By Boris Nelepo and Celluloid Liberation Front 9/22/2014: We were saddened to hear of Peter von Bagh’s death on September 17, 2014. In Citizen Peter, More →
By Mark Peranson
“The film is called RR, but I like to call it “Railroad,” because RR sounds like a pirate movie.”—James Benning
A short stretch of celluloid itself is a representation of a train, one almost identical image following the other in rapid succession, connected by essential blocks of black, moving forward in time and space, and, when projected, rotating on a wheel. And of course cinema began with a train entering a station, chugging towards the screen, shot with a fixed camera. Barring a change of mind or circumstance, the masterful RR will be the last of James Benning’s works shot on 16mm, and how fitting that this 37-year phase ends with the image of a locomotive, pointedly stopped in front of a wind farm outside of Palm Springs, California, scrapped tires lying in the foreground, the last in a line of 43 trains shot across the United States (and the final frame of 34 extant films). After a prolific three-year period that has seen Benning produce five crucial works (likely exhausting the existing stock of 16mm film) while somehow also teaching at CalArts, driving across America god knows how many times, travelling to film festivals, and building a full-scale replica of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin, technology has vanquished this last of the old-time filmmakers. Annoyed and disturbed by the sorry state of 16mm labs and, also, projection (a number of his prints have been mangled recently, including one of casting a glance at Sundance), HD beckons, partly enabled by a commission from the city of Duisberg, Germany, funds which will help equip Benning for (hopefully) decades of image production in the digital world.
Let the retrospectives begin. A well-timed summation published on the occasion of the first full retro in Vienna, where RR premiered before Berlin, the Austrian Filmmuseum volume simply titled James Benning (edited by Barbara Pichler and Claudia Slanar) deals with Benning’s career to date. The first such book on Benning, it traverses his college shorts, his early work co-directed with Bette Gordon, through the ‘80s and ‘90s, and up to and including his two films first screened in 2007: casting a glance, his personal view(s) of Robert Smithson’s landmark earthwork, the Spiral Jetty, and RR, which was shot around the same time (which helps explain why RR contains seven shots from Utah, second only to California’s 16). With a multitude of stylistic approaches, the volume is an ideal synopsis of Benning’s exceptional career, which itself stands tall as a structuralist representation of the United States of America, and the American landscape in particular. From fellow traveller Sharon Lockhart’s perfect photo essay of Benning’s Milwaukee-based brewery beer bottle collection, to his daughter Sadie’s personal reflection, to Nils Plath’s Marxist analysis of a single scene from Sogobi (2001) of a container ship (with suggested listening: The Fall’s “Container Drivers”), the book drives around Benning’s career like the director navigates his United States; it is both idiosyncratic and indispensable.
Those familiar with Benning’s recent landscape films will be comforted by the fixed camera and the film’s continental scope, but RR marks something of, dare I say, a crucial advance. As opposed to the awesome 13 Lakes, where a knowledgeable viewer enters the cinema knowing what to expect—13 individual lakes, each shot lasting the full ten minutes of the 16mm cartridge, with ample room for contemplation, reflection, and wandering, RR finds Benning adopting another structural principle. As fellow CalArts professor Allan Sekula succinctly notes in the book’s ultimate essay, RR stands apart from Benning’s prior films in that the signified (the train) takes over from the signifier (the camera) and this, in itself, is both an aesthetic and a political choice: “With RR, durational authority is ceded to a more powerful machine, and in doing so suggests that not everything in the world of things and actions is given over to the tyranny of the signifier.” A high degree of chance enters the equation, perhaps more so than usual, as Benning doesn’t know exactly what he’ll get when he turns the camera on: What will the train look like? How long will it be? How fast will it be travelling?
And for viewers, too, each varied shot comes as a surprise. Every one in itself is mesmerizing (yet not spectacular, in a way a function of the smaller 16mm gauge), yet the film builds and builds, acquiring a cumulative power over its running time, as the simplicity of the structure gives way to infinite experiences, as always, differing according to the viewer’s attention, and even personal interest. (To some, the train might invoke nostalgia, to younger viewers, say, something like classical antiquity. And to trainspotters, well, RR is simply Valhalla.) And just as the California Trilogy concerns work and water, RR becomes a film “about” American overconsumption (the book’s green cover notwithstanding, Benning resists the label of environmentalist). It’s not fair to observe that Benning’s politics is subsumed by his aesthetics, because subtleness is key to his cinema: for the most part he lets what’s on screen (and on soundtrack) tell the story, with the tumultuous history of railroads and western development only alluded to by past songs and words on the soundtrack (there is no dissertation on land speculation by the railroad companies, though Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land,” including a verse about private property that Benning notes was “mysteriously dropped,” speaks volumes). Only really in the end, with that memorable final shot, does the film’s politics become close to explicit. But this is of course a function of editing: of choosing the order of the shots, of placing certain trains in certain spaces in relation to each other. RR is filmmaking at its most elemental, and most accomplished. And, typical of Benning’s work, it’s nowhere near as simple as it initially seems.
Filmed and recorded, as always, by a one-man band, with all shots captured without any permissions or permits, maybe RR is a pirate movie, and, in today’s filmscape, a film broadcast—hopefully, without any technical glitches—from pirate satellite. When I last saw Benning a few years ago, he looked like some kind of vagrant pirate, with his gray hair reaching down below his shoulders, accompanied by a perennial two-day growth: more than laziness—from his recent output, nobody can claim Benning’s lazy—the look was another blatant but unspoken (to most) political statement, keeping in tone with his art: Benning vowed not to cut his hair until America was out of Iraq. With no end in sight, he’s clean cropped, but he’s conceded nothing, simply ready for a new beginning of his own. Along the asphalt he’s travelled, much has been accomplished. In the book, Benning tells of taking in a section of Douglas Gordon’s seven-year outdoor projection of The Searchers by 29 Palms with a boy of 11 or 12, explaining to the kid the meaning of film by focusing on the slightest movement as the frame advances every seven-and-a-half minutes. After hearing the story, Gordon tells Benning, “So that’s your role in life—to go around making structuralists out of people.” And now, to this one can add trainspotters. Count me among the converted.
CINEMA SCOPE: How far back does the genesis of this project go? Were you always into railroads? As a kid?
JAMES BENNING: Yeah, I like trains a lot. When I was a kid I had a little model train, an American Flyer. I’d get another piece every Christmas because I never could really afford it, so…it grew over time, but it became a really nice set. But I only ever got to play with it at Christmas, because the Christmas tree would fit on it, then the train would go around it. Then when I was a teenager we used to play in the trainyards in Milwaukee, and that was kind of fun, because we weren’t supposed to go there. We’d hop on very slow moving freight trains and ride them for like a mile, and then jump off.
SCOPE: When you started making RR, was there a specific plan? Did you know the exact locations where you wanted to shoot? You mentioned that you started shooting around the same locations where you were driving on the way to the Spiral Jetty, for shooting the last few years of casting a glance
BENNING: I was pretty familiar with the major lines in the US. When I drive from Wisconsin to California, I pass by the lines that run through the Midwest. And I know all the lines on the east that go up and down the coast, like from New York to Washington. So some places I knew I was going to film in, but others I knew through research, by getting a really good railroad atlas that showed where the lines were, so I could tell how busy a line was. And I wanted to film according to landscapes, too, so I knew where particular landscapes were. I knew I wanted to do a shot across Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, and a shot in Mississippi of a train going through the kudzu growth, and then this famous park called the Rat Hole in Kentucky. And then I also used the Internet and searched this site called something like “the best railroad photos,” where there are thousands of still photos by railroad fans that are posted. If I wanted to find where there were trains that went through Main Streets I would search “all states” and then, “street running,” which is what that’s called, and I’d get 500 photos from all over the US of trains that cross through the Main Street of a small town…
SCOPE: And you could tell by the picture what the landscape was like.
BENNING: Yeah, pretty much. So I knew I was going to make a trip around the US to places I knew of, so I found other places located in between those sites. And then just following train lines I would find things that were interesting.
SCOPE: Is it accurate to call RR a landscape film?
BENNING: The initial idea of the film was to use railroads to define landscape because they can only go up a two percent grade—and because of that they have to fit into the landscape. I really thought of it as a landscape film to begin with, but as I stood more and more alongside the train tracks it became apparent to me it was going to be more about trains than landscapes. So I became aware of different kinds of engines. The second shot of the film is the only piggyback train in the film, where you take semi trucks and load them onto cars. Then later in the film there’s a RoadRailer, the train that looks like a long white snake. Those are for carrying semi-trailer trucks, but they don’t get loaded onto flat cars, they get loaded onto a truck of wheels, so the actual semi trailers are just connected by wheels. The integrity of the train is actually the trailer itself. So they must be built strong, and they just hook onto these wheels and there is no flat car, so they load really close to each other, so it looks like a long snake when it comes down. I shot that in the Rat Hole, the area where it used to all be tunnels. And I had been looking for this RoadRailer the whole time. When I was shooting from above it finally came, which is the best vantage point to film it. Also, a train sounds different when it’s empty. The sound of the train becomes really important. So someone who really follows trains will enjoy it on a completely different level, the way they listen to it, what they look for.
But for me it became more about consumerism and this overconsumption that’s going on today—I could feel the weight of the goods going by me so much. Especially with oil and automobiles, as I saw a lot of tanker cars and auto trains, and they seem to be passing each other constantly.
SCOPE: Could you always tell what’s in the trains? Because as a viewer one of the more intriguing aspects is that, after a while, I started wondering what was inside. We really have no clue.
BENNING: The container trains I have no idea what’s in there…the old boxcars, when they are grain cars they are specialty cars, so I assume what they were made for they’re still hauling, but there’s no way to tell what’s inside the cars. I suspect the oil cars are still all about hauling oil. And the trains that are loading automobiles you can tell because they have metal cars with little holes on the sides and you can see through them, and make out the silhouettes of the cars…those cars are also used for what they were designed for.
SCOPE: And the reason you used the Americana songs and readings had to do with this theme of overconsumption, like the known anorexic Karen Carpenter singing the Coke commercial, Eisenhower’s farewell speech warning about the military industrial complex, Gregory Peck reading from Revelations…
BENNING: Some of that, and also the idea of building an historical context for the piece. I was very aware of the history of railroads, and though I don’t use music and speeches that go back to the history of railroads…
SCOPE: Though one could say that Woody Guthrie—you play him singing “This Land Is Your Land”—is kind of part of that history…
BENNING: Yeah, because of his history of hopping freight trains and all that…but I did just want in general to evoke a feeling of history, so I didn’t use modern songs or historical speeches from that day.
SCOPE: That’s one thing that isn’t covered visually in the film—anyone riding the rails. Is it less common now?
BENNING: Well, no, that isn’t true because the container trains are actually perfect for it, as on every container train there will be a double stack, containers that fit onto these flat cars, and the double stacks will have one stack on the bottom and two on the top and they’ll provide a shelter for someone to ride, so a lot of people will ride underneath so they’re out of the sun. Although I didn’t see as many people riding trains when making RR as I thought I would. Every once in a while there would be someone…but when I filmed trains ten years ago, I saw a lot more. So I don’t know if there is more security, and they kick people off, probably.
SCOPE: What impresses me as is the mathematical nature of the film, in that as the film goes on, one really comes to realize the number of variables that are at play—the size and expanse of the train, the number of the cars, the colours, the speed, the landscape, the angle where the train comes into the frame and where it leaves. All these factors just pile up and up. And what starts off as maybe a simple film, or one that a viewer initially thinks is going to be simple, becomes extremely complex because of all of these variables.
BENNING: It’s like I always work: I’ll set up a problem for myself. Here, I’m going to basically collaborate with the train in that it’s going to suggest the length of the shot. And then, okay, I’m going to shoot 165 or 166 trains and I used 43 of them, but the idea is how can I keep this simple idea interesting. So I thought that I could vary the distance the camera was from the train, vary the angle that the train approaches the camera from, then change these angles from shot to shot and build rhythms that way…and play with how noisy or quiet the train is. And then like you say all of a sudden this large amount of variables makes it possible to take this idea that is confining and make it grow. I think the same thing happens with earlier films like 13 Lakes where I set up an idea—to shoot a lake with the same amount of sky and water—and then the problem is how do I get a frame that will show the uniqueness of that lake; that’s what gives an opening to this beginning idea, one that really closes everything down. It’s kind of a pattern in my work.
SCOPE: It must have been a very different experience to shooting 13 Lakes, because like you said, you have the location, and it’s just deciding where the to place the camera, and also waiting for the right moment. You are waiting on the light, yes, but here you’re setting up and just wait…so your experience personally is different, or what you’re waiting for is different.
BENNING: That’s true, because in shooting 13 Lakes what I’m waiting for is the best moment to turn the camera on, and in RR I’m waiting for the train, and hopefully it will correspond with the best moment to turn on the camera …
SCOPE: And one is more your choice, and the other, here, is I suppose the train’s choice.
BENNING: Yeah, yeah, exactly, I enter into this collaboration with the train. It’s going to choose the moment, Of course if I am on a line that has five trains an hour, then I can choose the time of the day and so on. But if I’m at a line that has one train a week, then I’m at the mercy of the train. It’s kind of like fishing. The one place I shot like that was at the causeway that crosses the spillway outside of Lake Pontchartrain, and that was the Kansas Line, I believe, and that train comes by once a week. So I waited all day, and that train came by at 4 in the afternoon, on a day it was 110 degrees, with 100 percent humidity, so I was soaking wet waiting for it.
SCOPE: But that wasn’t the longest. For one train you stood there for a day-and-a half?
BENNING: And that was on a line that should have had a train every hour, because they had closed the tracks down and there were no trains. So finally something came, and I got excited as I thought it was a train by the light, and then it became apparent it was not. Then I thought that I see these work trucks periodically going up and down the tracks, and they actually have railroad wheels they can wind down to keep them on the tracks, and this little truck came by…it’s kind of a funny moment, as the audience is fooled at first too in thinking it’s a train. That’s one of the shots where I added sound, because when I got the film back I saw there was a kind of moodiness to the Hudson River and a kind of feel of the humidity that was happening in the Hudson River Valley that made me think of Vietnam, that it looks very Third World, very tropical. So I added the sound of a Huey helicopter to again reference a history, as for me the sound of a Huey is the sound of the ‘60s, it was always on TV in every report about the Vietnam War, and burned into the GIs memories who were there. I guess Apocalypse Now (1979) really uses the sound as well.
SCOPE: So then most of the sound was direct location sound?
BENNING: Everything was shot in sync, then it was cleaned up to get rid of noises that weren’t expected, or weren’t typical of the place, or if the train would come next to me and overmodulate the signal on the tape. And then I added these historical references every ten or 15 minutes, I spread them out. But basically it’s the actual sound of the place.
SCOPE: Which is different from a number of your other films…
BENNING: casting a glance is all direct sound, but it wasn’t in sync, it’s all post-synced but it’s from the location at the time. It’s pretty much accurate, but I did add that one piece of music there as well [“Love Hurts,” sung by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris].
SCOPE: And I suppose I should also ask about the image as well—is everything there as you found it? That last shot with the tires strewn on the ground by the tracks seems too good to be true.
BENNING: Yeah, it’s outside of Palm Springs. That’s an interesting place. In the film that Reinhard Wulf made about me [James Benning: Circling the Image, 2003], early on we stop at a wind farm, and that happens to be the same wind farm. I believe on the soundtrack I talk about going back to places I’ve filmed at or thinking of filming at and seeing how the places change since I filmed there or the last time I’ve been there, and I say perhaps I’ll be filming there again, and, well, I did, for the last shot in RR. That area is just littered with stuff, so it wasn’t hard to find a good frame with tires.
SCOPE: When I saw the film, the audience was very shocked it seemed by that frame, or that entire shot. It was one of those gasp moments, like the mirrored image of Crater Lake in Oregon in 13 Lakes. This shot works a little differently, as I don’t think it’s comparable in beauty, though there is also a real perfection to the composition, also in terms of how the colours of the train match up with the landscape, the blue of the sky and the white of the windmills.
BENNING: It’s that, and I think that the other thing is as the train gets slower and slower and eventually stops, the sound of the train gives way to the sound of the windmills, so there is this slow dissolve between train noise and wind energy that somewhat suggests an alternative way of living, a cleaner energy. So it goes from the history and destruction of trains to the wind energy. After the screening, the interviewer said that he found it to be hopeful, but I find it kind of as ironic, as it seems too late almost for me. But I was very aware of that, and the tires lying there like the death of the automobile, and the death of our culture, really, and the use of oil—all of that is in play. But I think you have that reading because all of that is addressed throughout the film, of cars driving, trains with oil tankers…Perhaps you’re not consciously thinking of consumption, and all of a sudden the last shot makes you think that way.
SCOPE: There actually isn’t that much pollution on view in the film—there’s a lot of green, like the kudzu.
BENNING: It’s quite a romantic view of train lines, yeah. Occasionally you’ll see one of those diesel engines making a lot of smoke, but they don’t really make that much smoke.
SCOPE: In a way you could say that conversely trains used to be much more awful for the environment in that they aren’t using coal…
BENNING: It’s in what they are hauling where the pollution comes from. Well, trains aren’t that efficient either, but they are better than they used to be when they were coal-driven steam engines.
SCOPE: The Berlinale Forum catalogue description, which is the general conception, is that the film’s structure is precisely a function of the length of each train, in that the shot begins when the train enters the frame and ends when it leaves. But that’s not exactly the case. Some shots you hold for longer, after the train has vanished, allowing the sound of the place to reestablish itself. Did you do this to bring nature back into the equation?
BENNING: You basically always see the full train unless the train stops, which happens three times, so the rule is broken there. And then most of the time it’s an empty frame, the train enters, it leaves, and it cuts, but the time between it entering and exiting I change because in fact when I shot it I thought I was giving myself more latitude, to start it at different times and hold it longer at the end. But when I finished I realized that I never gave myself enough time; I would like to have drawn that out, as I like the absence of the train. For me the film is very much about time, and about waiting, but I didn’t want waiting to become part of the film. I wanted you to realize that by the absence of waiting you knew that I had to wait. And so generally the train enters the frame at the same time all the way through, the difference is when it exits, and I hold the frame longer, as I like what happens to the train after the frame leaves.
SCOPE: You had 166 shots and you edited down to 43 shots: what went into the choice of those 43, and what went into the ordering?
BENNING: I had a much longer cut at first, with about 70 trains. I liked that a lot but thought it was way too long. And so when I got it down to 43, that was still almost two hours, and I thought it had a length to it—I wanted the film to feel long, I wanted the relentlessness of this to happen. I felt this was a good length. The actual choosing of the 43 was harder as I threw away a lot of really beautiful shots. And I wanted to have a certain kind of variety—certain trains and certain landscapes—so that led to what picked those 43. And order, the main focus at first was that I drew vectors to suggest the direction of the train and the speed of the train. I had that on note cards, so I simply moved the vectors around to begin with to get an order. And then I saw actually what shot that vector related to, so I wasn’t even thinking of what shot it was, so then I added other criteria—how noisy, what colour, what time of the year it was—as I didn’t want to build any sequences that would suggest a progression of time, I wanted to jump. And the same with location, keeping these vectors in mind. Also a major criteria was shot length. I had four reels to build the film and there is one long shot in each reel, so they were separated.
SCOPE: Something strange happens when watching the film, too. I think at least twice, maybe three times, an optical illusion happens. After the train leaves the frame what’s left behind seem to vibrate…
BENNING: It happens a lot.
SCOPE: Were you aware of the optics, that this would occur for viewers?
BENNING: I wasn’t when I made the film, but when I started to project the work print, I was shocked. You don’t even need a film to get that optical illusion, you can stand in front of a waterfall, follow the water down, then turn your head…the idea is that your eyes will follow the train over and over and then when it’s gone the effect will remain, and it even kind of warps. One place it happens really strongly is along the Truckee River, it’s a winter shot, and there’s a train that’s hauling cars from left to right, and then when the train is gone and you look at this river, it flows backwards, it’s kind of interesting.
SCOPE: Most of the trains in the film are freight trains, maybe there are only one or two passenger trains, was this intentional?
BENNING: There are two, and that’s about the percentage that I would see: one was a commuter train, one was a passenger train. The amount of travel, at least on the west coast, is minimal—you hardly ever see a train with people in it over there. And almost all the rails are owned by these large corporations. Amtrak leases the right to use rails from the companies that operate the freight trains. That’s why Amtrak is always so late—if a freight train is coming they have to pull over and let it pass, because they don’t own the rails. And Amtrak isn’t a real train, people go on it to have fun, you hardly ever use it as a way to get somewhere: it’s as an adventure, and it functions very well that way. I’ve taken most of the Amtrak train routes, they’re fun…and slow.
SCOPE: On a personal note, I wanted to ask you about the baseball game. I remember watching that one, it’s Texas against the Blue Jays, Nolan Ryan’s no hitter against Toronto in 1991.
BENNING: That’s over a shot where it goes across a spillway in Louisiana, so it’s as if they were listening to a ball game. And I actually heard radios there because there’s a bayou where people are fishing…I wanted it to be a recognizable game from the past and if you know baseball you know that Nolan Ryan isn’t pitching any more, and you have to listen. But the commercial that they played I took out and replaced it with a ‘70s commercial by Karen Carpenter. I love her voice, it’s so beautiful. It actually doesn’t sound like a commercial to begin with—it’s really haunting. Most people probably recognize it’s Karen Carpenter, so they know it’s not from 1991 as she was dead by then. So there’s a playing with history and time that is perceivable, but you have to work at it. Immediately you know that’s not a 2007 baseball game, but I suspect nobody here in Berlin knew that, except for you.
SCOPE: The first shot in the film with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir song, however, was actually location sound, and by chance?
BENNING: When I made this trip across the US I had a very bad accident in Nebraska where I totalled my car and almost killed myself and another person, although nobody got hurt. Then I rented a car and headed back to California, but I kept filming even after this bad accident, and I decided I would even go do a shot of the Spiral Jetty. So I was driving through Morgan, Utah and I did this shot, and it was a Sunday and they were celebrating this new holiday called Community Week that I’d never heard of, before or since. All small towns in America were celebrating their community, and Morgan was celebrating theirs in a park which was just off from where I was shooting the train, and since any kind of festival in Utah somewhat revolves around the Mormon church, they were playing through very large speakers religious music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and when the train went by they were playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And that’s what kind of got me involved in adding all of these other things to the film. You could hardly hear the song in the soundtrack because I had the sound way down for the train, so in post I made the song more prominent. It did sound like it sounded, maybe a little louder. And right before that I did the shot in Wyoming where I ended up using the Eisenhower speech over a coal train…and in Palm Springs in the last shot, which was the very last shot of the film. So after I had this accident I only did four shots, and they all ended up in the film, which I think is very interesting. So someone was really helping me.
SCOPE: How long did you shoot?
BENNING: I shot for two-and-a-half years probably. I had so much fun that I didn’t really want to stop. I still miss it. Sometimes I go back to those same sites and wait for trains, just to have that feeling again.
SCOPE: You must be able to hear it before you see it.
BENNING: Sometimes, it depends on where you are. Sometimes you can hear a whistle a couple of miles away, and you can get ready, but sometimes you hear the whistle and the train never shows up, and you wonder if you’ve hallucinated it.
SCOPE: So you see the appeal of trainspotting.
BENNING: Yeah I do, I mean, I’ve always liked it as a kid though. But the funny thing is more than half the people I met who were rail fans were Europeans. They don’t have the trains we have, these long, gigantic ones, so they come and they really appreciate them,
SCOPE: And they all run on time in Europe. And it’s actually a viable system of transportation in Europe, and is more efficient probably in terms of the environment, as opposed to in North America. It’s a function of the expanse of America, too. And I guess trains though will persist because there is no more efficient way of shipping large goods, like cars, to the middle of America…
BENNING: Freight trains in America almost went out of business in the ‘80s; they were doing rather poorly. I think the infrastructure wasn’t invested in, and they had all this maintenance to do, and shipping by truck was taking over. Now they are a strong economy, I think mainly as a function of containerization, you ship the containers across by train. It made it simpler to load them onto trains, I guess. In Europe ports are close enough, you can use trailers. But Canada has a very strong train system…
SCOPE: And you see all the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National cars in the film. Those trains are Canadian?
BENNING: I’m not sure. I think some participate on those lines, like the Old Milwaukee…
SCOPE: Delivering Canadian goods?
BENNING: They’re probably delivering Asian goods!
SCOPE: There are two shots with two trains—were you aware that there would be trains crossing each other at certain times?
BENNING: I had filmed three or four trains that passed, just by sheer luck, and because some lines are very busy. The one that’s in the film where they actually passed is in Amboy, California. That was a very hot day, and I didn’t want to sit and wait for a train, so I drove down the line until I met a train, and then I drove like 90 miles an hour back down Route 66 to Amboy, and I set up. But the train I was waiting for that I was racing to catch got caught by a red light. All of a sudden a train started coming from another side. So I thought, okay, maybe I should start shooting that train, or should I wait for the first one, and then I got real anxious not knowing what to do so I just turned the camera on. And that train turned out to be the one hauling automobiles with these Auto-Max cars that are made especially for SUVs—the huge white cars—and it went flying by, and just as it’s ending, the other one showed up. I was astounded. Then I worried that I would run out of film, but it was going so fast that it passed by in a couple of minutes. The other one was in a train yard in Mojave, and I saw a train sitting there and running and there was a train coming from the north, and the other one came up, and it actually stopped because it was switching.
SCOPE: That’s the shot where the brakeman comes out? He’s the only person in the film, right?
BENNING: Yeah, that’s the most narrative shot. I thought there was this truck coming up to tell me I was trespassing, but it was coming to drop this guy off.
SCOPE: You had no idea that he was going to show up and walk into the shot, and he didn’t care you were shooting?
BENNING: They totally ignored me, both of them. Where the other train passed, there were two main lines and a spur, and I set up my camera on a spur, and this train guy came by and said, “No, no, no, you can’t have your camera on the track.” He didn’t say I couldn’t film…so I just moved over, and actually it turned out to be a better frame.
SCOPE: Did you shoot anything at night?
BENNING: Just one at dusk, but nothing at night…
SCOPE: Because you were worried about the quality of the resulting image?
BENNING: I guess I wasn’t sure what I’d get. I was shooting 50 ASA film which doesn’t have that much of a response to darkness. The one at dusk with fog in Manor, Pennsylvania, kind of gives you the illusion of night.
SCOPE: Maybe it would work with HD. Is it true that this is your last film on 16mm?
BENNING: As far as I know, yes. I don’t want to shoot 35mm as I don’t want to get into that kind of money. I’ve always been against spending lots of money on projects, and I sometimes think that if a lot of my films were 35mm or 70mm they might turn into a coffee-table book. There’s something about the small gauge that makes them more real for me. But now, yeah, I’m disturbed that I’m being forced out of my craft by new technologies that are developing that are getting more attention, that means there’s less attention on what I’ve been working in. And nobody’s aspiring to be a good 16mm projectionist except James Bond in Chicago, there’s nobody else who even can fix them. And the labs, they make believe they still do good work but they don’t pay attention to it at all.
SCOPE: So you would still shoot in 16mm if there were good labs and good projection then?
BENNING: Yeah, I probably wouldn’t even have thought of getting out of it. But in a way I’m kind of glad, because I could just do the same thing for the rest of my life. This is going to cause me to do a complete rethinking of image making. I’m both mad and excited at the same time.
SCOPE: What are the benefits of shooting on HD?
BENNING: I don’t know, because I haven’t shot anything yet. The benefit is that once I’ve invested in equipment I won’t have to see a film lab again for the rest of my life. I should be able to do everything myself, as I know Protools now, I know Final Cut Pro, so I can load stuff in, do all the editing, and spit something out that’s a final record of what I’ve done.
SCOPE: How is that different from how you’re editing now?
BENNING: These last two films, casting a glance and RR were shot on 16mm film, I made work prints, I projected the work prints over and over again to get to know the footage, I edited the footage on a Steenbeck, locked the picture, made a Quicktime movie, did all the sound in Protools, recut the picture again because once you add sound, you realize you need more or less duration, then did the same process with the new Quicktime file three times until I got the picture edited properly. Because I had never done that before. And now I’ll just edit sound and picture together on Final Cut Pro, and then go into Protools and mix it. I don’t think I’ll have to keep going back and forth, because I can do some sound in Final Cut Pro to get the durations right. For both casting a glance and RR I created very complicated Protools sessions, but I tried to seem to make them simple. I wouldn’t have been able to make such a good soundtrack for RR on a flatbed because there was so much background noise to cut out and to fix. With Protools it was a joy, it was fantastic.
SCOPE: Speaking of casting a glance, I’m curious as to what your take is on the recent controversy about the impending oil drilling near the Spiral Jetty.
BENNING: First I will say I support Nancy Holt’s wanting to stop the oil drilling, because I think she should be the person that answers this question, not me. Having said that I’m a little surprised that she would want to stop it because the Spiral Jetty was built in an industrial site to begin with. Smithson chose that site because they had already tried to drill oil there and they had built a commercial jetty that’s half a mile away, and all that failed, but what was left was all that crap laying there. Smithson was very interested in that, and very elegantly describes the landscape there. The main reason he built there was because the landscape “gave evidence of a system of manmade systems mired in abandoned hope,” and he didn’t want to build something that was in a white-walled museum or gallery, but wanted to put it in the world, and see what the world would do to it. And this is what the world’s doing to it. The Jetty will outlast this oil well, as it will too become another “manmade system mired in abandoned hope,” and just add to the Jetty itself. Perhaps it will be noisy and irritating to the public that comes to see it, but generally I find oil wells aesthetically pleasing. But then you also have to know this land is overgrazed by cattle, 20 miles down across the lake is a railroad causeway that’s completely changed the ecology of the lake making the water redder with algae, which is another reason he built the Jetty there, because this railroad jetty had already affected the algae growth and the salt content in the lake, which would grow salt crystals. So all this history of industrialization of this land was part of the aesthetics of the Jetty to begin with. And 20 miles away there’s a naval base where they practice bombing, and there are bombs going off across the lake that you hear constantly…so this isn’t a pristine white-walled museum and it shouldn’t be made into that. I don’t know all of the details, if it would spoil the exact environment of the art, but even if it did I think that’s part of the Jetty; he wanted it to interact with the world.
SCOPE: Do you see a connection between what you’re doing and Smithson’s project?
BENNING: If there is it’s because I admire him so much. I’m certainly influenced by him, and how he tried to understand landscape…even though the Spiral Jetty could have caused some environmental damage to the lake on a small scale, relative to the causeway it didn’t do any damage. But relative to the brine shrimp who live right there, maybe it destroyed some of them. But he’s very aware of the way the spiral fit into that landscape. And when I’m filming the trains I’m trying to film the trains’ awareness of their landscape in a way. He’s interested in these grand schemes of geological time—my films don’t deal with such large time scales, but I think about time because he thought about great distances of time. So this film about waiting for trains and the train as duration is a reflection on his ideas of time. And I suppose historical events and entropy can be all connected, in very abstract terms.
SCOPE: Did you pay much attention to Smithson’s film, Spiral Jetty (1970), when you were filming and editing casting a glance?
BENNING: I watched it a few times again because a friend of mine has an almost pristine 16mm copy, which is very beautiful. I like the film a lot. I made a film that his film begs for, which pays attention to the Jetty over time. It addresses history back to the dinosaurs, but doesn’t deal with what happens afterwards. I thought maybe mine could serve as an appendix, with a sense of the rhythms that the Jetty becomes a barometer for, to measure the lake, to measure the algae…when he finally does film it, he films it from helicopters, and very dramatic points of view. All that is well documented, so I wanted to show it from the point of view of a person on the Jetty. And I think that’s what he was very interested in too, but it wasn’t in his film because he didn’t look at it that way. He talked about the detail, and being on it, and experiencing it.
SCOPE: One thing that I discovered in reading the book published by the Austrian Filmmuseum is your recent construction project—or maybe it’s an art project. What’s the deal with your full-scale replica of Thoreau’s Walden House that you built on your property in Val Verde?
BENNING: I read Walden when I was in high school or early on in college and couldn’t remember it at all, and about ten years ago I was in Pusan teaching, and, of course, one of the only English books in their library was Walden. So I reread it and thought, “Oh, what a great book!” Then I forgot about it, and started doing this Looking and Listening class at CalArts. I had to write a proposal as to what it’s about, so I did, and I’ve been doing that class for eight years. This summer I decided to build this replica of his cabin, so I reread Walden again, and there’s a chapter in there called “Sounds,” and two paragraphs are almost exact descriptions of my Looking and Listening class. I thought, “Man, I thought that was my idea.” And half of the chapter on sound is about railroads! So once I read that I thought I have to build this cabin, he’s been too much of an influence on me.
SCOPE: What are you going to do with it?
BENNING: I have it set up as an art gallery now, because I’ve been copying folk art. I have big folk art paintings in there, copies of other artists. I also have a big drawing that Robert Smithson did of the Spiral Jetty, which of course actually is my drawing. So I have all of this fake art in this fake cabin. Conceptually I think it’s really a strong work of art. I’m hoping one or two people will try to find it.