Saturday, February 24, 2007

New Film: Ten Skies

In the spirit of tomorrow evening's celebration of the 79th Academy Awards, let me say a few words on the best new(ish) American film I have seen in the past twelve months, James Benning's Ten Skies (2004). A companion to his similarly constructed 13 Lakes (also 2004), Ten Skies is assembled of ten static ten minute shots of Val Verde, California skies. Each is composed of continually changing cloud formations, which emit an enormous degree of variation from one set-up to the next. For instance, Benning's film begins with a relatively clear blue sky occupied by a pair of intersecting jet trails that gradually disappear out of the top of the frame. In his second set-up, the film shifts to fluffy cumulus clouds with dark shading that start to resemble trompe l'oiel paintings of the same subject. In the third, Benning's color palette shifts to a grayish blue green supporting fast moving blanched clouds. In other words, Benning's film offers substantial variation in its color schema from one sky to the next and even within each shot.

Certainly, the moment-to-moment transformations of his aeriel views is among the principle subjects of Ten Skies. Then again, not only does Benning's film not require its viewers' continued attention, but in fact it encourages distraction. That is, with the renewal of viewer attention after moments of intellectual drift -- a mechanism built into his discursive structure -- Benning's film produces drastic changes that seem unthinkable after even the briefest of intervals. Further, the film's alternation from one set-up to the next eventually produces a sort of suspense in the disclosure of the following scene, even as a drama can be produced from a cloud's gradual overtaking of the full frame or in an airplane's inching toward the image's edge.

Speaking of the edge, as with 13 Lakes, Ten Skies adheres to Andre Bazin's notion of the frame as a mask, calling attention equally to what remains outside the visual field. Indeed, it is not simply the passage of cloud formations into and out of the frame, but even more the non-sync off-camera soundscapes that transform Benning's spaces from their minimal enframed sections to a maximal combination of on and off camera fields.

Therefore, Benning articulates his medium's spatial ontology (with its relation to the frame), as he also underscores the perpetual remaking of space that separates his medium from the other visual arts. Then again, it is less these didactic functions than the aesthetic properties that adhere in his images which truly recommend Ten Skies. Specifically, it is his panchromatic palette and the variations in textures that these distinctions produce, which mark the artistic achievement of Benning's film. For example, one of the film's darker skies figures a second, silky veil in the fore of the larger climatic formation. Separately, the film's concluding pairing of gray and deep blue ultimately yields a preternatural blue that begins to look like something quite distinct from nature. Indeed, Benning's sky-scapes secure an abstract patterning before our eyes with a hard, mineral texture that ultimately loses even this tentative visual grounding. (It is worth noting that Benning's choice of 16mm is essential to attaining the effects that distinguish Ten Skies.)

In the end, Ten Skies encourages a keener vision of not only cinema but of nature itself. It compels its spectator to notice more subtle variations in color, texture and movement than we are accustomed to seeing. In other words, Benning (to paraphrase an earlier purpose statement by the filmmaker) is teaching his viewers to see like artists see. Moreover, Ten Skies, again like 13 Lakes, represents a sustained examination of cinema's unique character, locating its specificity in its capacity to represent movement and also its construction of a space greater than the visual field. Thus Ten Skies once again calls us to see anew, though in this latter case it is cinema rather than nature which the filmmaker's lesson emphasizes.

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