TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 2007

TESTING YOUR PATIENCE: AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES BENNING

JAMES BENNING ESTABLISHED HIMSELF as an important contributor to American independent cinema in the mid-1970s with 11 x 14 (1976) and One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), formally inventive and visually engaging representations of urban and rural America. That the places in Benning’s early films were midwestern (he himself grew up in Milwaukee) gave notice that the so-called cinematic flyover zone—the territory between the centers of film production in New York and California—could not only be the focus of interesting work but could nurture an important avant-garde filmmaker. Later, Benning would move to New York City and then on to California (where he began teaching at CalArts in 1987), expanding his horizons while continuing to make a film every year or two. Given the considerable body of work he has created and the intense focus on place in so many of his best films—including the recent 13 Lakes (2004), Ten Skies (2004), and RR (2007)—it now seems fair to say that Benning has become the foremost filmmaker of the American landscape.

His work has always been challenging. 11 x 14 and One Way Boogie Woogie were made in the aftermath of Andy Warhol’s long slow films and of the “structural films” that followed. (Warhol and Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, J. J. Murphy, and others used extended duration and repetitive structures to contest not only the commercial cinema and its reliance on conventional narrative but also the various forms of personally expressive cinema that had dominated the 1950s and early ’60s film avant-garde—most obviously, the work of Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and Jack Smith.) Benning’s roots in structural film have remained evident throughout his career and have informed his filmmaking in a variety of ways. Early on, he used depictions of place as the backdrop for witty formalist games (for a full minute in One Way Boogie Woogie, an off-screen sound seems to approach, but never enters, the frame) and for redirecting conventional narrative expectations (early in 11 x 14 a pair of lovers is introduced; not only do they not meet again during the film, but by its end they seem to have become different characters).

In the 1980s, Benning grew increasingly fascinated with aspects of American history, and his films began to take on topical issues without losing any of their formal rigor. In American Dreams (1984), viewers are presented with items from the filmmaker’s collection of Hank Aaron memorabilia, one item at a time, seen front and back, organized in chronological order, year by year, while excerpts from the diary of Arthur Bremer scroll across the bottom of the screen from right to left—excerpts that describe the events leading up to the Milwaukee-born Bremer’s attempted assassination of Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972. The sound track alternates between sound bites from public speeches and snippets of popular songs, one from each year, beginning in 1954 and ending in 1976 (mirroring the years of Aaron’s career in the major leagues). From Benning’s deft collaging of these visual and aural elements emerges a profound meditation on aging, race, gender, popular culture, and political change during a volatile period of American history. Landscape Suicide (1986) offers up two murderers for comparison: Ed Gein and Bernadette Protti. Gein, the prototype for Norman Bates, was a serial killer (and grave robber) from rural Wisconsin whose crimes were discovered after he murdered a neighbor; he sometimes wore items made from his victims’ skin. Protti was a sixteen-year-old high school student in a posh San Francisco suburb who, snubbed by a cheerleader classmate, stabbed her to death. Benning’s story of each murder is presented within its physical and social environment, and the viewer is asked to consider how environment relates (and doesn’t relate) to violent crime.

In the mid-’90s, explorations of the history and geography of the American Southwest resulted in Benning’s first two “westerns,” Deseret (1995) and Four Corners (1997). Deseret (the Mormons’ name for the territory that would become Utah) juxtaposes quotations from 140 years of New York Times news stories about Utah with imagery from around the state. The history of Utah, as represented by the newspaper of record, becomes a cinematic synecdoche for the evolution of the American empire. Four Corners—referring, of course, to the place where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet—is divided into four identically structured sections, each using image along with spoken and visual text to reveal the complex interplay of cultures that has characterized the Four Corners region for the past several centuries.

Benning’s long-standing fascination with place and steadfast commitment to exacting formal organization have increasingly served an understated, indeed largely implicit, environmental politics. His California Trilogy (El Valley Centro [1999], Los [2000], and Sogobi [2001]) and three of his most recent films (13 Lakes, Ten Skies, and RR) confront the hysterical consumption modeled and sold by American commercial media and attempt to retrain those who come to see the films, testing viewers’ patience in order to reinvigorate their perceptual capacities. The three California films use an identical structure (thirty-five rigorously composed two-and-a-half-minute shots) to map the state, visualizing its beauty while examining the politics of water and of ethnicity.

The formal rigor of the California Trilogy is taken to even greater lengths—literally—in several remarkable recent films. 13 Lakes presents thirteen ten-minute, tripod-mounted shots of thirteen American lakes, each shot composed so that the film frame is precisely divided between the surface of the lake and the land and sky. By the second or third shot, it will have become clear to the viewer that the film is an extended sequence of ten-minute durations and, further, that these segments will be, at least compared with nearly all moving-image experiences in film and on television (even in comparison with most avant-garde experiences in film and on video), unusually minimal: Almost nothing will happen. Once this realization has come, viewers must decide either to leave the theater or to accept Benning’s challenge. The fact that, at least in my experience, nearly all of those who come to see 13 Lakes do stay for the entire experience is something of a victory for Benning’s artistry and demonstrates that, although he has refused to provide what most people go to the movies for—most obviously, character and narrative—what he has provided is not only endurable but engaging enough to sustain a 130-minute experience.

So what is it that Benning provides? The composition of the individual images in 13 Lakes and the slow, steady revelation of lake after lake create a kind of spatiotemporal grid within which the audience can measure the subtle changes that occur within each shot over time and register the distinctions between one lake and another. While some of the images of lakes are more visually arresting than others (Benning is certainly capable of stunning imagery but generally resists “beautiful” shots), and while some of the transitions from lake to lake are more dramatic than others, it is the viewer’s growing awareness of his or her own perceptiveness that replaces character and narrative within the film. By the time the end credits identifying the lakes begin to roll, Benning has transformed his audience by modeling and demanding a more perceptually active sensual awareness of the world. This awareness argues that our culture’s tendency toward relentless distraction and hysterical consumption (and the latter’s planet-despoiling implications) need not be the inevitable product of modern life, and reminds us, as Thoreau reminded us in Walden, that slowing down and appreciating the moment-by-moment incarnation of the physical world can transform our sense of what we are and what we—as individuals and as a culture—need.

Ten Skies is a companion to 13 Lakes—Benning presents a series of ten assiduously composed shots of different skyscapes—and, as in 13 Lakes, offers the possibility of perceptual retraining and psychic cleansing. RR (as in railroad) is somewhat less spare than 13 Lakes and Ten Skies; it presents a series of forty-three shots of trains moving across the American landscape, each shot as long as the train’s journey through the frame. Here, Benning’s concern with the issue of overconsumption is more overt (the railroad system, after all, remains a crucial element of modern capitalism), though the strategy of confronting the issue by means of testing the viewer’s patience, and hopefully expanding his or her powers of observation and of concentration, is familiar from the earlier films.

While in American avant-garde circles Benning remains identified with the 1970s, his ongoing productivity and the consistent quality of the films he has made since 1990 have earned him a berth in the pantheon of contemporary independent filmmakers, and his influence as both teacher and filmmaker is widely evident, both in the United States and in Europe. A complete retrospective of his work opens this fall at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna.

I spoke with Benning following the American premiere of RR at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, last April (and we continued the conversation via e-mail). At the time, Benning was in the process of editing casting a glance, a film about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which will make its debut at Documenta 12 on September 15.

Scott MacDonald

MACDONALD: In all these years, you’ve stepped outside the United States only three times to make shots, and then only to look at the United States. What’s that about?

BENNING: I have to know a place before I film it.

MACDONALD: But you know Berlin and Vienna, and you’ve not shot there.

BENNING: Going to a festival to present your films and staying in a hotel room and drinking beer isn’t knowing a place. I do know Vienna a little—I go there a lot. But I wouldn’t make a film there. If I made a film in another country, no matter how hard I’d try to be honest about what I was shooting, given what I knew, I’d accidentally misrepresent things because there’s so much I don’t know.

MACDONALD: 13 Lakes and Ten Skies are unusually minimal—each uses only a series of rather spare ten-minute shots. What led you to this strategy? And what did you have in mind for viewers?

BENNING: Duration has been part of my work from the very beginning. In 11 x 14 I used a four-hundred-foot magazine (eleven minutes) to record the Evanston Express going to downtown Chicago. One Way Boogie Woogie used sixty one-minute shots to contain mininarratives I created or found in Milwaukee’s industrial valley. But it wasn’t until making the California Trilogy that I really began to fully appreciate that place can only be understood over time; that is, that place is a function of time. And while filming the trilogy, I could see that even a shot length of two and a half minutes (the length of each shot in those three films) didn’t always do the job. So when I began making 13 Lakes I knew that I wanted to do longer portraits, portraits that would better describe place, portraits that could record those subtle changes in a place that can only be felt over time.

I should also mention that I was very much challenged by Sharon Lockhart’s Goshogaoka [1997]. I saw the film right after she completed it and was very taken by her connection to structural film (Warhol’s work, and Hollis Frampton’s, and mine), but I was even more impressed by how she radicalized structure, pushing duration to a new aesthetic level. After I saw Goshogaoka, my own work became more radical.

As for audience, this new strategy is asking them to work harder; you can’t experience something subtle if you don’t look more closely than we’re accustomed to looking, and looking more closely isn’t easy. At first I was worried that audiences would be bored, but the contrary seems to be true. These films have been successful with many different audiences.

MACDONALD: Your images seem very carefully composed. Could you talk about the factors you consider as you frame one of these long continuous shots? Also, do you always conceive the sound as you frame your images?

BENNING: Talking about framing is difficult. The answer will be different for each film, even for each shot. For instance, with 13 Lakes I wanted the frame to include the same basic information for each of the thirteen shots—that is, half sky and half water. But the real problem was to find a frame that would reveal the uniqueness of each lake.

Finding an actual frame is a spontaneous and fluid event. Now, in no way do I want to describe this process as “intuitive.” I do admit, however, that when I’m finding a frame, no language is involved: the little voice in my head is quiet; it doesn’t say, “No, no, more to the right; no, not that far.” I find each frame in a purely visual way—considering symmetry, negative space, meaning, color, texture, balance. . . . By not using language, I can communicate with myself much more efficiently. It’s not intuitive but rather a kind of fast thinking based on years of experience.

Sound is considered when I choose a location, and sound may affect the final framing. But while I’m looking for a frame, I’m thinking only in visual terms. Once the frame is arrived at, I might reconsider what I’ve decided on if it doesn’t correspond to my idea for the sound. For example, I might move the frame left or right to make a sound on-screen or off-screen, depending on how I want the sound to work with the imagery.

MACDONALD: How did you choose the lakes we see in 13 Lakes?

BENNING: First, I made a list of the thirteen largest lakes in the US, but five of them turned out to be in Alaska, and four of those were frozen. Still, I wanted to do large lakes and knew I wanted to do at least one of the Great Lakes; I decided on Superior. And I wanted to film Pontchartrain, a large urban lake, and Okeechobee, which is in a swamp.

I also wanted lakes that have interesting histories, like the Salton Sea, which was created accidentally, soon after they started farming in the Imperial Valley using a crude irrigation system coming off the Colorado River. When the Colorado flooded in 1905, it broke the irrigation gates, and the river was diverted into what was called the Salton Sink; for two years the water from the Colorado River ended up in that basin, which became the Salton Sea. Of course, this diversion of the Colorado River ruined all farming for the Mexicans downriver. The irrigation system was finally fixed. Over time the lake rose, and in the 1960s resorts were built around it. In 1976 and ’77, hurricanes caused the flooding of most of the resorts, including the western edge of Bombay Beach, where all these trailers are now mired in sand and salt. I’ve filmed Bombay Beach several times.

I chose Lake Powell, created by a dam on the Colorado River, because it covered a lot of the Anasazi culture that interests me. I also wanted to film in an out-of-the-way place in the East, and I chose Moosehead Lake up in Maine. Crater Lake came to mind because it formed inside a volcano: Its water remains relatively warm because there’s still thermal activity at the bottom of the crater; the lake rarely freezes. I chose Jackson Lake, the smallest lake I filmed, because of the Grand Tetons (I wanted some mountains in the film) and Upper and Lower Red Lake because they’re surrounded by the Chippewa Nation, who refuse to allow any development.

MACDONALD: Did you need to get their permission?

BENNING: Well, I probably should have. A peninsula divides Upper from Lower Red Lake, and a two-lane blacktop public road goes out to the end of that peninsula. I filmed there in the morning and then drove all the way around the two lakes looking for another vantage point only to realize that the peninsula was the best place, so I went back in the afternoon to film there again. I drove down a little gravel road off the main road, made a shot, and was getting ready to leave when I noticed a car going to the end of the blacktop road and coming back, kind of watching me. Just as I closed the trunk, that car drove down the gravel road and blocked me in. I got into my car, a little bit afraid. Two very large Chippewa men got out, knocked on my window, and said, “Let’s talk!” I rolled the window down, and they said, “What do you think you’re doing here?” in a threatening way. I said that I was making a film and had just made a nice shot, but that since it was starting to rain, I was going to go. They said, “No, no. Get out of the car. Let’s talk some more.” So I got out.

“Why did you come here to film?” they asked. I said that I knew this was the Chippewa Nation and that since they prided themselves on keeping development away, the lake would be very pristine; and the one guy said, “Pristine?! Bullshit! All the whitefish in this lake died fifteen years ago! And you know why? Because of your paper mills.” I had thought I was going to be robbed, but when they started talking like that, I knew this was political. They kept at me for a good half hour. Finally, one of them said, “What are you gonna do, write one of those fuckin’ books?” And, out of nervousness, I laughed. I think they respected that, because finally they said, “Let’s let him go.” I said, “‘Let him go!’ What were you going to do?” And the one guy said, “You don’t wanna know.”

When I got back to California, I learned that the Chippewa had recently restocked the lake and that there are whitefish in there again. They sued to get the paper mills to stop the pollution and worked with some whites who were sympathetic with what was happening to them.

So yeah, I probably should have gotten permission. But one of the nice things about making films is how much you learn from the experience. When I watch 13 Lakes, I remember the narrative that happened around each particular shot, and I hope some of my experience comes through for viewers. Because you have ten minutes to look at each shot, you have time to think about a lot of things, including what might have gone into the making of the shot you’re seeing.

MACDONALD: How does what you know about a place get conveyed via the shot? Is there an attitude or a compressed idea that gets injected into the setting? Does the landscape become your psychological reflection?

BENNING: These questions have different answers, depending on the film we’re talking about. On the sound track of Deseret, a narrator reads ninety-three news stories about Utah taken from the New York Times from 1852 to 1992. Each story is made up of six to ten sentences, and in the film each sentence is illustrated with a shot of Utah. The number of shots in each section equals the number of sentences in that story. Now, I spent a good part of several years in Utah making that film; I know Utah well, both from roaming around and from doing research. During the film, the viewer learns about Utah both from the New York Times texts I decided to use and from the images I collected to illustrate those texts. One of the shots in that film is of the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where a wagon train of Arkansas pioneers were killed by Mormons dressed as Paiute Indians. Everyone who could talk was murdered, more than 120 men, women, and children. The Times article you hear in voice-over is very direct in providing the information about the massacre, but the current peacefulness of the place, which is evident in the image and sound, helps to convey a fuller meaning. In other words, the meanings we get from these different sources combine and hopefully create a complex response.

Or take the shot of Lower Red Lake in 13 Lakes. The water is gently lapping toward the shore. The sun, which is at a low angle, colors the water gold. Birds fly across the frame from left to right and right to left. It is extremely quiet. But in the distance, at the horizon of the lake, the sky is dark. Occasionally, thunder can be heard. There’s a tension in the frame between the golden, lapping water and that violent sky; and that tension captures aspects of the uniqueness of that place and of my experience of it.

MACDONALD: Let me take this a little further. Is it your expectation that, after seeing the film, the viewer will investigate the history of these places and come to realize what the Salton Sea might signify to you, or what it would mean for you to trespass on Chippewa territory in order to get your shot of Lower Red Lake, and that this research would then further enrich the viewer’s experience of 13 Lakes? In other words, do you think of the film as operating in two different ways: as an almost purely formalist experience on first viewing and as a springboard for the viewer’s active exploration of place and process after the fact?

BENNING: Well, there are many different ways to enter one of my films. Certainly the formal and aesthetic level is the most apparent, and perhaps the most immediately challenging. From the very beginning I tried to define a new film language, a new way of giving information (or telling a story). When I first showed 11 x 14, I lost half my audience because they didn’t know how to watch the film, but it always pleased me when people would tell me they’d almost left but instead had stayed with the film and felt that the experience had taught them to look differently, to pay more attention and become more proactive as viewers, to look around the frame for small details and not wait for the film to come to them.

I have a very simple definition of an artist: The artist is someone who pays attention and reports back. A good artist pays close attention and knows how to report back. I teach a course called “Looking and Listening.” The class and I practice paying attention. I take them to many different places, often for a full day, and we look and listen. Sometimes we go to an oil field in the Central Valley, or to a mountaintop to watch the sky brighten as the sun begins to rise, or to a homeless neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles, or to the port at Long Beach. We gradually learn that our looking and listening are coded by our own prejudices, that we interpret what we see through our own particular experiences, and we learn that we need to confront our prejudices and learn to see and hear more clearly. And to learn more about what we do see.

Yes, I do think people want to know more about things after they learn how to really hear and see. Yes, I do hope they will go on to interrogate not only what I show in my films but what they see and hear in their everyday lives. Paying attention can lead to many things. Perhaps even to a better government.

MACDONALD: I think about many of your films, including the recent ones, as part of a long tradition of landscape depiction that includes American landscape painting of the nineteenth century, and the larger history of landscape representation. What relationship do you see between your films and art history, particularly landscape painting?

BENNING: I studied mathematics in school, so when I first decided I wanted to try to make a film, I had little knowledge of film or art history. I began by buying a few how-to books on photography and filmmaking, and taught myself. I’ve never formally studied art history, though of course my filmmaking led me to be more and more curious. I did get an MFA in filmmaking from the University of Wisconsin in 1975. When I lived in New York City in the 1980s, I went to many galleries and museums to see both art and films. The relationships between my films and painting developed pretty quickly as I grew as a filmmaker. Fairly early on, One Way Boogie Woogie was conceived as a tribute to Piet Mondrian and Edward Hopper.

For the past few years I’ve been copying the paintings of Bill Traylor. He was born a slave and continued to work on a plantation until he outlived everyone. At the age of eighty he moved into town and started painting. He painted on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, mostly from 1940 to 1943, completing over fifteen hundred drawings and paintings during that time. I’ve learned a lot about framing from studying his paintings.

You mentioned nineteenth-century American painting. At this point in my life I am very familiar with the Hudson River painters, Frederic Church and Thomas Cole in particular. And I’m interested in other approaches to landscape during that era. Currently I’m building a replica of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin near my home in the mountains, to see what that might teach me.

MACDONALD: When you were making 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, did you think of them as a diptych?

BENNING: I thought of them as companion films, but not as a diptych; a diptych implies a closer relationship. The two films are very different. For example, in 13 Lakes everything was shot in sync. Additional sound was taken before and after each shot, so that I could manipulate the sound and make it more “real” than the production sound would have been: In the original recording, I’d sometimes get noises that would have been distracting in the finished film. In Ten Skies, all the sounds come from earlier films. I tried to make that process obvious in the eighth shot: Those gunshots are the same gunshots you hear in the Crater Lake shot in 13 Lakes.

MACDONALD: Another way in which the two films are different is that in 13 Lakes you traveled across the United States and flew to Alaska, whereas, at least according to the end credits, Ten Skies was filmed in Val Verde, California, where you live.

BENNING: Not exactly. Ten Skies was shot within 150 miles of Val Verde, which I think of as my “backyard.” There are three or four shots that were made within a mile of Val Verde, but nothing was actually shot in the town itself. The fire of the second shot, for example, was filmed in October 2003, about a mile down the road from where I live. That fire came very close to my home. Three shots were made in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where I have a little house—that’s part of my “backyard” also. The shot made farthest from Val Verde is of the smokestack in Trona, which is located one valley west of Death Valley. Kerr-McGee owned the town for many years, and then it went to North American Chemical, and now somebody else owns it. Searles Lake is right next to Trona; half of the elements known to earth can be found in that lake bed, but mainly they mine borax, which is used for all sorts of things: soap and napalm. . . .

MACDONALD: I understand that you’ve called Ten Skies an antiwar film (meaning, I assume, that natural beauty and contemplativeness are an antidote to belligerence and destruction)—but would you expect a viewer to think of the film in that way?

BENNING: Ten Skies was conceived as an antiwar film. It was—and still is—hard for me to ignore the arrogance of the current administration and their violent so-called solutions, so the film began as a response, or an antithesis, to that. I wanted the shots to be peaceful and serene.

But quickly the film became something else. The very first shot I made was of the sky above the wildfire, which was accidentally started by two guys mishandling a welding torch. The fire raced up and down the local hills, creating its own weather system. Large white clouds rose thousands of feet into the air and turned orange from the fire below. This made me realize that the look of the sky was very much a function of the landscape below. But I’m still hoping there are enough shots that suggest peace so that the film implicitly calls for an end to war.

MACDONALD: After the premiere of RR the other night at Colgate University, I was a bit surprised to hear you talk primarily about the political ramifications of the film, and especially about the realities of overconsumption. During that first viewing, I was primarily aware of RR as a landscape film.

BENNING: I stood along train tracks for two and a half years, filming 216 trains—there are forty-three in the film—and during that process, I could not not think about consumption. You probably remember the double train shot, where the first train is hauling SUVs. You can tell it’s SUVs, because they’re too big for the traditional railroad auto-carriers and require the new Auto-Max carriers. So that first train pulls through the image for a good three or four minutes hauling SUVs, and then when the second train, going the other way, passes, we realize that half the train is oil cars. For me not to see this film as about overconsumption would be a surprise.

Now, I know RR is anchored in a certain aesthetic and also in the kind of nostalgia that trains tend to create, but trains have a complicated economic and political history that constantly plays into this film. The railroad system was built through massive land and bond fraud. The process made some people very rich. In the 1980s, the train system almost went out of business in this country, but right now it’s in great shape because of containerization. This is reflected in the film: You see more and more container trains near the end.

Of course, I also decided to make a film about trains because when I was a kid, I liked trains; I had a train set, and grew up aware of the romantic side of railroads. In 1900, the train was the fastest thing on earth. I wanted the film to function on all these levels.

MACDONALD: I grew up when the sound of trains seemed to suggest security; as a child, I loved the sound of trains chugging around at night, coupling in the distance, tooting.

BENNING: Formally, RR is all about the sound/image relationship. If you watch the film a number of times, you’ll discover that different trains and different cars make different sounds. The sound a particular car makes when it’s loaded is different than the sound it makes when it’s empty. Standing on the side of railroad tracks for years, I became very aware of these sounds. I shot everything in sync, and then did a lot of work on Pro Tools to refine the sound track. I’m very proud of the way the sound of each train in the film is unique to that train.

At the beginning, I had the idea of using quotations from the Bible throughout the film. It might have been interesting to do that, but I got so caught up in the train sounds that, in the end, I allowed myself only a very few intermittent sounds that don’t come from the trains: a baseball game, an advertisement for Coca-Cola, a quote from Revelations about raping the earth, and a bit of Eisenhower’s farewell speech, warning about the military-industrial complex (you hear that over a coal train that’s three miles long). Each of these additions has a political dimension that, hopefully, is not overstated.

MACDONALD: How fully did you try to reflect the geography of the American train system?

BENNING: In a sense, RR is a landscape film, where the landscape contour is described by the railroad tracks. Trains can’t ascend at more than a 2 percent grade, so they have to fit into the landscape. If the land is flat, you have this straight track going into the z axis, but if the terrain is mountainous, the train will need to loop over itself.

MACDONALD: We see that looping in one shot, though it takes a while to realize that it’s the same train.

BENNING: That’s the Tehachapi Loop just east of Bakersfield.

I shot RR at two different times. When I began the film, I was already filming casting a glance, a film about Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. For a year, I’d always take a different route back from Utah to film trains in Utah, Nevada, and California. Half the film comes from that year. The other half comes from a trip I took last summer, when I drove to New Orleans and filmed in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Pennsylvania again, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. I tried to represent lakes and rivers and mountains and deserts. The result is less about mapping the US into the film than about mapping different kinds of landscape into the film.

MACDONALD: To what extent do you think of your filmmaking as an antidote to contemporary consumer culture?

BENNING: Oh, that’s a loaded question. How can any of us escape consumerism? I drove more than fifteen thousand miles to shoot 13 Lakes. I’ve traveled extensively for many of my films. And filmmaking isn’t a clean industry. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” When I lived in New York City, SoHo was an artists’ neighborhood. Look at it now. Artists have been one of the main catalysts for gentrification and capital investment. And look at the art world and its relationship to money.

But yes, my films are an antidote to consumerism. They’re made as cheaply as possible—most of the time for less than twenty thousand dollars—and they’re not about consuming more; they’re about seeing and hearing more of what’s already around you. I don’t work to transform my films into consumer products. You can’t buy DVDs of my films, and while the films do tend to pay for themselves, they’re certainly not making me wealthy. 13 Lakes, Ten Skies, and One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later [in 2005 Benning finished a shot-by-shot remake of One Way Boogie Woogie, called 27 Years Later; the films are shown together] recently ran for a week at Anthology Film Archives in New York, and I didn’t make enough money to cover the costs of wear and tear on the prints.

MACDONALD: The Center for Land Use Interpretation is your LA neighbor. Are you familiar with the organization? Do you see any connections or similarities between their explorations of site and your own?

BENNING: Well, yes, Matt Coolidge [Matthew Coolidge has been the director of programming for the center since 1994] is a good friend of mine. I think the Center for Land Use Interpretation is a landmark in today’s art world, and yes, I think we are interested in and work in very much the same way—that is, we’re interested in studying place from many different perspectives: social, political, physical, economic. . . .

I’d also like to include William Least Heat-Moon here as another colleague. His book PrairyErth [1991] is a great model for seeing place in a wide variety of ways.

MACDONALD: I know your films are often shown on German television. Do you have an ongoing contract with German TV to buy your films?

BENNING: It’s film to film. WDR Cologne has been very good to me; they’ve financed my last ten films, either by giving me start-up money or by buying the finished film. I’m really grateful to Reinhard Wulf and Werner Dütsch for their belief in me.

MACDONALD: What are your goals for casting a glance?

BENNING: I want people to know the Spiral Jetty, and especially how it changes over time. The first time I went to shoot material, the water level was almost exactly the same as when the Spiral Jetty was built. It was May and the water had washed away the salt, and the Jetty was black and pristine, as if it were brand new. Over the following two years, I was able to simulate the Jetty’s entire thirty-seven-year history. I have it when it’s full of salt, when it’s completely out of the water, and when it’s completely submerged (it was entirely underwater from 1973 until 2000)—that is, doing what Smithson originally wanted it to do: change over time. In the film I give the dates, not of when I shot, but the past dates when the water was at exactly the same level as when I shot.

The sound there also changes continually over the year. There are different birds at different times of year, and the air varies, so noises travel differently.

Recently, the State of Utah has gotten involved in making the Jetty a tourist attraction, and I guess they must have realized that when people went down there, they saw not just the Spiral Jetty but an old trailer, an amphibious boat, an old steam shovel—all this junk mired in muck and covered in salt within a quarter of a mile of the Jetty—and also a commercial jetty nearby that goes far out into the lake and makes just a slight curve (it was used for oil exploration). In his writings, Smithson eloquently describes the area as “giving evidence to a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.” He was very interested in building the Jetty next to these buried man-made systems; that was part of the original experience. But recently the highway department, or someone—I’m assuming it’s the state—hauled all that junk out of there.

MACDONALD: You’ve mentioned that casting a glance might be your last 16-mm film.

BENNING: I would say my use of 16 mm is going to end soon. It’s become so stressful to finish a film and go to the lab and try to get good prints. Then it’s even more stressful to go to screenings, because I’ll get a good screening, an appropriate screening, one out of every five times, and three out of five will be god-awful. The projector will have a lot of movement in it, or it won’t focus across the image, or the sound will be garbled, or the gate will be all dirty, or they’ll scratch my film. A print lasts about five or six screenings now, which is expensive and frustrating. On the other hand, once in a long while, a screening will be perfect, as it was the other night at Colgate. I see that and I think, “Well, 16 mm is still possible.”

MACDONALD: You’d move to digital?

BENNING: Yeah. I am depressed about feeling forced out of my craft, but I’m also excited to try to learn a new trick, at my age. The change will make me contemplate a whole different way of imagemaking. I’m sure I’ll be frustrated, and who knows, I could come back and make a film once in a while. But I suspect that soon 16 mm just isn’t going to be there.

Scott MacDonald is the author of The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place (University Of California Press, 2001) and, most recently, of A Critical Cinema 5 (University Of California Press, 2006). He teaches film history at Hamilton College and Harvard University.