Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 24 September 2008
Source 16mm print
“Trainspotting with James Benning,” an interview by Mark Peranson (Cinemascope)
“Life In Film,” by James Benning
The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. As they come under one horizon, they shout their warning to get off the track to the other, heard sometimes through the circles of two towns. Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay. And here’s your pay for them! screams the countryman’s whistle; timber like long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city’s walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them. With such huge and lumbering civility the country hands a chair to the city. All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city. Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woollen; up come the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
The patient pleasures of trainspotting drive James Benning’s new film, RR, which comprises forty-three stationary compositions of locomotives traversing the landscapes of some sixteen American states. As in Benning’s previous films, 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, a minimalist approach yields a maximal harvest of ideas, simply and rhythmically lulling the spectator into a contemplation of the images’ rich implications about, on the one hand, time, framing, and structure and, on the other, history, economy, and ecology.
In RR (preferably pronounced “Railroad”; as the filmmaker notes, “RR sounds like a pirate movie”), Benning allows the respective lengths and speeds of the various trains to determine the editing—he cuts to the landscape just before the locomotive enters the frame and cuts away just as it leaves. Thus, in spite of the apparent uniformity that the project necessarily entails, the spectator is continually made aware of the variety in the film’s rhythms. Some trains, being slow or fast, long or short, will yield brief or lengthy shots; compositions will emphasize foreground, middle-ground, and background, or create false sensations of movement along a variety of diagonal axes; the landscapes themselves may be dry or verdant, cluttered or vacant, bright or clear or shrouded in mist.
Benning, a filmmaker for over thirty years and a teacher at California Institute of the Arts for over twenty, emphasizes the act of paying attention as “a political act, our differences in perception reflecting our individual prejudices.” Here, trains engender a variety of ideas not only about the way trains might be filmed (and their structural and historical links to cinema as a medium), but also about the cultural, historical, financial, and environmental impact of the railroads on American life. For Benning as for Thoreau, trains are emblematic of the ways in which commerce has restructured, if not redefined, modern living. The key symbol of modernization, the railroad is the site of a metaphorical transformation of space and time, unifying America’s vast expanse for the benefits of trade, and universalizing the hours with a punctuality by which Thoreau’s farmer neighbors set their watches. At the outset of modernity, Thoreau cautiously noted this alluring, powerful device and its effects on our relation to the natural world; Benning, coincidentally screening this film at a time in which many are rethinking the basic structure of the modern American economy, obliquely glances back upon this history of modernization and consumption, of which the railroad now functions as a cumbersome and outmoded totem.
To accompany the images of RR’s forty-three railway locations, Benning has assembled a subtly suggestive soundtrack, including a lot of live sound (predominantly the trains’ chug and whistle, as well as any ambient sound of wildlife, water, or what-have-you) and a few wittily editorial selections. Gregory Peck intones about “the mother of harlots” from the Book of Revelations as a train winds around the cliff-face of California’s Feather River Canyon; sportscasters call Nolan Ryan’s 1991 no-hitter and Karen Carpenter sings a Coca-Cola jingle as a freight train passes not far from Lake Pontchartrain; Woody Guthrie can be heard singing “This Land Is Your Land” by tracks along a California rice field; a passing train drowns out the sounds of NWA’s “Fuck the Police” emanating from a camper near Rincon Beach, north of L.A.; a coal train in Wyoming passes to the sounds of Eisenhower’s farewell address on the dangers of the military industrial complex; the non-diegetic sounds of a huey helicopter, which for Benning apparently evokes the Vietnam War, can be heard as a work-truck rides the rails over the Hudson River.
Sounds like these, anachronous artifacts from disparate eras of American life, situate us outside of history, defying the very linearity of the railroad’s structure with a sense of temporal randomness. It is as if Benning wishes to counteract the inevitability, the singularity of direction that the trains represent by offering an independent, occasionally disconnected aural component that exists outside of the time of the image. It is also worth noting that the trains’ linearity is also indicative of the forward momentum of celluloid itself, and RR is reportedly Benning’s last work in this medium. If this is so, it is telling that the filmmaker chooses to pair the film’s visual element – all lumbering, rattling straight lines across the frame – with a soundtrack created using non-linear editing software.
In RR, Benning employs both his trusty Steenbeck flatbed and the new-fangled ProTools, alchemizing old and new in a way analogous to what we see onscreen in the film’s final shot. Somewhere outside of Palm Springs, an old freight train rolls lugubriously past a massive wind farm. In the foreground, old tires and garbage are strewn everywhere. As the modern windmills whirr in the background, the old train squeaks and grinds to a halt. Benning holds the shot and then, for the first time in the film, cuts before the train has left the frame.