If James Benning's RR (2007, 112 mins.) does indeed prove to be the filmmaker's final work in the 16mm format, as was suggested by Mark McElhatten prior to last night's Views from the Avant-Garde screening, Benning will have selected the ideal content for his farewell to the medium: projected celluloid's first subject, the arriving train^. More accurately, RR is comprised of 43 separate set-ups of trains crossing into and out of the filmmaker's static landscapes, thus repeating the essential format of his 2004 masterworks, Ten Skies and 13 Lakes - where the filmmaker procured variations in immobile ten-minute takes. Of course, RR refuses the countdown structure of the previous two entries, as well as their fixed durations, adopting instead a logic, once again, that requires the appearance and subsequent disappearance of the eponymous trains. In this way, RR denies the anticipation of its end that is written into the earlier films'; Benning's latest offers no similar substitution for expected narrative closure.
RR does however present a structure that is otherwise identical essentially to Ten Skies and 13 Lakes: like these films, RR proceeds according to the minutest of variations. In Benning's most recent, the visual and auditory content almost immediately proves redundant, less of course on the level of the landscapes themselves, than on the ostensible subjects of the images - the freight trains passing through Benning's assorted landscapes. As such, RR quickly encourages its viewer to search out areas of interest beyond these, corners of the frame where an unrelated movement or sound encourages the spectator's redirected attention. An early instance occurs in an Alabama location where a fish's jumping activates the previously placid water occupying the lower half of the frame. With this sudden ripple and the accompanying sound, we search for something new in the image, for variability in content.
This pursuit of difference manifests itself in many of the film's seemingly less significant details. In a Milwaukee location, a single piece of blue refuse in the lower left corner of the frame immediately attracts our attention, even as the abutting train passes by (at least for a time) unnoticed. Here, it is this primarily color highlight that prompts our interest. Elsewhere, a California view attracts our interest for the strangeness of the space, where a bridge crosses over a dark red flat. In this instance we search for any sign of the landscape's composition - if it is water, which in fact it is (covered in alga) we seek that ripple that would indicate its status. Again, the train crosses through the frame largely unnoticed. Or in yet another subsequent set-up, the appearance of the train no less than cancels the background landscape, largely excluding visual interest from the shot.
Of course, there are places where we do focus more intently on the train, whether it is a zip shadow holding stationary in counterpoint to the moving train or at Caliente curve in California where the foregrounded train's disappearance from the frame is followed presently by its second appearance in the recesses of the composition. In this instance, Benning demonstrates a wryness that appears often in RR: among the more memorable examples are the film's only withholding of a train - the approaching headlights prove to be a truck driving atop the rail bridge - and the NWA soundtrack displaced by the sound of the on-camera train. In the latter case, the shot's primary source of interest becomes whether this music will recommence once the the train is out of ear-shot.
RR further differs from its immediate predecessors in its use of found audio, which in certain cases is calibrated to approximate a plausible source within the frame: as for instance the rap in a RV encampment or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic's" low volume suggesting a location in a distant structure. In others, the audio finds no precise location, as with Gregory Peck's reading of Revelations, a circa 1990s Toronto Blue Jays broadcast or Dwight D. Eisenhower's farewell address (where he warns against the military-industrial complex). Excluding the baseball game, these latter examples suggest a cursory critical perspective, or better yet a diagnosis of the American present, in addition to the auditory thematic - principally, our attempt to listen under the louder rail sounds.
It is our attempts as spectators to find the subjects of the images, both visual and auditory, as well as its jokes, which provides RR with its substance. It is likewise the film's theoretical foundation: namely, to produce moment-to-moment interest in the introduction of new and novel items in his mise-en-scène and on his soundtrack. Through the film's repetitions Benning highlights the minimum conditions for the temporal side of cinematic form (most commonly, though not here, taking the form of narrative). RR represents yet another essential entry into one of the the contemporary avant-garde's most indispensable corpuses.
^In an earlier article on the filmmaker, I made the comparison to the Lumière's famed genesis of cinema. As such Benning's latest, on the level of conceit, provides me with no small amount of satisfaction, and even confirmation. (I hope my readers forgive this boasting; at least I confined it to a footnote.)
New Filmkritik has compiled stills of each of the film's 43 set-ups as selected by the filmmaker himself.