James Benning’s Ruhr
By Robert Koehler
Last things first: Having arrived here in Berlin from the Rotterdam film festival, I wanted to let any readers tracking Filmjourney that my in-depth comments on IFFR will be posted following Berlin. That’s because Rotterdam had too many worthy films to merely mention in passing, and because the programming raised ideas and notions worth mulling at greater length.
For now, let’s say that the Rotterdam Tiger jury (led by Amat Escalante) got things generally right, with Tigers for Paz Fabrega’s Agua fria del mar, Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Mundane History. An interesting contrarian gesture happened with the FIPRESCI jury, which instead awarded Ben Russell’s Let Each One Go Where He May, unanimously supported by the critics’ jury but which encountered fierce opposition with members of the official jury. One of the jury members, Jeanne Balibar, actor/singer and star of Pedro Costa’s Ne Change Rien, led into the Tiger presentation with a mini-concert of no less than six songs, capped by one in which she imitated a pig’s snort. (Some took this, rightly or wrongly, as her comment on the competition she had to sit through.)
The discoveries of Rotterdam? Undoubtedly programmer Gerwin Tamsma’s sidebar on the Pompeu Fabra school of non-fiction filmmaking in Barcelona (most new, including a revival screening of Jose Luis Guerin’s masterpiece, En construccion) and guest programmer Olaf Moller’s “After Victory” sidebar (featuring some of the rarest stuff imaginable—well, try imagining Chinese propaganda films railing against the Japanese invasion in 1938-9, and you might get an idea), followed closely by guest programmer Tony Rayns’ extensive survey of the overlooked contemporary Japanese director, Sai (Marks) Yoichi.
The highlights? Two: The Guerin, and James Benning’s Ruhr, his debut in video on the giant Pathé screen, the closest we’ll ever get to Benning in IMAX.
More about Rotterdam later.
James Benning’s Tulare Road
Today marked the first day of press screenings at the Berlinale, but the best moment so far was last night, Wednesday, during the Forum Expanded opening of the installation, Traces the Sand Left in the Machine, at the Akademie der Kunste. Starting with Christian Giroux’s and Daniel Young’s 35mm-shot 50 Light Fixture from Home Depot (a new kind of domesticated field and light work in the stream of James Turrell, made much more modestly), one worked back into the gallery space until the final room, wide and giant, enough to accommodate the three-screen projection of Benning’s latest, Tulare Road. Benning was there, watching it with my Cinema Scope editor/colleague and friend-of-Forum Expanded, Mark Peranson. Benning dryly remarked: “I’m admiring my work.”
As well he should: Tulare Road on the triple screen is landscape cinema directed at some kind of new consciousness, where the viewer can approach a single image as one would in a gallery or museum, or stand back and admire the whole panorama, a triptych of American highway Nirvana, a ribbon of road stretched to an invisible horizon, or deep into the Central Valley’s notorious, pea-soup-thick tule fog, which can produce just about the most dangerous driving conditions anywhere. Here is a variation on RR, with that film’s chosen vector of direction for approaching and departing trains matched here by a similar vector, the same rigid technological line, the pathway of the machine. But now, the skies are more brilliant, variable, ecstatic, and mysterious. The Western land is charged with this clash of opposites, and Tulare Road envelops the viewer in such a sensory dialectic.
By contrast, the Forum films today were generally forgettable. Caroline Kamya’s Ugandan drama, Imani, was a routine and undeveloped three-part narrative about young Ugandans trying to find a place for themselves in the post-civil war environment. Imani was at least superior to many of the African films I viewed (total or in part) in Rotterdam. Ines de Oliveira Cezar’s third film, El recuento de los danos, proved to be more of an exercise than anything—especially in how many scenes one can shoot in long teleophoto to produce a flattening of bodies against interiors and landscapes–all at the service of an Oedipal tale contrived to incorporate aspects of Argentina’s legacy of the disappeared.
The worst was left for last, with Sharunas Bartas’ inexplicable Eastern Drift. After a distinguished string of films that flirt with resisting narrative altogether, Bartas dives into the gangster genre, but without any conviction. He plays a gunman seeking to get to France from Vilnius, Lithuania—a gunman first seen dealing drugs in France. The contradictions and lack of tension mount, until we’re left with only one question: How could the man who brought us Three Days and Seven Invisible Men, which sometimes achieved the state of light painting on screen, bring us this?