-time, and stitched them together to produce three beautiful and enigmatic works of cinematic art.
The reason I opened this piece with a short discussion of the nature of criticism is that I am really not sure how I am supposed to react to these films. As a product of 20th Century Anglo-European culture, I have been trained to respond to the things I see on screen in certain ways: I know that I am supposed to react to fictional people with a certain degree of empathy in order to ‘understand’ or ‘identify’ with them and I know that I am supposed to become invested in the outcome of certain narratives in order to feel the emotional weight of certain stories. As an adult, I also know that stories about fictional people can contain commentaries on the real world and I even understand how music, imagery, and pacing can shape my emotional reactions and tell me things about what it was that the director was trying to achieve with a certain work. As someone who is quite emotionally invested in the idea of being able to understand and respond to complex works of art, I have tried to increase my levels of sensitivity by seeking out works that push at the boundaries of artistic expression. More sensitivity means more critical skills and more critical skills mean a greater ease at forging connections between the things I know and the things I see on screen.
James Benning is a director whose work interests me because I struggle to understand it. I have been watching films since I was a child and yet little I have seen in forty years of film-watching has prepared me for a series of films like those of the California Trilogy. These are films without characters, without plots, without dialogue, without exposition, and without camera movement. They are literally nothing more than series of images captured in the wild and arranged in such a way as to provoke particular reactions in the audience. The fact that I responded to these films at all suggests that, while they may be unapologetically minimalistic, they are not completely disconnected from the cultures that produced me or the skills with which I am equipped. Despite his refusal to compromise his vision with conventional story-telling tools, Benning’s California Trilogy is a comprehensible work of art but its experimental nature means that it sits right at the limits of my personal sensitivity.
The California Trilogy is made up of three films: The first, El Valley Centro looks at Californian agricultural land while the second, Los considers the over-developed nightmare that is Los Angeles. More conventionally beautiful and devoted to California’s wild spaces, Sogobi shows both the wilds of California and the outermost limits of human exploitation. Benning made these films in a specific order and I suspect he intended us to watch them in the order they were released but I found Sogobi to be the most accessible film of the bunch and so I will start at the end and work my way backwards.
Sogobi opens with an image of sea. This diagonal composition with the left hand-side of the frame static and the right hand-side moving recurs throughout all three films and, human cognition being what it is, the fact that the scene grows more active from bottom-left to active-right not only draws our attention to what is on the right but also encourages us to view that thing as active and forward-moving. Flip the scene and we tend to parse it in quite different terms.
Having drawn our attention to the ocean in motion, Benning presents us with images of water in movement and stasis, as though it were moving across the landscapes and through the forests that Benning positions between his images of water.
It is telling that the first sign we get of humanity is of a helicopter barging into a tranquil forest and plundering a river for water.
This idea of humanity disrupting the water cycle is beautifully juxtaposed with images of Californian live oaks. At first, we see them growing comfortably in the shade. Then we are shown some salt flats. Then we are shown a similar set of trees that are struggling to survive in sandy ground.
The California wilderness requires water in order to stay beautiful and yet humanity needs this same water in order to feed its cities and ever-expanding economy. Benning draws our attention to the human exploitation of nature with images of human inhabitation, human exploitation and human disruption as beautiful bucolic scenes are repeatedly spoiled by human vehicles transecting the image at a variety of different angles.
This idea of human disruption is also manifest in Benning fondness for tri-band images in which the exploitative sits uncomfortably beside the natural. This type of composition resurfaces throughout the trilogy and is worth bearing in mind as is the wonderfully haunting image of a half-empty reservoir that draws our attention not only to the industrialised nature of human exploitation but also the fact that human demand outstrips not only that which nature provides but also that which nature provides when coaxed and bullied through massive infrastructure projects.
This is a film about the concept of the Anthropocene, the period in which human activities began to transform Earth’s geology and ecosystems.
The first engine of this transformation is explored in the trilogy’s middle film, Los.
Los explores the city of Los Angeles whilst paying particular attention to the use of water within the city. For example, the film opens with a shot of an aqueduct transporting water to the city from the wilderness explored in Sogobi.
Benning sets the tone of the piece with a series of images making use of that tri-partite composition structure I spoke of earlier. At first, we are shown a highway at dusk with traffic flowing freely in both directions. Then we are shown a suburban street in which the outermost bands are filled with cars while the innermost band features grass, trees and joggers. The juxtaposition of these two images is already quite thought provoking as while the second image may hint at the idea of humanity and nature living in some kind of harmony, the opening image reminds us that vertical bands are a human rather than a natural construction. Indeed, that second image is not of nature co-existing with humanity but of nature broken and brought to heel. This idea of human dominion is then driven home by a third tri-partite composition in which the middle band is made up of a road that is concealed beneath the road that forms the outermost bands of the image. Humans build in depth… if nature exists around us it is because we want it to be there.
Los can be seen as a far more pointedly political film in so far as Benning uses water to represent the free flow of capital within the city limits. Thus, we are shown water flowing into the city and winding up in industrial processes, but also the tendency of water to flow towards certain groups rather than others.
While Benning may be a patriarchal white dude sitting in an ivory tower and producing art without having to worry about dirtying his fingers in the film business, the California Trilogy does show a real sensitivity to the experiences of marginalised and disenfranchised groups. While Sogobi takes its name from the Shoshone word for earth, both Los and El Valley Centro reference California’s Latino population. Benning awareness of economic inequality is evident from the way that he keeps positioning images of lush, well-watered green spaces opposite images of dried-out, dusty parks and schoolyards. Predictably, the green spaces are filled with white people while those forced to spend time in the desert seem overwhelmingly Latino.
The only times the film shows us Latinos in green spaces is when they are working in suburban gardens or standing on dusty roads while fences keep them separate from the expensively-produced greenery.
As in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Benning’s California is a place where water is synonymous with money. The obvious inequalities in the system are only tolerated because the wealthy have the power to keep the poor in line. Thus, Benning shows us images of both a downtown jail and a load of cops lining up and waiting for their assignments.
Humanity builds in depth but this level of density – along with the structural inequalities it creates — can only be maintained with systems and infrastructure. The systems of human governance force people together like cattle and those who refuse to stay in line wind-up stacked underground… because humanity builds in depth.
The second engine of economic exploitation and ecological deconstruction is explored in the trilogy’s opening film, El Valley Centro.
Shot in and around the agricultural land of California’s Central Valley, El Valley Centro is in the business of both exploring the ways in which agriculture has changed the face of California and planting seeds that will only bear fruit in the second and third parts of the California Trilogy. For example, the most arresting image in the entire trilogy is of a reservoir whose surface is being deformed by the process of water extraction. This not only feeds into the association of water and money explored in the second and third films, it also sets up a shot in Sogobi where we see the (now half empty reservoir) and the concrete doughnut-like structure that creates the beautiful water vortex.
El Valley Centro also establishes Benning’s fondness for tri-partite compositions as the entire film is held together by a series of shots in which agricultural machinery and workers lumber towards the camera.
However, Benning eases us into his fondness for this composition with a shot of flowering trees that just happen to be growing in perfect lines. As Los suggests, much of what presents itself as natural is actually a product of human design.
El Valley Centro also touches on issues like the destruction of nature, the commodification of water, and the racial inequalities that seem to accompany the economic inequalities that define Californian society and drive the re-shaping of the Californian landscape.
While I am able to extract certain themes from the body of the California Trilogy, I suspect that I’m missing quite a lot. For starters, while the California Trilogy is presented as a series of films, watching El Valley Centro, Los, and Sogobi is really more like visiting a photographic gallery or an artistic installation. I know enough about film, photography, and politics to assemble a basic interpretation but I feel that a lot of the nuance of the California Trilogy is lost on me because I lack the tools and the levels of sensitivity they allow. They are speaking a language I am not yet able to understand.
Early acting and stagecraft were so highly structured and formalised that actors were able to express themselves in a language made up of nothing but gesture. Actors would communicate truths about their characters by assuming a range of poses that were immediately comprehensible to everyone in the audience. While some baroque and mannerist poses remain within the vernacular of human body language and continue to inspire the postures of both actors and singers, actors of that period used their fingers and their feet to express themselves in a language that our culture no longer trains us to understand. Watching El Valley Centro, Los, and Sogobi is very much like watching a baroque opera… I can understand some of what James Benning is trying to get across but I fail to notice when he gives me the finger.