Those familiar with James Benning’s name would have known what to expect with his new film Ruhr; slow-cinema taken to its extreme ends. Benning’s work has been long admired by a dedicated audience who find his patient and durational portraits of a chosen province, often his hometown, a mesmerizing experience and a treasure to behold. Yet his new film offers something different to his established and respected formula; this time Benning has chosen to depart from film and uses hi-def video, shooting outside of his native America to explore foreign landscapes in an industrial region in Ruhr, Germany.
The technological and locational changes have generated noticeable alterations in Benning’s filmmaking. For a start, using modern equipment means that he can shoot for unlimited periods without interruption. Benning is quick to exploit this, and the tableaux compositions range in duration from ten to sixty minutes, a stylistic decision unavailable to 16mm cameras. Duration has always been a key factor to his filmic works and the tool has enabled him a wider palette for experimentation in cinematic time. Yet for me there was something absent in my experience for Ruhr that I dearly missed. I used to find solace from his somber ambience of his fixed-framed shot in the dancing grains and imperfections of film projection, as well as the sound made when film and projector meets. The digital format allows little space for faulty moments that, for me, created an interesting tension with Benning’s obsessive shots of geometric and durational precision. Yet there is no denying the engulfing and captivating hypnosis that Benning casts upon us; the last shot, lasting an entire hour and a strong reminder of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), was utterly mesmeric to say the least.
On paper, I admit RUHR doesn’t exactly sound exhilarating. The experience of watching his films is difficult to explain in words and hard to convince. Certainly for many people in the audience boredom had taken over and many left their seats to get on with their lives. But for those who stayed, the durational intensity drew our minds into a space rarely experienced in modern cinema. I felt I took part in a shared collective experience and encountered an alternative vocabulary in cine-semiotics. I can say one thing for sure – it will take a few years for me to forget those images (well there were only 6 or so shots…)
James Benning introduced his piece and took part in a Q&A after the screening. He seemed very appreciative that people had stayed till the end but also very certain about his type of filmmaking and the audience it attracts. Benning mentioned that he would be against his work being used for installations in galleries or museums as his films wouldn’t adjust well to those environments as they necessitate a darkened space and silence. He seemed excited about the possibilities digital filmmaking offer him and explained briefly that he is now working on a 15-minute project involving an accumulation of footage from Youtube. It seems an interesting period in his career to make changes to his well-established style, but I look forward to what he has got to offer next.