Listening and Seeing with James Benning

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American independent filmmaker reconnects us with life in the moment.

My first experience with independent filmmaker James Benning was a short clip from his film 13 Lakes (2005). Shot on 16mm film—Benning’s medium of choice for the first 40 years of his career—13 Lakes is just what the title suggests: 13, ten-minute scenes shot with a stationary camera near 13 different lakes.

For the first three minutes or so, I found myself fidgeting and wondering if there was going to be any “action.” But then, I gradually relaxed and focused on the sound of the water lapping a rocky shore. Then I noticed the clouds slowly shifting from one side of the frame to the other, their reflections dancing on the surface of the water. Eventually, I realized that what first appeared to be a static scene was actually constantly moving, and I was mesmerized. Without all of the effects, dialogue, and direction I’ve become accustomed to seeing in film, Benning’s documentaries require a different kind of attention—the kind that offers us that rare opportunity to slow down and experience life in the moment.

It’s an opportunity that I remember having quite a bit as a kid. Whether it was reclining in the grass to make pictures out of the clouds, being fascinated by the snaking plumes of smoke and steam that seemed to punctuate every drive through the parts of Milwaukee and Chicago where I grew up, or people-watching in the mall while waiting for my mom on a bench, there always seemed to be ample time to allow myself to become fixated with the little details and fleeting thoughts that I hardly find time to notice these days. Benning’s films remind me that it’s still possible.

On first viewing, Benning’s films bring to mind the experimental films of Andy Warhol, specifically, the epic test of patience that is Empire (1964), which celebrated its 50th anniversary in July 2014. Compared to Warhol’s eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building at night, Benning’s films seem like a Michael Bay blockbuster. But the similarity I see between Empire and Benning’s work is that the filmmaker is asking the viewer to not only focus on slight changes and subtle details, but to let the mind wander; to use the films as a springboard for daydreaming. Still, the fact that they require patience and a different level of attention has attracted the criticism that they’re slow. In a recent interview with Nick Bradshaw of British film magazine Sight & Sound (October 2013), Benning directly challenges that critique: 

“I always believe that any learning comes through concentration and patience, and that you have to train yourself to have that patience and to perceive. That isn’t slow to me, that’s hard work. It may be slow in the movement of things but it isn’t slow in the stuff that’s going on in your mind when you watch something for a long time and you see very minimal changes: you start to learn from that.”

A quick search for “James Benning” on YouTube will yield plenty to whet your appetite. While I only found a short clip of 13 Lakes, Benning’s fascinating Ten Skies (2005) is available in full. Like 13 Lakes, Ten Skies rewards the viewer with that rare opportunity to step off the carousel of modern life and find majesty in the mundane:

If the small sampling of his work on YouTube piques your interest, the Austrian Film Museum is planning on releasing his entire body of 16mm films on DVD—an essential project that will not only preserve Benning’s early work, but make it available to a much wider audience. While those DVDs are currently only available in non-U.S. format, increased demand for them in the States could eventually change that and introduce Benning to an audience outside of the film students and documentary buffs that already hold his films in high regard.

Photo by Manfred Werner, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader; contact him at or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.  He also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at

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