Neil Young’s Film Lounge – James Benning: Circling the Image



Germany 2003 : Reinhard WULF : 50 mins (TV version) / 84 mins (theatrical version)

James BenningFascinating documentary which follows James Benning as he travels from his California base to Utah, where he shoots one shot for his feature 13 Lakes at the Salton Sea. Though inevitably much less innovative and striking than Bennings own remarkable films, Circling the Image is nevertheless an absorbing and invaluable introduction to an film-maker who, though almost unanimously revered by those who know his work, has a ludicrously low profile among even the more informed sections of the cinemagoing public.

This underexposure is partly due to the strict control Benning exerts over his output though they have been shown on German TV (for which this documentary was originally made), the films have never been available on VHS or DVD. Benning also refuses to play the publicity game the figure that emerges here is craggily engaging, but filled with monastic rigour and quiet devotion to his craft. Its a rare privilege to see this artist arguably Americas most important living film-maker – at work at such close quarters, as he strives to see how subtle an image I can make.

The resulting Salton Sea shot is a potent illustration of Bennings genius, which is also evident in the brief extracts from earlier works such as Deseret, Los and The United States of America (which amusingly prefigures Kiarostamis Ten) Such are the strengths of Circling the Image its easy to forgive Wulfs numerous very un-Benning-like embellishments (songs on the soundtrack!) and the handful of staged moments, including the great man nodding off in a (Twentynine Palms-ish) motel room while the TV plays Erin Brockovich.

4th January, 2004
(TV version seen on VHS, Sunderland, 3rd 4th January)

For an interview with James Benning click here

by Neil Young