Vienna ’07 : pt1 : Masterpieces : ‘casting a glance’ (2007) and ‘Routine Pleasures’ (1986)

                   "a great artist can make art simply by casting a glance."
                            – Robert Smithson

CASTING A GLANCE                                            [10?/10]      
rating amended to 10/10 after 2nd viewing, 14.3.08 ~

– – – – – – from the Viennale catalogue
casting a glance is a tribute to the American artist Robert Smithson. Between May 15, 2005 and January 14, 2007 I made 16 trips to the  «Spiral Jetty ». Created in 1970, the  «Jetty » is a 1,500 – foot long spiral-shaped jetty extending into the Great Salt Lake in Utah constructed from rocks, earth, salt and red algae. The resulting film maps the  «Jetty » back onto its own 37 year history – looking at and listening to its reoccurring changes. I found the  «Jetty » a barometer for a variety of cycles. From morning to night its allusive, shifting appearance (radical or subtle) may be the result of a passing wea-ther system or simply the changing angle of the sun. Seasonal shifts and water level changes alter salt crystal growth, the amount of algae in the water, and the presence of wildlife. The water may appear blue, red, purple, brown, or gold. Sounds may come from a navy jet, wildlife, lapping or splashing water, a visitor's car radio, converging thunderstorms, or be a silence so still you can hear the blood moving through the veins in your ears. (James Benning)

– – – – – Extracts from an e-mail 'conversation' between myself (N) and another (X).

N>X, 4.11                                                           
For me casting a glance is the great masterpiece of V07 – and all else, even Gianvito, is small beer. Not that Routine Pleasures isn't also great…

X>N, 4.11                                                           
Regarding glance: I have to admit that I don't quite share your enthusiasm over Benning, although this was – it has to be stated – my very first Benning experience. In a very detached way I can faintly see why and how the film actually can function for cinephiles (and cinephiles only, I guess) as this grand masterpiece, but throughout the screening I was haunted by  Daniele Huillet's notorious remark: Cinephilia is also a lack of ambition … But I am ready to be converted 🙂

N>X, 4.11                                                           

Well, I have been pondering Huillet's remark all day, on and off, and have to say that I simply don't understand what she means by it. Perhaps I need to know the context of the comment. Does she mean that liking/loving films is a bad thing because the liker/lover is necessarily "unambitious". Unambitious in what regard? Were Rivette and the other members of the 'Cahiers crew' "unambitious" in their cinephilia, which led directly to their making their own films?
Or is she critical of cinephiles because she thinks they would be better off devoting their energies to other art forms, or to political struggle? This would of course presume that cinephilia precludes any engagement in other art forms or in political debate, which is also a somewhat shaky proposition. Could you perhaps elucidate what she meant by her comment, and also how it specifically relates to casting a glance?

X>N, 5.11                                                             
Regarding Huillet's remark, here are my thoughts on it. Nothing wrong with cinephilia, as long as – to quite Daney – we speak of cinephilia not just as a relation to cinema but a relation to the world via cinema. Huillet, the old Marxist, probably did equal cinephilia with passivity, which I disagree with, of course, but watching Benning made we wonder whether me myself, as a physical person, would be willing to spend 80 minutes of my time just observing a certain object.
The answer is probably not, alas. I would probably want to talk to a friend who came along with me, smoke a cigarette, open a bottle of beer, dip my fingers into the lake … and in a certain way this actually is "lack of ambition" on my behalf; lack of ambition which Benning compensates by making me – as a good, well trained cinephile – actually observe a certain object for 80 minutes. So, in a certain way, watching Benning for me was some sort of a self-critique; the problem is that this self-critique I was experiencing was actually imposed on me and therefore not really self-critique but preaching.

N>X, 5.11                                                              

Well, I wouldn't want to stare at a lake for 80 minutes, but it's not as if Benning just trained his camera on an object for 80 minutes non-stop: part of the point of the film is the division into "days", and thus becomes about – in Benning's phrase – how landscape itself is directly a function of time.
However at this stage I must make a confession. While watching the film I was under the impression that the dates were "real" – that the images we were seeing were shot on each individual day in question. Hence my very personal and subjective excitement at seeing footage shot on 5th March 1971. It was only yesterday that I discovered the "truth", though it's there in black and white on the Viennale website and in the catalogue:
Between May 15, 2005 and January 14, 2007 I made 16 trips to the  «Spiral Jetty ». Created in 1970, the  «Jetty » is a 1,500 – foot long spiral-shaped jetty extending into the Great Salt Lake in Utah constructed from rocks, earth, salt and red algae. The resulting film maps the  «Jetty » back onto its own 37 year history – looking at and listening to its reoccurring changes.
This "casts" everything into a rather different light, so to speak. I was fascinated, while watching the film, by what I interpreted as Benning's heroic persistence as an artist: the fact that, during the years in which the jetty was submerged (which it was for a long period in the 1980s/90s) he kept going back to it, his persistence and faith ultimately rewarded when the jetty unexpectedly reappeared a few years back due to global warming. And then there's the wider passage-of-time aspect to the film, the impression given that it took 37 years to film (which would suggest Benning started it when he was 28).
What the film actually is, which I would have realised if I'd read the catalogue properly, is rather more complex. "Faked" isn't really the word, but it is very much a simulation. This opens up many more questions about the essential nature of "documentary" cinema, and the manipulation of footage – not to mention the manipulation of the audience, especially those who aren't in on what the London FF catalogue calls Benning's "playful filmic sleight-of-hand." The film's text gives no hint that the dates are "incorrect" – should Benning have been more explicit in his closing titles ("This film was entirely shot between May 15, 2005 and January 14, 2007", perhaps.)? He hasn't exactly hidden the truth about the shoot – but should we need footnotes in order to correctly interpret a work of art?
I'm now in an odd position: my interpretation of casting a glance as a masterpiece was based on a misunderstanding. Discovering the "truth" forces me to reassess everything I have thought about the film, both during and after the screening. One constant is the simple visual appeal of the images – but everything else is, for me, now a maelstrom in full swirl…
Hence my "10/10" becomes, unprecedentedly, a "10?/10"

X>N, 5.11                                                          
I agree with all your thoughts on the film absolutely (as already mentioned, I can – in a very rational way – clearly see what makes Benning such a unique author and why his films do matter very much); as far as your confusion is concerned: in my opinion you should simply and totally disregard the additional information (keyword: it's NOT in the film) and stick with your absolutely valid first assessment. Perhaps add a line at the bottom, merely mentioning your subsequent discovery and thus giving your readers a great and unique opportunity to reflect upon the film and your reflection by themselves.

ROUTINE PLEASURES                                        [10/10]            

"A motion picture studio is the biggest train set a boy ever had."
     Orson Welles

Pleasures, in abundance – but Routine? Hardly. This is an unclassifiable delight of a film which, for the sake of convenience, we may perhaps label a "documentary" {in Vienna, Gorin introduced it as a 'Rhizome Network' dealing with 'high' and 'low' culture on equal term, a film about "about"}. Sometime Jean-Luc Godard collaborator Jean-Pierre Gorin – who narrates throughout and occasionally appears on screen – had been living in the USA for several years {"this is a neverland – infinity!"} by the time he made Routine Pleasures, and had already made one American film, the puckishly playful Poto and Cabengo (1979). For his followup, as he explains in the film, he wanted to show {"a small sing-song to my Americanization"} the intello French friends and colleagues he'd left behind in Paris exactly what it was that was occupying him out in the cultural 'wastelands' of California {"this American landscape I'd decided to stay in"}
   His method {"the deadly logic of my own pleasure"} is one he compares with drawing an X on a treasure map: location established via the intersection of two lines. 'Line one' is his friendship with seminal film-critic – and acclaimed painter – Manny Farber {"termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss-art"}. This relationship is explored via an intimate examination of one of Farber's crowded canvases, which depicts his work-desk and features representations of all manner of Americana {"things American"}, much of it directly referring to his own biography and to the movies which have informed it. {"With Farber, you were always in the thick of things."} 
   'Line two', which takes up the bulk of Routine Pleasures, is Gorin's involvement {1983-1986} with a group of model-railway enthusiasts {"the railway people"} who {since 1958} pursue their activity every evening in a hangar-like building {"a gerry-built space-ship "} on a coastal amusement-park {"Pacific Beach and Western"}. These men {"a tale of permanence to tell"} are absorbed in their hobby to the point of obsession. And in terms of recent American narrative cinema, these men – led by a bigger-than-life 8mm-filmmaker {"minimalist epics"} known as 'Corky' {"a name that ties a knot under a personality"} could be described as the living intersection of Zodiac and The Station Agent (with which Routine Pleasures would make a knockout, epic triple-bill… with Who Is Bozo Texino? an unscheduled fourth segment.
   But Gorin is no mouche sur le mur: he becomes drawn {"how far could one go in pursuit of the true detail?"} into the railwaymen's private world {"a small-scale epic : America on a budget and in a shoebox"} to the extent that he eventually becomes an honorary member of the group {"work and play got strangely confused"} and even – in the form of a model of his car {"before I could yell 'voodoo!"} a part of their miniaturised, stylised scale-representation of an American landscape {"I was told he was under a hill"}. All the while, Gorin is ceasessly analysing {"the obsession had become so private there was always something else to discover"} his preconceptions, his sensibility, and methods {"to dream the film"} in making the movie – deconstructing his own personality and his own processes {"what was I after?"}, if you like {"no job too small"}.
   And whereas in the wrong hands this could all be a recipe for offputtingly arch – perhaps even patronising – cleverness, Gorin's tone (jaunty {"had I come to witness the last stand of the American handyman?"}, quizzical {"play hide-and-seek with Americana"}, self-deprecating) ensures that instead Routine Pleasures is admirably inclusive, accessible and stimulating. The lightness of his approach {"I'm feeling more in tune with their dream-machine"}, we quickly realise {"look past the flourishes of its plot"}, hides a very keen intellect, one which is here applied {"dig in"} to a fascinating and complex choice of subject-matter.
   Among recent cinema's masterpieces – and Routine Pleasures, for all its apparent, unassuming 'smallness' {"go after the small stuff, not the right stuff"}, fully merits that overused superlative – it's hard to think of an example that's funnier, wiser or, sad to say, so little-known. {"Remembrance of Things Past – but these aren't your things, and this isn't your past "} 

Neil Young
5th/6th/11th November, 2007

casting a glance : [10?/10] : James BENNING : US 2007 : 80m : seen 29th Oct, Stadtkino
     ~  rating amended to 10/10 after 2nd viewing, 14.3.08 ~
Routine Pleasures : [10/10] : Jean-Pierre GORIN : US 1986 : 79.5m (timed) : seen 28th Oct, Austrian Filmmuseum (Essayistische Kino programme)