an interview with James Benning after the world premiere of Sogobi at the Berlin Film Festival 2002, completing his California Trilogy
El Valley Centro 2000
When did you decide on making a trilogy on California?
I knew I was going to make a trilogy in the middle of Los, and I made that film using the exact structure as El Valley Centro, so I knew that the third film would follow the same structure. The basic idea at first was to make a wilderness film that wouldn’t have any evidence of mankind in it, but I kind of gave in to that because as I went around it was hard to find true wilderness any more. I easily could have given you 35 shots that had no people in it, and no evidence of human life, but I kept finding mysterious things in the middle of nowhere, so I decided to add some of those things.
How did you find the locations?
I drove round a lot, but then I also hiked a lot, because a lot of the things are a way back in the middle of nowhere. Some of them were actually, kind of dangerous like with the snowstorm, that was very cold, and I was in very deep snow. I didn’t realise quite how cold it was. The opposite was the sandstorm, where it was 120o Fahrenheit in that valley that day, and I just hiked maybe a mile off the road, but I was pretty much delirious when I got to do the shot I had my camera all taped up with masking tape so that the sand wouldn’t destroy it, and I got back to the car and I couldnt even remember if I did the shot, or what the shot was, so I went to the closest restaurant in the valley, and I took all the tape off, and saw that the film actually had run through the camera. So I thought, well, Id better do it again, because Im not sure what I got. And I thought Id take more water, and be more prepared for the second time. But actually the same thing happened again. I thought, oh I can’t do this three times, so I just thought one of the two shots would be fine, and it was its actually the first shot that you see in the film. Those kinds of things were maybe a little more on the edge than when I filmed in the Central Valley, or in Los Angeles.
With certain of the more picturesque images in Los, did you see them and decide to return on a sunnier day?
No, Im very familiar with that area, its actually not too far from where I live. Its in the Antelope Valley, which is about 40 miles north of my house, and every spring the fields just get full of orange poppies. That was one of the shots I knew I wanted to include in the film.
How does the shot of the logged trees fit in with the other Sogobi shots of landscapes?
Well, its the landscape piled up, isn’t it Its a logging operation, and the harvesting of wood that comes out of the Sierra mountains. I thought I should include that, because its part of the commerce of wildlife. It references back to the other two films, which have more mechanical things happening in them. So I wanted to include at least one shot that would do that.
What was the time-span of making the films?
All three films took about 10 months to shoot all three started in November, and I finished in September, because I wanted to get the four seasons in there.
How strictly did you apply the mathematical structure of the previous films in the Trilogy, such as the idea of having 35 shots?
Its the same structure all three films have 35 shots, each shot is two and a half minutes long. I wanted to present landscapes over a period of time, because the only way one can understand landscape is through time. Landscape is actually a function of time. If I show something for two and a half minutes and not much happens, you learn that. From a still photo you wouldn’t know if there was activity or no activity. So I was very interested in recording these still images that would have very little movement the beginning idea was to present 35 of those shots with very little movement at all, so it would be an extremely minimal experience watching the film but it would accumulate into an interesting space that would happen, a kind of meditative space. I didn’t stay with that, because I realised that in the first two films I had cross-referencing: there were ships that were in both, and a billboard, so I decided to keep that running structure through all three films so you have reoccurring images in different places. Theres cattle in all three films in El Valley Centro you see cattle in a huge cattleyard that’s about 2sqm of solid cattle, thousands and thousands of cattle as far as the eye can see. And then in Los the camera is right in the cattle pen at a meatpacking company in Los Angeles, and the cattle there are waiting to be slaughtered they can already smell the blood of the cows that have gone before them, and there’s a kind of agitation in that shot. And then in Sogobi I wanted to show cattle that were out in the wilderness a kind of If I were a cow, that’s where I would want to be kind of place
What was the shooting ratio, in terms of film shot and film used in the finished versions?
The first two films I actually I shot the same amount of rolls of film I used hundred-foot sixty-mm rolls of film which are two minutes and 47 seconds, then I cut them to 90 feet which is exactly two minutes and thirty seconds. So I could I could slide the shot from the head to the tail a little bit to adjust the timing. The first two films I shot 48 rolls but I only developed 37 of them, because sometimes I made another shot right after [in the same location] I thought was better, and sometimes something happened in the shot so I knew it wouldn’t do, wouldn’t make a good shot. So I ended up with 37 for the first two films, then I selected 35 of those. In this films I shot over 130 rolls of film, mainly because I like being in the middle of nowhere. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to present this film it was going to be very minimal, or what. I had enough footage to cut the film either way, to select very minimal shots if I decided to do that.
What was the editing process?
With the first two films I took a slide from each shot and put them on 35mm slides, and then I edited it on a slides to get the order mixing them around in a poor mans Avid fashion. With Sogobi I did the same thing, I had 130 slides and I was going to do it that way. But I spent a couple of weeks in Korea this summer I was going to do the editing when I was there, but I forgot to bring the slides with me. On the way over, I realised I didn’t have the slides, so I edited the film from memory. I wrote out 35 cards and I wrote down the first 35 shots I could remember I thought Those must be the good ones. And then I edited those just on cards. When I got back from Korea I actually cut the film that way and its pretty much the order that you saw tonight. I might have changed a few shots. That actually made it easier because it was easier to throw things away when you forgot that you had them
I shot, and I would have them developed immediately, and Id look to see what I had, but when I ended up with 130 shots my first decision was to make a more minimalist version [than the finished one]. This is still very minimalist, what I have here, but I was going to make something that was even more minimal every shot would have very, very little movement in it. I thought, in relationship to the other two films, that could be an interesting conclusion to those films, which have more action, and have people. But then I decided to include some of those things in Sogobi, because I also want these films to stand on their own, so they can be shown separately. Although for a while, I would like to have them shown as a trilogy ideally one after the other, with maybe a 15-minute break, so you can actually experience the accumulation of 105 images – the first 35 being rural images, the second 35 being urban images, and the last 35 being images from the wilderness and see how you re-read each film as you see the next one.
Were you alone when you drove around? What camera do you use?
I use an electric Bolex which has a motor built in a small camera. And I do everything myself, from buying the film at Kodak to cutting my own negative. I don’t have a crew I shot all these shots in synch sound, but I also take added sound at the location, so I can also post-synch if I want to remove some sounds that I don’t like. So I set up the camera and the shot generally I set up the tape-recorder first, and take sound first, then do a synch-sound, and maybe then take some sound after that. Its a matter of doing one thing and then another, and turning the camera on and waiting. Its fairly easy when I don’t have any camera movement, to be able to do sound and image at the same time.
Have you never considered using a different size of film than 16mm super 16 or 35mm perhaps?
They should be 70mm of course, but then I couldnt make the film. Because most of the images in all three films are somewhat stolen. A lot of times Im illegally on land Im doing things where I have to go in very quickly and get out of there very quickly. Especially when Im in the middle of a military installation, or a cement quarry those kinds of places where they don’t like you filming there. It would be difficult to steal those kinds of images. I certainly agree that in a cinema this big 16mm starts to break down, especially when images are held for two and a half minutes and youre begging for the best possible projection you can get. I also want to keep making films cheaply all three of these films were made for less than $15,000. I want to make films at that cost or less I kind of find it criminal when it costs more than that, because there are better places to put money.
How do you fund the films?
I teach, and I do visiting-artist things. Occasionally German television is very kind to me they just bought the trilogy, so now Ill be be able to make three, four, five, six maybe even ten more films. Even though I argued with them, saying that they won’t work on TV, unless you can get people to sit and turn on the television and sit 30 inches away and look. Television doesn’t have the same kind of presence as film does to be in a dark room you concentrate a lot more than when you watch on the TV screen, and the refrigerators over there, things like that makes you think about other things. But Im very very happy for their support. Its something that would never happen in the US.
If money is always a pressure, why not use video?
Then they’d be video I don’t know, maybe digital video or high-definition could be a way I could work. Perhaps with projection improving they would actually look better that way. I have to think about that, because its still a different kind of image. Its made differently, doesn’t have grain in it. I would have to work with it for a while to find out how to use it. Its something Ive been thinking about. Working with 16mm labs, and showing films now, 16mm projection gets worse and worse and worse every year. Some places you go that haven’t used it for three years, and it hasnt been cleaned in eight. You put a $1,400 dollar print on it and wreck it in one screening its unbearable. So its kind of near the end I think, 16mm I might not have a choice, actually.
You mentioned that the Trilogy has been bought by German TV. I was given to understand that you didn’t allow the films to be shown outside of cinemas.
Occasionally my work has been on TV. Its something I haven’t encouraged but because film-making is so expensive, and because television offers me a way to make more films I agree to it a few times. But in the 30 years that Ive been making films Ive had films on TV in the US three or four times. German television in the early 80s bought a film of mine and then they produced a film, and now they’ve bought the trilogy and also the two films I made before that Four Corners and Utopia. Theyre going to do a five-film screening.
But none are available to buy on video on DVD at the moment.
Thats true. Im thinking, because film prints are so fragile, and eventually it’ll be difficult to get 16mm even projected, Im thinking of doing some tests to see if I can get really good DVD quality and see what that might look like. I could archive it that way I know DVDs have a shelf-life too, but you can make clones of them, if you keep up with it you should be able to have the same quality. I suppose you might lose in the long run if you make a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone
But if its digital, the information can’t corrode, no matter how many generations are involved.
I think that’s true, so it would provide a way to archive these. All film is eventually perishable. Film printed in the late 70s and early 80s on Kodak stock have all turned magenta already, because they had a very bad film stock for about four or five years. Im in the process of reprinting all those films now, and as long as they have fresh prints it would be a good time to make DVDs of those.
I was thinking more in terms of the public, because its often difficult to see your films.
If I thought that the DVDs had a particular standard then I would do that. It would make it a lot more democratic, wouldn’t it. As of now, a privileged few, if youre in the right place, get to see my work. Its something Ive never been concerned with, because Ive never really made films for an audience Ive really made films to define my own self better, to understand myself better. I thought by making films I could look at things that affect my life.
And do you feel you’ve succeeded in doing that?
Im still on that quest but I think I know myself a lot better now than when I first started it.
Do you have faith in film to provide the answers you seek?
For me its not necessarily the film, but the process of going through to make the film, that I learn from. The film is kinda like the residue of that process. And that’s what I hope affects other people obviously some of the process is captured in the film. Thats where the strength of my films lies.
Is this why they so often take the form of journeys either the static shots travel across California in the Trilogy, or the motorbike ride in North on Evers?
I think so. Im very interested in place itself, and the difference of place a journey is necessary to make those kinds of comparisons. I think journey is a way to put things both in political and social perspective.
Hearing you talk of seeking answers, and journeys, some people might speculate about a spiritual dimension which I suspect youd reject.
Well, with a small s, I would perhaps agree.
I presumed the non-availability of the films on video and DVD was an issue of control that you didn’t like the idea of viewers being able to pause, rewind, fast-forward that these films must be viewed in a specific order.
Its more about the way people relate to a video screen. They don’t sit and watch the screen like they would if they sit in a theatre. My films demand your attention and a really strong attention for them to work, and effort. But now that people have DVD players and larger TV sets, you can sit in front of a TV and almost, if you want, you can almost have a film experience. But I think it takes training and I think that the kind of casual viewing of television has affected anything played on a video screen. That can break down now, though perhaps I need a note on the DVD case saying It would be appreciated if you would watch it like you wanted to look at everything in it, and concentrate on the film, and try to cast aside any kind of casual viewing that you would generally do with television while youre eating a sandwich and drinking a beer.
The other innovation of DVD is the director commentary would that be anathema to you?
I would never do that I do talk after screenings of my films, and I think its helpful for audiences, but ultimately I want the film to speak for itself. Which I think is really ironic with these three films, which have no language in them at all to then provide language after seems kind-of contradictory to me.
Youve just premiered Sogobi here in Berlin, and your relationship with the Berlinale stretches back to your first feature.
Yes, 11 x 14 which was shown here in either 77 or 78 It was my first feature-length film. I probably lost about a third of my audience that day, they walked out. Which doesn’t happen these days, and my films are maybe, more demanding now. 11 x 14 was perhaps more demanding at the time it was made a ten-minute shot was a long shot in 1977.
Is this why the Trilogy has premiered in Berlin?
Ive always had a great relationship with the Forum, and I really admire that they collect films that they show, and have an archive, and show the films later. 11 x 14 still screens although I would think their copy is bright pink at this point!
The Forum is known for its avant-garde selections. Do you accept the term avant-garde as a description of yourself as a film-maker?
Im certainly not a mainstream film-maker, and certainly am an independent film-maker, because I do everything myself. From buying the film at Kodak to cutting the negative. I don’t think avant-garde is necessarily a negative term, I wouldn’t disagree with it. But advance-guard of what, I guess is the question.
Experimental is also a strange term we should surely know some results of these experiments by now
Of course, every film is an experiment, so that’s kind of a foolish title to qualify films. But mine are different. Ive always been interested in creating new forms, and a different way of speaking. But not in reaction to dominant cinema, because its kinda like saying an artist and an accountant both do the same work because they both use pencils Were that different, though Im not saying they’re the accountant and Im the artist, Im just saying that were that far apart. I don’t work against Hollywood I rarely go and see Hollywood movies. I see em on airplanes, but without the sound because I listen to music. So Ive seen every Julia Roberts movie ever made, without sound.
Within or outside of the avant-garde, which film-makers have made an impact on you and your work?
When I first started working, structuralist film-makers were very big certainly Hollis Frampton, and Michael Snow were great influences on me. At first I was totally confused by Wavelength, but I knew I really liked it and I had to watch it a number of times. I still think its one of the best films ever made, an incredible film Both of them have ideas about what film can be, and then they make films about those ideas. So that was very rewarding for me to see that kind of thinking. Today I look at all kinds of films, I like Claire Denis very very much Beau Travail is a beautiful film. Im also a big fan of a young artist, a photographer who makes films, Sharon Lockhart. She had a film here two years ago that was one thirty-minute shot of an audience watching the camera it was filmed on the stage in Brazil where Fitzcarraldo begins, the opera house that was built with rubber money. She filled the audience with local people who kinda mapped the different regions of the city. She had em somewhat in the same proportion from each area, and they took seats as they would, probably according to where they were from.
Michael Mann apparently always personally seats the people who attend screenings of his films when he’s there Orson Welles told him there are only four seats in any cinema.
There is right in the centre, about one-and-a-half times the diagonal of the screen, that’s where I try to sit. Its an amazing place to sit.
What is your relationship with photography? Do you take photographs?
I did some photo silkscreening many years ago, so I was interested in the photographic image, and then colouring the image by hand-colouring. So that’s somewhat affected the way I make images now how I frame, how I look at colour. Its an interesting process to mix your own inks, and put in colours into the photograph that way, but Im not really a photographer.
In Sogobi certain shots recall Ansel Adams. Or do you align yourself more with someone like Robert Frank?
Of course Robert Frank is one of my heroes but I don’t think my photographs are like his at all. I admire what he looks at, and how he looks. I like one of his videos very much, called Home Improvements he’s a master of making images in that film, and dealing with the personal, which is something that I try to do to.
With the Trilogy, where the personal would seem to be at least one remove away, do you see the work as personal in that way?
I think they’re highly personal because they’re investigations of things Im interested in Im interested in work, and who does work, and who makes money off that work, and who participates in the profits and who doesnt. El Valley Centro is very much trying to negotiate that. Im interested in place, so Im interested in the Valley as a place, in Los Angeles as a place, and wilderness as a place, and how those places are somewhat distinct, but at the same time they have connections.
Did your interest in California develop after you moved there after living in Milwaukee for so long?
I lived in Milwaukee for the first 18 years of my life, then I moved every year for 20 years. I lived in Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, southern California, upstate New York, back to Wisconsin and away again.
A deliberate strategy?
Some of it was, some of it was things blowing in the wind, and going towards desires and away from rainstorms but it was very valuable because it gave me lots of experience in different places. I lived in a hunting cabin for a year in the Adirondack Mountains, and I lived on a cattle farm in Missouri for a year followed the migrant stream, worked with migrant workers for a year lived in a black-white ghetto doing neighbourhood organising. It politicised me, my travels.
But always within the US?
Was that a deliberate strategy also?
Yeah, mainly because I only speak English, and I feel uncomfortable when I can’t communicate very directly.
Im surprised you don’t speak German, being from Milwaukee and coming to Berlin so often.
Its funny I was born during World War II, so in Milwaukee, Germans at that time kind of denied their heritage, and stopped passing the language on. My mother and father could speak German not real fluently, but they could have passed it on. My brother and I never learned German at all Places like New Berlin were called New Berlin after the war started, so even the language were, like, perverted.
Has being from Wisconsin made a specific impact on you as an artist?
Oh yes, oh yes, Im a product of the midwest, I think its a really down-to-earth place, and I learned to be pretty straightforward from being there. I try to be pretty direct I think my films are pretty direct because of that. They don’t try to be purposely complicated. I think they’re complicated, but I don’t try to make them oblique.
Being from Wisconsin, did you feel that you had to make a film about Ed Gein Landscape Suicide because so many have been made, either directly or indirectly, on the subject by people from elsewhere?
My daughter and I were taking a train to New York, Id been visiting her in Milwaukee. She bought a Rolling Stone magazine and there was an article in there about the cheerleader who got killed that’s the first part of Landscape Suicide. She said this really scares me and it was kindof a scary article. She was 13 at the time, and it made be wonder if Id had that kind of experience when I was that age. And I did the headline in the Milwaukee Sentinel was Cannibalism in Wisconsin, and Ed Gein became the perfect boogeyman for kids my age at around 13. The way we responded was with nervous jokes about cannibalism, lady-fingers and goofy stuff. Thats how that film got made, because of her discovering this article that was scary. Then I got the transcript of the young girl who killed the cheerleader and I read that, and in that confession the interviewer, who’s trying to get the confession out of her, keeps implying that there might have been something to do with the killer being a lesbian. And my daughter being a lesbian and knowing she was a lesbian from a very young age I think she felt that’s what the scary part was, that it must have been some kind of sexual deviancy that cause this murder. I keep telling this story, and I keep saying I have to ask her about that, but I never got round to doing that.
Is that the closest you’ve ever come to making a horror film?
Sometimes people rent the print of Landscape Suicide and show it with horror films, and then the people who come walk out because they’re not getting a horror film, but its horror to meTheres a lot of notorious movies kind of based on it The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Psycho, Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel, he lived very near there. Not Plainfield, but where the trial took place maybe Warsaw. I think he actually attended the trial.
Another Wisconsin thing that influenced me was Michael Lesys Wisconsin Death Trip it didn’t occur to me when I made Deseret and used newspaper articles about Utah, that there was such a close parallel to Wisconsin Death Trip.
Youre a geographical film-maker, but also a mathematical and political one. In which order would you put those? Are they descriptions you would accept?
I think mathematics influences my work just because they have a rigid structure doesn’t make them mathematical films. But I studied mathematics and Im very aware of the kind of thinking that you use when you work in higher mathematics, and becomes quite abstract. Not even higher mathematics, even there’s 1,000 different proofs for one particular theorem, maybe 10,000 and some of them are so beautifully elegant, because they’re very simple, or very graphic. I like the idea that there are many solutions, but a few that stand out as being totally elegant, and its the kind of thing I try to work with when I make a film, to find the elegant solution to a problem. In a more direct way, my structures are arithmetical.
Theres clearly a great interest in angles.
Yeah, and symmetry. I always love to say, when Im in Berlin, that Im very much influenced by Fascist architecture.
That must go down like a ton of bricks.
(Laughs) They don’t want to hear that. But I love symmetry Chantal Akermans films are so symmetric too, and I love them she uses symmetry and then maybe does something to disrupt that symmetry, which I also try to do through some kind of choreographed movement. Or drawing attention to one side of the frame, even though its very symmetric.
Is it something like the Blakean idea of fearful symmetry as with the Fascist architecture and all its negative connotations: order being imposed
Well, just because they’re Fascists doesn’t mean that the architecture isn’t brilliant at times. Its funny being Berlin, and you go and look at some of these things that were built in the thirties as huge monuments now they look really small, almost pathetic, compared with these new buildings here, though they’re so much more elegant. I like em as kind of miniatures of what they used to be the Olympic Stadium is quite amazing, but now they’ve put a top on it.
What about the political element to me, that’s the primary motivation, certainly with El Valley Centro and Los.
That comes from my travels earlier, when I was doing political work at a grass-roots level. It became very apparent to me that this was something I could exhaust my life with, and I hadn’t even begun to define who I was. So I stopped doing that kind of work, and I started making films to look at my own life. At first, I thought I had to make really apolitical films, because if I wanted to do politics I should go back and do what I was doing before. And by doing things that are much more aesthetic I could define my life more but I quickly realised that my aesthetics developed forms that were somewhat radical, and that’s political in itself. To make people look at a screen different I think is a really radical position to take. So even though I was making apolitical films when I made 11 x 14, it became really a political film because of its structure. And then what I didn’t realise was that I was documenting a culture in the mid-west any culture has political overtones too, so this apolitical film that I made, now, when I look at it 30 years later I see it as something very political. And as I made more and more films I became much more interested in looking at different histories, and putting my life in a larger context and then politics came back into the films in a more direct way. Though I still try not to be completely dogmatic with my politics, even though I think its quite evident that they’re fairly left wing.
It would be hard to read the Trilogy as a rightist, reactionary tract
Well, liking Fascist architecture, I have to balance it a bit (!).
The left-leaning is evident in Los and El Valley Centro but less so with Sogobi, which presents nature much more in the raw and nature isn’t of itself political.
Until it gets attacked.
But nature isn’t really attacked in most of Sogobi shouldn’t this be the first of the Trilogy rather than the last?
Its purposely the last one because it shows that there’s something still left, but it might not last that long. After you see the first two, you know that its going to be scraped away Theres evidence of that already the cement quarry, where they’ve torn out half of the mountainside now. You see a convoy of military marine vehicles going through the desert, and one has to wonder What in the hell is going on back here? What are they preparing for? What are they doing? What kind of perverse activity is actually going to happen? It looks very clandestine, these things driving in the middle of nowhere. Then there’s the shot as simple as the one where Highway 14 is cut through the side of a mountain, exposing the San Andreas fault showing the disregard for landscape. Its the irony of the road being cut through, and showing the fault-line that looks very angry.
Some people have compared your films erroneously, I would say with Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels.
Ive seen the first one many years ago, and I was never a huge fan of that, maybe because I just get pretty bored when I see timelapse it seemed overly simplistic to me, but its been many years since I saw it, so perhaps its a great film and I misread it.
Is it true that you deliberately avoid going to Los Angeles as much as you can?
I just don’t have a need for it, its too spread out. I go to see friends, but I don’t have much of a need. Id much rather drive the other way, I can drive to the desert in 45 minutes, or the mountains, or at the ocean, or I can hop on my motorcycle and be at all three of those places, a nice leisurely drive through backroads. Id rather do that than go to the city. Before I moved to the LA area I lived in Manhattan, so I had eight years in a huge city. I love New York, but I didn’t want to move to LA and look for New York there. Its a different place.
With Los, its as if you’ve moved away from the countryside towards the city, and are approaching its borders maybe like a medieval city with gates and walls. Los feels like youre probing those walls, and I was expecting this third film to jump over and into the middle of the city much more.
Los does jump in, in a few places the joggers in Santa Monica
Is there a practical reason for not doing more in the middle of LA itself, in that your camera would attract more attention in a fully urban environment?
Im pretty good at taking my camera out shooting and getting out of there before they know Im there. Though I was stopped in one shopping centre in downtown LA, for using a tripod. I had to shoot that without a tripod, so I taped the camera to railing that was there. That was actually a better idea anyways, because the people didn’t notice it if Id been on out the pavement with the tripod they’d have been looking at the camera. I was told that professionals can’t film there without permission, and apparently youre not a professional when you take it off the tripod
Youve mentioned the military movements in the desert, and the ecological destruction in various parts of the wilderness the current Bush administration, which seems actively anti-environment, must be a nightmare for you.
Yeah, and it was bad before that, too. We always have a right-wing government business runs America. Sure, there’s lip-service to those kinds of things, but both Clinton and Al Gore owned oil stock. Al Gore owned oil stock in South America where they were devastating particular Indian lands, and he continued to hold that stock while he was running for president. So you know where his heart is, you know.
So you reckon his image as an environmentalist is a sham?
I think so, yeah, if you write a book one way and live another, what do you believe in? If I wrote that book then I wouldn’t own stock that’s devastating really spiritual lands for people who claimed it thousands of years ago.
Do you vote?
I dont. I voted when I thought there were candidates. In spirit I was for Ralph Nader, but I have problems with him too, because he has a career as a consumer advocate, and Im pretty much anti-consumer. I think that’s one of the reasons were in trouble, because we consume too much. Rather than making cars safer, we should get rid of cars, perhaps.
Have you been following the Enron case with glee or horror?
Its horrible for people who lost their savings I feel for those people But whats more horrible is that they’ll probably get away with it. One of em killed himself already, but Im sure others will just be forgotten, take their millions.
Do you ever feel tempted to make a more conventional documentary on such subjects, or are you now firmly occupying a different kind of space?
I admire people who try to do things that will cause political change to better this world. I admire that, but at this point Im much too selfish for that. Im much more interested in making films that make me understand life more, and hopefully that changes things. In an indirect way. I think I can be more passionate that way. When I look at documentaries that address issues I think need addressing so many times the way they’re made is so corrupt I almost want to change sides (laughs) change my religion, you know they’re so dogmatic in their approach, so overly conventional, so conservative in their style, it somewhat contradicts its own message. Im of course generalising, but what I see in those kinds of films is that their goal is to be self-satisfying because they’re ultimately trying to entertain. You watch, and say Now I know that, and I can forget about it. Theres no thought after the films over, youre just satisfied, it doesn’t agitate, it doesn’t make you want to do anything about it. Im sure maybe one or two people might be changed, though
Have you seen any films that succeed in energising people, making a difference in that way?
I think maybe films like those of Haroun Farocki, the German documentary film-maker they provoke, so that when youre finished you have to really think about the subject.
What about a Hollywood film like Erin Brockovich, which is ostensibly radical because of its anti-corporate stance, even though its been made by a corporate film company?
And ultimately, its a Julia Roberts movie – the star surfaces rather than the issue its a weird process. Again, its self-satisfying entertainment a much better film made by Hollywood was Silkwood. I actually liked that film quite a lot for a Hollywood film it took a political stance that wasn’t overworked, and made you think. Films like that, or The China Syndrome, they wouldn’t be made today, I don’t think.
What are you working on next?
Ive made a film every year for five years, so Im going to take a little break, and try to show some of that work. Four Corners and Utopia never really got appropriate screening, they were kind of cast aside I could work on the Trilogy. I have a huge project planned, but Im putting that off, Im not sure whether that’s feasible or not. Its to travel around the perimeter of the the continental United States in one year, going an equal distance each day, which turns out to be about 55 miles, and doing one one-minute shot a day, or ending up with one one-minute shot. Starting on the northern border on the first day of winter, December 21st, and going clockwise around so the north is in winter, the east coast is spring, the southern coast and Mexican border in summer, and the west coast is autumn.
Made up of static shots like the Trilogy?
Probably. I would also like to steal conversations each day at least a minutes worth of a good conversation, that would be put on as sound over maybe two-thirds of the shots. So there’d be a continuing dialogue, or monologue, that would travel around the border and it would have its own language and its own accent, and point of view. So I could compare the Canadian border to the Mexican border, and the east coast to the west coast, and small towns to big towns, and rural areas to populated areas. It would take a year to do to it, and it would be six hours and five minutes to be shown all in one section.
And do you have a title?
I had a working title when I wrote some proposals Circling Sweetgrass, because the town that I would start at in northern Montana is Sweetgrass, Montana. I doubt if Ill end up with that title but I like it.
Homeland Security is a current buzz phrase that might fit Are you planning to do any more narrative films afterwards?
I think all my films are narrative films. I never stopped having narrative concerns. I could use actors again, maybe, I don’t know. But I think the trilogy is a narrative, there’s recurring themes and images, stars in it different ships, tumbleweeds.
So if someone was approaching your work for the first time, where would be a good starting point?
Id probably tell em to watch 11 x 14 so they could start at the beginning and work their way north.
interview* conducted by Neil Young, Berlin, February 2002 during Berlin Film Festival
transcript written up 7th August, 2003
*includes interpolated excerpts from comments made by Benning during a public question-and-answer session following the screening of Sogobi
For the short version of this interview click here.
by Neil Young