Returning back from six weeks travel crammed with too much to ponder, a cloud of personal anxiety for Marcella who is still in Italy with medical problems which make me feel I should be there with her, the gray envelope of aloneness here in Seoul jangled only by the pressing matter of getting ready for academic chores, I found myself looking through computer files for something else, and bumped into this – a letter to both Jim Benning and Leighton Pierce, two filmmakers I respect immensely and like to think of as friends:
I hope you won’t mind me bunching this up, but since it’s about something by each of you, and kind of comparative, and as I am dead tired from finishing up (I hope to hell – the Jeonju fest runs tapes through a studio that is merciless, and I’d sent 3 so far, and each one has flaws I didn’t see – dropped pixels, shifted image, little buzz line at bottom of one passage – and I was up to 11 last nite and up at 5am working to 1:30pm before I took off for class and must make new tape tonite, poor me).
Anyway today I looked at a film of each of you – #1, and Ruhr. It would be hard to find two more wildly different films (unless I opted for totally badly crafted ones) and yet somehow they both did similar things, though coming from completely different angles.
I’ve seen #1 maybe 4 or 5 times before, but hadn’t seen it for quite a while. Like almost all your work, Leighton, it rewards re-looking again and again. #1 is so rich, a first look is almost too much to take in, one gets lost in the dust, the forms shifting so rapidly and organically, a wild painterliness almost overwhelming in its seeming pace, the sounds shifting, hinting, guiding. But with each repeated look the rush of images takes on more and more orderliness, like peeling back the layers of some gorgeous plant, each layer leading to another equally beautiful and sensuous, yet still withholding its secret. Today I felt I saw so much more than the last time, though it is clear this poem will remain ever elusive. And enticing. I am sure I could watch and hear it 100 times – which I think I might have done with some of your films – well that’s a bit rhetorical of course. How about 30 or 40 times? Anyway #1 is stunning, in quite a literal sense.
Then I saw Ruhr, on a sizable screen, with my good projector. Even with the compression it was quite clear and detailed, though I am sure off original it is much more so. The compression mostly induced some motion artifacts, little jerkiness – annoying, but one is able to read through it.
For a few decades, Jim, I’ve thought your work was sadly compromised by shooting in 16mm, and I fantasized your being able to do it in 35mm, though I understood only too well the brutal fiscal logic that didn’t let you do that (and why I pestered you for a decade and more about DV). So seeing the HD, the wide-screen format, the far better sound was all a distinct pleasure. And I was very very impressed with Ruhr, which as radical as it is I suppose for most people, I feel really works. Though the viewer must give it an awful lot, which I know most (95% or more? of even supposedly adventurous festival goers?) aren’t game to give. But if you do then you really look and see and listen, it is very rewarding, guiding one to be attentive to the smallest of things, and in a way out of what most would think as almost “nothing” you offer a lesson in dramatic construction. The little leaf in the tunnel, inconsequential and in most circumstances unnoticeable, makes an ironic little dance; the dance of steel pipes in the making (reminded me a little of the lumber mill sequences in The Bed You Sleep In), forcing one to look and look (and listen and listen), all the while shifting one’s sense of time steadily to another state, while tuning up the eyes and ears. The forest sequence was gorgeous, the composition really exquisite with the two heavier trunks constraining what almost seemed a spatially false space of light between them; the dark mass to the right pulsating – I found myself thinking of Caspar David Friedrick, and perhaps a touch of Gerhardt Richter (some things of his), and some of the denser images of Pollock, especially late painting. The jets taking off, the long pause and then the rustle of the branches, autumn leaves falling – this almost “nothing” was ripe with space to think and ponder. Its repetition was again a lesson in drama – the dramatic act, the long pause, the rustled response, the senses being tuned to what is in the image and the sound. The mosque sequence seemed a bit strange, though being familiar with Germany, I knew it was not so strange, though I find this religious genuflecting dubious, sad, and a bit fearful – whether of Muslims or our home-grown erstwhile Christians. The Serra cleaning was the one place where I itched to see a not-Benning turn: as I watched and it came to a close I promptly thought that it would have been gorgeous (and truthful) to have the guy go off screen with his stuff, and then shot unchanged do a very very slow dissolve to the cleaned work, a large steel monolith in the middle of the screen. Kind of thing I would have done. The street scene – stolid, drab, echt deutsch – seemed an anti-climax, though it too took on its own burgerlich life, and off-screen the sound hinted at the wider world, the industrial sounds hovering just a step away (again, was reminded of Bed where the sound of the pulp mill was ever present on the track).
And then the coke tower sequence, where you lay down the gauntlet, and I suppose most would decline the offer. I looked carefully the whole time, while it was brighter my eyes at a later point saturated with the contrast, popped back and forth, almost hallucinogenic, while the ears tuned to the sounds, seeming almost Penderecki or some Alvo Part, the song of the industrial apparatus, trying to synchronize the repeated noises that seemed to presage the sudden burst of steams, the light drowned by the industrial clouds, the sly rhythm again building the sense of drama. The off-screen thump, the sequence of up/down siren(?) sounds announcing yet another deluge. The light slowly dropping, and the coke tower coiled with black shadow, morphing into the WTC towers – such is what an hour will give you to fill in the screen with your own thoughts.
Great film, James.
What both films do, in completely differing tacks, is move the viewer to SEE and to HEAR. #1, a slightly long poem, plunges the emotions, whips them into a frenzied sensuousness, and leaves you – like making love, satiated and wanting more. Ruhr, a more massive work than its 2 hours suggest, takes another route, and likewise tunes the eyes and ears, but leaves a vast canvas for the viewer to project their own thoughts onto the process. I felt Ruhr to have an ominous tone, a weightiness related perhaps to Anselm Kiefer.
Off the top of my head, those are my thoughts of the moment. I’ll be chewing on them a bit and probably writing more or more clearly on cinemaelectronica in the next days – if I can get damned Swimming fixed and out of my hands.
Back in Seoul following my travels, I flicked on the computers which had frozen along with everything in my living box in my winter absence. One put out a signal about DMI that sent me scrambling to Google to solve. Five days later it’s back up. And the others are under the harness, taking care of chores (mistakes discovered in screenings in Rotterdam and Jerusalem.) Shortly it will be on to new work – scavenging the several hundred tapes to both get them on Hard Disks before my tape-running machines give up the ghost, and at the same time to look at the material gathered since 1996, and find whatever films are hiding in there. I suspect there’s 3-5 features and lots more shorts waiting to be discovered and organized. And along with that beginning to think about and take a few tangible steps towards shooting a film, narrative, in HD, in the summer, or perhaps next winter.
Perhaps it is getting on in age, the fabled mid-life crisis arriving rather late (67 is not mid-life unless you are Methusala), or perhaps it is a look at the changed world around me, but as I glance at the racks of tapes, or begin to write people about new film, I find I am less than enthused, and instead silently ask myself, “what’s the point?”
Certainly in my case it’s not the old stand-by, “to make a living,” as it is 100% certain that whichever of these – odd films culled from the backlog of footage, or a quasi-acceptable narrative shot in HD – they are not in the current world going to make any money, plain and simple. They will cost a little or in the case of the narrative film, a little pile, of my own limited money with old age and its problems, more or less upon me, unprotected by any insurance for health, life, etc. They’ll also cost lots of time and energy. So no, it ain’t for money, which my work has never brought me, except belatedly here near end-game, tangentially, via a teaching job which I guess I “earned” the right to have with 4+ decades of film/video-making. Nor is it for the cultural pats-on-the-head of festivals showing your work, or retrospectives here and there, or an article written about one’s work. I know some people like, appreciate, or even need such things, for their sense of self-respect or “ego.” But being honest, such things really don’t mean much to me, perhaps because I am self-confident enough (or arrogant, depending how you look at it) that I really don’t need external approval: I know very well that I am very good at what I do, and given I am the one most acquainted with the actual processes and the penury involved, I know it better than anyone else could. In fact often such sentiments are expressed in ways that are actually irritating for me. So, nope, it’s not the back pats and gushing “loved it” that prompts me. And when I watch the list of credits roll by in most films, and think someone just directed, or someone just did camera, and someone else edited, well….
Being honest with myself I wonder is it exhaustion, just a tiredness in the face of what this work is, and I think in some part it is. After nearly 50 years (in 2013) it would be hard to say making a film is exciting or a thrill, as I read others imagine it must be. It’s a perverse kind of non-paying job, or a bad habit, or, probably a compulsion. I don’t know how to do nothing, to relax; instead I am a non-stop workaholic, doing one thing or another all day long. And I know – from my own experience – that some others are very much the same.
On another level, there is a kind of self-pleasure – doing something that pleases one’s self. When I find in working something new, something I did not know or did not know I knew, there is a flash of cognition, and this triggers a mode of happiness. That is the thing which, when others perceive it, and are able to articulate it, I am able to feel a genuine sense of connection, of “communion.” It is perhaps the mix of this kind of thing, along with the communion I feel with the work itself that keeps things going. For example I saw this on Mubi, regarding James’ film, and I felt sure that when he saw this he felt a flush of something that I guess we could say verges on the “spiritual.”
on Tue 02 Mar at 06:08 PM
As someone coming to Ruhr with almost no background in cinema or visual literacy, as a reader and writer, I have to say that Ruhr affected me like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I learned much about the world, about myself, through it⎯about how the translation of energy from one form into another forms rhythms which themselves are only interesting in their breaks because the breaks suggest larger, more mysterious rhythms at work, rhythms at higher levels of attention.
So the nature of my own attention seems different to me now because the film helped me attend to those rhythms. The question of art’s fidelity to reality is an old one, and quite misplaced, I think. As Mr. Benning points out, the shots were composed in a frame. And they are still in a way no human eye ever could be, which allowed me the opportunity to experience something that I never would have, even if I had been in those particular places at those particular times. I wouldn’t question any alterations made by the maker of the film than I would trouble with a composer organizing the notes into a score. The manipulation of the matter reality through a human consciousness is one way to understand art, and quite precisely personal, it seems to me.
And Ruhr changed my understanding of what might be an objective reality or a truth. That also seems quite personal to me—a translation one person’s personal into another’s—and I’m glad to my bones to have gotten the experience. So, should Mr Benning happen to read this: thank you.
As it happens, while “known” in the rarified avant garde experimental film world when I met him back in 1977 or 78, I think at the Edinburgh Festival, James has mainly been in the cultural arts-world background, working away with a consistency similar to my own: a workaholic. But he had to juggle his pay-day job, teaching (for some time now at Cal Arts, since 1987; before that in NYC scrambling on grants and visiting artist gigs), from which I suspect he extracted most or much of the money to pay for doing his films. His work required a lot of travel over the years, really a lot, and I think we can guess he spent the last 3 decades on a real work pattern – all for marginal money, and the usual festival/archive/museum screenings deal. And for much of it having to cover the costs from his own pocket. In the last years he’s been rewarded (!) with some retrospectives, and long over-due acknowledgment of the cumulative weight of his ouvre. With an eye to the future, the Austrian Filmmuseum in Wien is beginning to make archival prints and K2 digital copies of all his films. (Need I say there weren’t any US offers to do the same.) And with his newer HD digital works I feel he’s taken a leap in his work, consolidating all he’s learned and applying it with tools that genuinely match his artistic sensibilities. I confess a real pleasure in seeing this all unfold, however belated it seems to me to be.
With his new, appropriate for his work and far less expensive HD tools, I hope he can maintain the energies to carry on at the standard he set in Ruhr, and in the related Pig Iron 30 minute film which I saw in Jeonju last spring.
RuhrPig IronCasting a Glance (Spiral Jetty)13 LakesRuhrTen SkiesJames at work, Ruhr
Over the decades I’ve had the pleasure to share a small bit of time, usually over a beer, with Jim, and to see if not all his films, most of them. He’s had kind words about my own efforts, which I appreciate. Perhaps in a handful of years his work will be more readily available to share – on BluRay or whatever comes next that way. Meantime if you’d like to take a stab at Ruhr, I think you can download it here.
Or for a bit of reading, you can try this or this. But the best would be try to see some of his films if you can.
[In a week or two I'll continue with this rumination, with some thoughts on Leighton Pierce.]