USA 2002 : James Benning : 90 mins
The California Trilogy by James Benning
El Valley Centro (2000), Los (2001), Sogobi (2002)

As soon as Los was completed I added Sogobi to make it a trilogy, the urban and rural portraits needed the Californian wilderness to put them in perspective. Following the same structure Sogobi would look and listen to that wilderness. The first shot of Sogobi would relate to the last shot of Los, and the last shot of Sogobi would return to the first shot of El Valley Centro, revealing its mystery. The entire trilogy would become an interrelated puzzle.

James Benning, December 2001

Coming after the spectacular El Valley Centro and Los, Sogobi is a colossal disappointment. James Benning is the most methodical, careful and mathematically precise of film-makers, so it’s baffling that he should abandon the logical progression established in the first two parts of his California trilogy. Centro examined California’s farming heartland. Los explored the greater LA county, and skirted around the edge of the city itself. Surely the next step should have been to tackle Los Angeles in all its garish, terrible splendour, providing a filmic counterpart to Mike Davis’ books of dystopian polemicism, ‘Ecology of Fear’ and ‘City of Quartz.’

Instead, Benning takes a step backwards – in a fatal error of conception that even his immaculate execution can’t rescue, he retreating to the neutral, relatively untouched countryside for his standard sequence of 35 static shots. These are, this time, mostly of trees: the result is uncomfortably reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi, the modish early-80s celebration of nature in flux. There are echoes of the other two segments – all three films feature shots of cattle – but it’s appropriate that the ‘Outdoor Systems’ billboard, so wittily deployed in Centro and Los, is a forlorn blank this time.

What made those films such compelling political dramas was the presence of man, the evidence of man, the encroachment of man upon the natural world. Specifically, the encroachment of big business – faceless, remorseless, ubiquitous. It’s no coincidence that the most interesting and engaging segments of Sogobi are those which manage to incorporate human involvement: the passing through the water of the tanker Hanjin, seen from a bridge; a helicopter harvesting water from a lake; the distant passing of trucks. But these are very much the exceptions.

By largely removing man from the picture, Benning ends up with a film which is political only in the most frustratingly oblique way – Sogobi would only really make sense when shown straight after its companion pieces. You certainly wouldn’t show it to any newcomer asking to be convinced that Benning deserves front rank among American film-makers: it’s such an exercise in tedium that even the most hard-core devotees may find themselves glancing at their watch and heretically toying with the prospect of walking out. Corporate America is Benning’s bete noir, but Sogobi proves he needs it much more than he perhaps suspects: everybody knows that ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince is a bad idea, but the absence of Claudius is, it turns out, even worse.

9th April, 2002
(seen 9th February, Arsenal Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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