Charting America

AFS Series Presents Avant-Garde Film From Burkhardt to Benning

Filmmaker James Benning will present his landscape documentary <i>Los</i> as part of AFS's avant-garde series.
Filmmaker James Benning will present his landscape documentary Los as part of AFS's avant-garde series.

Perhaps no filmmaker is as fascinated by the geographical, historical, and social aspects of our national landscape as James Benning, who has been creating 16mm portraits of American spaces for four decades. So it's fitting that Benning -- a longtime student of the avant-garde tradition and now one of its masters -- will conclude the Austin Film Society's new film series, "Structuralist, Collagist, and Surrealist Film: The Poetics of Avant-Garde Cinema." The series begins July 18 at the Scottish Rite Theater and culminates August 13 with Benning's personal introduction of his new film, Los.

In many ways, Benning typifies the paradoxes of the avant-garde tradition itself. His films are personal yet implicitly political. He's a formalist with a rigid technique, but his method reveals his landscapes in the most naturalistic manner possible. In his more recent films, he resists the constraints of conventional narrative -- even documentary narrative -- by focusing not on people, but on environments, inhabited or not. Because his minimalist camerawork is static, insisting on the viewer's patience and concentration while displaying only a single, unchanging image for minutes at a time, his work might seem inaccessible. Yet his influence is considerable -- felt, for example, in the long takes of the broken-down, snowbound panorama of Cleveland in Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise.

Benning is also something of a hero locally; he is described by Richard Linklater as "one of my filmmaking heroes, an independent artist in the purest sense of the word." A stop in Austin is featured in North on Evers (1991), which uses a mix of film footage, audio, and handwritten text to chronicle a cross-country motorcycle voyage. Likewise, the AFS has a history of Benning boosterism, and vice versa: Benning's El Valley Centro unspooled during last summer's Texas Documentary Tour, and Benning has been on hand to dispense the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund grant and the D. Montgomery Award to their respective winners.

A native of Milwaukee, Benning trained as a mathematician, a fact that probably accounts at least partially for his structuralism -- exemplified in the organization of his films according to a set number of shots, and the use of intertitles and layered text and images. But Benning relocated to teach at the California Institute of the Arts, and his films have explored the western United States since.

Benning's latest work, the so-called "California Trilogy," is a triptych of landscapes from the many sides of California. The first film in the series, the critically praised El Valley Centro, captures the effects of agricultural commerce in the rural Central Valley in static long takes. Los, the second installment (and the one Benning will be on hand to present), is a series of images from the City of Angels -- 35 stationary camera shots, each two and a half minutes in length and accompanied by ambient noise recorded on location with a single microphone. There is no voiceover and no "story" as such, except the one that emerges from the images themselves: scenes of commerce and sprawl, the California aqueduct, a freeway, and the city's diverse and distinct populations, from prisoners to affluent shoppers. (The concluding film of the California Trilogy will reportedly focus on the state's unpopulated regions.)

This landscape approach prevails in the work of many of Benning's fellow avant-gardists also included in the AFS series. The films by Rudy Burkhardt (1940's "The Pursuit of Happiness" and 1953's "Under the Brooklyn Bridge," which open the series) are both landscape documentaries, detailed but subdued and naturalistic portraits of New York City. And while 1965's "Kustom Kar Kommandos," an unstructured documentary short by flamboyant underground film giant Kenneth Anger, couldn't be more unlike Benning's work in method and tone, its subject matter -- the fetishistic car-worship culture of California hot-rodders -- provides a possible counterpoint to Los.

Nor is the series short on the sort of structuralism typical of Benning's body of work. Jonathan Rosenbaum, of the Chicago Reader, compares Benning's compositions to the meticulously compartmentalized boxes built by filmmaker and constructivist artist Joseph Cornell, who has three films scheduled to open the first night of the series (which is devoted to Forties and Fifties avant-garde pieces): 1955's "The Aviary" and 1957's "Nymphlight" and "A Legend for Fountains." And Hollis Frampton's hourlong "Zorns Lemma" screens at the end of the 1960s retrospective.

The rest of the lineup showcases the diversity of avant-garde filmmaking, with showings from animators (such as Len Lye and Stan Vanderbeek), collage artists (Bruce Conner and Robert Breer), surrealists (the estimable Maya Deren, Scott Bartlett, and others), and just about everything in between.

But unlike many of these artists, Benning's films aren't available on video in any form, since the director reportedly doesn't allow his films to be transferred for distribution. Outside of festivals and special screenings like this one, you're not likely to find Benning's work anywhere. end story


The Austin Film Society series "Structuralist, Collagist, and Surrealist Film: The Poetics of Avant-Garde Cinema" begins Wednesday, July 18, at the Scottish Rite Theater, located at 207 W. 18th (see schedule, left). The series concludes Monday, Aug. 13, with James Benning's presentation of Los.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

James Benning, AFS, Avant-Garde

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