Beyond Reason

Left: James Benning, Tulare Road, 2010, still from a three-channel-video installation in HD, 18 minutes. Right: Heinz Emigholz, Schenec-Tady I, 1972/73, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 40 minutes.

THE WIDESPREAD COMPLAINTS that the recently concluded Berlin International Film Festival was a dud must have come from attendees who, through professional obligation or simple masochism, had restricted themselves to the predictably lackluster official selection. Those who took the time to stray from the Berlinale’s designated high-profile premieres would have found some first-rate retrospective offerings (Fassbinder’s rare sci-fi TV movie, World on a Wire [1973]; three films from Yasujiro Shimazu, a Shochiku-studio mainstay of the prewar years) and an entire parallel festival unto itself in the ever-evolving form of the experimental showcase Forum Expanded.

An offshoot of the Berlinale’s Forum section, itself founded in opposition to the main event forty years ago, Forum Expanded (now in its fifth year) is devoted to exploring the intersection of cinema and the other arts and sprawls outward from the Forum’s home base of the Arsenal theater and into the city’s museums and galleries. The British artist Phil Collins devised an intriguing alternative space, the “Auto-Kino!”—an indoor “drive-in” cinema with fifteen secondhand cars. This year’s subtheme of “performance” meant an emphasis on “live cinema” events (involving readings, music, PowerPoint). There was also a major retrospective tucked away within Forum Expanded: an exhibition of Heinz Emigholz’s early films, titled “The Formative Years,” at the Hamburger Bahnhof. (All seven films in the show are available on a pair of DVDs just issued through the Arsenal label.)

Emigholz is best known these days for his meticulous, meditative architecture films (Schindler’s Houses [2007], Loos Ornamental [2008]), composed of stationary shots of a particular architect’s buildings. His early-1970s work, even more fastidious in its spatial and geometric precision, has clear affinities with the structuralist-materialist American avant-garde of the period. (He began his career in Hamburg before moving in the mid-’70s to New York, where he lived and worked for more than a decade.)

There’s an elemental logic as well as an OCD perversity to Emigholz’s project here, which is simultaneously to dismantle and reconstitute the illusion of movement, that most basic of cinematic optical tricks. Composed of thousands of single frames taken with a 16-mm camera according to an elaborate notation system indicating points on the tripod and zoom lens, these are landscape films that, in their utter fragmentation of space, discombobulate our experience of cinematic time. The convulsive time-lapse effect is by turns dreamy (the horizontally panned urban and rural landscapes of Arrowplane [1973/1974]), tense (the push-pull harborfront ebbs and flows of Tide [1974]), and apocalyptic (the onrushing woods of Schenec-Tady III [1972/1975]).

Seemingly reinvigorated by his recent shift from film to digital, James Benning cemented his mastery of landscape cinema with a new installation at the Akademie der Künste. The three-channel Tulare Road offers three fixed views, in three different seasons, of a stretch of asphalt in California’s Central Valley, the two-lane highway extending diagonally from the bottom-left corner toward a vanishing point. From one massive screen to another, visibility and weather conditions vary, as do the quality of light, the color of the sky and the ground, the amount of traffic on the road (a few cars and trucks roar into the frame or gradually emerge from its murky depths). Suggestive equally of existential zone-out road movies (Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop) and Renaissance perspective paintings, it’s a monumental work that commands attention and encourages contemplation.

Benning contributed another new piece to the Forum Expanded’s “performance” section, focused not on landscapes but faces. For Reforming the Past, an aesthetic and emotional reinterpretation of his 1991 film North on Evers, he refilmed a series of portraits from the earlier work, an autobiographical road movie, with an HD camera. Each portrait is reframed and slowed down, giving it the slightly ghostly quality of a Warhol screen test. (Some of these people, it turns out, are now dead.) Benning followed the silent, hourlong film with a live reading of the original text from North on Evers, a first-person account of a cross-country odyssey with a large supporting cast of old and new friends, lovers, and family members. The portraits are first encountered without context (we might recognize a handful of them, Willem Dafoe for one), and only later do we hear the string of events and names that goes with them. The separation of text and image means that this memory piece for the filmmaker becomes one for the viewer-listener as well. Quintessential Benning, in other words: a film to complete in your head.

The sixtieth Berlin International Film Festival and fortieth Berlinale Forum ran February 11–21, 2010.