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The Act of Seeing, Synthetically: James Benning's "Ruhr" (2009, USA)

All images captured from the (compressed) 3sat television broadcast of Ruhr, 3 November 2009.

I

1. The Matenastraße Tunnel. A subterranean passageway of soft and hard whitewashed lines, 0.5km long, cutting under a steel mill in Duisburg. The roof weighs dark and heavy, its stains run down the walls. Plastic detritus crawls along the concrete, four vehicles clatter through, a cyclist disrupts a dry leaf. Sirens sound, a machinic drone reverberating from overhead. “When you walk through, it’s like living in your eardrum” —James Benning. An unbroken shot lasts seven and a half minutes, a composite culled from two continuous hours of footage: cars pass in a sequence of blue, turquoise, red and white, ordered by half a dozen invisible edits. When no pro-filmic movement is visible, the frame is eerily still—no grain dances, no light dashes through a flickering strip at the back of the theatre.

Ruhr is Benning’s second HD work after the minute-long Viennale trailer Fire & Rain, a corner he seems to have been forced into (by declining standards in 16mm lab work and projection), but one as exciting as it may be disquieting. Here: seven shots in two hours (ranging from 7 to 60 minutes); no restrictions imposed on duration by the length of film reels, or an obligation to heed the camera’s ontological impression of reality. Ruhr severs, for the first time in Benning’s work, the shot’s temporal relationship between what was there and what’s projected, in the same way Kiarostami cut up four months of footage into 28 minutes for the final shot of Five (2003). No longer does the canvas merely depict what the traveller saw. The traffic rubbed out during this first shot might recall the ghostly superimposed vehicles that drift through sixty seconds of One Way Boogie Woogie (1977; also 27 Years Later, 2004), but here the erasure is wholly imperceptible, irrelevant to the activity of viewing. Ruhr is perhaps best described, in Mark Peranson’s words, as a “reality-directed document”: a concrete, revelatory study of place, but also an intricate act of betrayal. Benning’s work has only ever inversely acted as documentary; its objective is to interrogate, or foster, a certain mode of seeing—realism as attention, not style. André Bazin once pointed out that “the more the image tends to resemble reality, the more complex the psycho-technical problem of editing becomes,” and Ruhr might well be one of the most sophisticated, and devious, solutions to that problem we have.

2. Columns of steel tubes are jolted across the frame, lifted and deposited, heated and cooled. Ruhr was initially planned as a year-long observation of steel mills in the Ruhrgebeit district, but only one shot suggests how that project might have fully developed. Not a trace of human labour is glimpsed, only a rigorous, repetitive automatism.

3. Five planes fly over a stretch of forest outside Duisburg Airport. At regular intervals, sonic bursts break through the trees, trace a grey outline, and recede into a post-action lag. When the wind shear eventually catches the frame, the field erupts: branches shudder, leaves rain down, air curls.

4. Marxloh Merkez Camii, Duisburg. The camera kneels at the rear of a prayer room; bodies flood the frame when rising. The shot is divided into acts of communal and solitary prayer, between reciprocal movement and individual expressions of spirituality. Benning’s work now carries with it something of the latter, long having retreated from the collective discourse of structural film, or the intrusion of collaboration. One man looks, listens, waits alone.

5. Graffiti is stripped from Richard Serra’s Bramme für das Ruhrgebiet, an object that conflates the minimal and the monumental far more bluntly than anything in Ruhr. A high-pressure hose crackles against the steel slab, extending the thick strip of light angled through the Matenastraße. Cold grey air hangs above the slagheap. The process is painstaking, the shot drags.

6. A street, the end of a working day. Residents trace nonchalant lines across and out of the frame. Piano practice, autobahn hum, occasional birdsong. A car advances down the tarmac and parks, more neatly than the truck in 1/43 of RR (2007). A surge of traffic slices branches in the distance.

II

“It took two days to get to Milwaukee. On the way I stopped in Gary, Indiana. The sky appeared choked and poisoned. The roar of blast furnaces vibrated through the air.”

—JB, “Off Screen Space/Somewhere Else”, in James Benning, FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen 6, 2007, p.47.

“these faint fires are not those that illuminate or burn, going from nowhere, coming from nowhere”

—words spoken by Robert Smithson in Spiral Jetty, 1970.

“Keep your eyes on the brown structure. Two planes will pass overhead, it will explode and a mushroom cloud will cover the city.”

—recited by Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, George Landow and Yvonne Rainer in Benning’s Grand Opera, 1979.

7. An attempt to accurately, or simply adequately, represent the conflict between industrial and meteorological phenomena runs throughout Benning’s work—the tidal currents that submerge Smithson’s jetty in casting a glance (2007), or the black clouds and pallid smoke thrown across the frame in Ten Skies (2004). The second half of Ruhr interrogates this concern at pointed length, fixing on the quenching tower of Schwelgern coke plant for a full hour. Five times over, heated coal is drenched by 10,000 gallons of water, forcing a thick cumulus of vapour into the atmosphere. Sirens loop, coils of fog leech the air. The light drops (too) quickly after the second eruption, pressing the tower into shadow. A sustained period of quiet in the middle invites a measurement of perception, a heightening of consciousness.

Benning has been here before: an extended shot in his first masterpiece 11x14 (1976) records dense white smoke surging out of a concrete stack for eight minutes, marking out its swollen gusts against a calm expanse of sky. That image is revisited in Grand Opera (1979), and belching smokestacks recur during One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later, Him and Me (1981), the aforementioned Ten Skies. Filmed as darkness begins to set, Ruhr’s 7/7 is also pitched as a durational study in light: the vapour’s hue mutates as the image slowly blackens, colour fading into a corrupted greyscale. The shot has already invited comparisons to Warhol’s Empire, but Benning is surely reaching for a counter affect: an immense display of industrial turbulence, a cyclical assault upon stillness. In a way, perhaps its greatest achievement is to turn the capitalist logic of spectacle on its head: Ruhr reminds us that the most spectacular attractions are only a matter of fixing a line of sight, letting the scars on our landscape disintegrate as the light falls from our eyes.

***

Ruhr will be shown at the 39th International Film Festival Rotterdam.

RUHR was a very difficult experience. That last shot was brutal. There certainly was very little pleasure involed in watching it. Apart from it being a continuation of Benning’s excellent works, it was a nearly worthless excersie. If this is the future of movie making I want a new hobby. RUHR resembles more the clips in a Final Cut Pro trash folder than a finished work. Be that as it may, its images are ingrained in my brain and I can recall them vividly, for better or worse, and that is more than a lot of movies can do. Also, without having Benning at the screening to do a Q&A, the movie would have been half what it was when I saw it.
Kalvin, I’d disagree — the last shot of Ruhr is a difficult experience, but in a way I also understand where Benning is coming from. It’s “the film of a free man,” as we like to say — or least of a man freed from the technical constraints that have invisibly shaped his work (camera magazines, depth-of-field in low light) and now bound only by his own interests and impulses. So if he wants to make us see a tower for an hour, he can. And it’s not without its pleasures. The second shot is one of my favorites out of all of his works that I’ve seen, and I think the fourth shot is my favorite of Benning’s images of people. Flanagan distills a lot of its beauty very well in those four sentences up there. On the other hand, our experiences of the film were different — you saw it in theater, crisp, while I watched a recording of the above-screencapped 3sat broadcast in my living room.
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Kalvin, I think there is an element of brutality in the final shot, but not in the way you describe. If it fails to give pleasure, that’s no doubt due to the baggage you (or we) bring to it. Ignatiy – thanks, and agreed. Re: seeing – sadly, ditto. But at least we have a legit broadcast to go on this time.
Ruhr´s gonna be show also at the Punto de Vista Film Festival (www.puntodevista.navarra.es), where Benning made his first european retrospective, last year.
OK, let me be fair. James Benning is a great filmmaker. If you aren’t familiar with his work/don’t have access to it check out the documentary CIRCLING THE IMAGE and you’ll see how this man works. I think my problem with his digital turn is that it departs from why I originally found his work so compelling. I think the problem is the same one that makes me feel that the last shot was so “brutal”. The problem, for me, is that it’s all been manipulated. The sun going down that you see isn’t actually sun at all but light dimmed in a software program. The quiet streets of the suburbs that you see aren’t actually that way – Benning digitally removed people and cars from the scene, just as he did in the opening tunnel scene. This is interesting – “wow, it looks so real” – but ultimately, for me, it’s uninteresting. I’m much more into his older films when he just worked with what was actually there to see and hear like in 10 SKIES AND 13 LAKES or ONE WAY BOOGIE WOOGIE. I’m a big Straub/Huillet fan; I appreciate duration, sound and image when it’s “real”. For me, RUHR lacked all of the moments of awe when you are amazed and what was actually filmed, what you actually see and hear from the actual place in time. It was Benning’s willingness to work with what the natural world has to offer that made his work something to see. Now, I can’t say that.
the sound in 10 skies was culled from recordings benning made elsewhere.
Aeiou, thanks for the clarification. To be clear, I certainly don’t mean that all of Benning’s films are pure and simple sound and image from the actual source. I was just saying I tend to the like ones that come closest to that, in the Straub/Huillet fashion.
the digital changes in Ruhr are not meant to trick, but are rather used to give a truer feel of the place being portrayed. sometimes irregular events give a false sense of reality and by removing them the truth becomes more apparent; but of course any truth is only the perception of the viewer; and we all have our own prejudices…
James Benning, I remember you saying something similiar during the Q+A at Redcat in L.A.. I feel like your statement applies more to arts like writing, painting, or sculpture, etc. because for those arts the outside would necessarily is transferred through the artist to the work. It’s the only way it can happen. In movies, sure, the outside world is translated through the decisions the artist makes in their creation, but at the same time certain things can’t help but appear because the camera has a direct connection of sight and sound to the outside world. In other words, the camera has a special relationship with objective “reality”. The artist can subject that reality to their own perspective, but you can’t deny that certain things about the sound and image of a movie correspond to the real place where the sound and image were recorded. With that in mind, I can’t agree that by digitally removing aspects of a scene one can access a greater level of truth. Maybe a “poetic truth”, sure, but that’s all. I think that if we’re striving for poetic truth, film is not as well suited as other arts. Film is best suited for seeing and hearing things in the outside world, that is, a world outside of ourselves. And that, sir, is why I greatly value your work. Thank you for that and good luck in the exciting new world of digital. Kalvin
when i spent a full day in the Matenastraße Tunnel and the many long moments of stillness (no traffic at all) sent chills through my body, it became apparent to me that that was more important to portray than the randomness that would occur during my filming a few days later. .but here’s where we really differ: film is not inferior to the other arts when striving for poetic truth; but the frame around the film image pretty much makes objective reality pie in the sky…
James, I understand what you mean and I am amazed at digital cinema’s ability to reveal (that is cover up to reveal) things so easily. I hope it’s that I don’t believe that film captures objective reality, rather I feel that it simply comes closer to it than any other art. That is not to say it is a scientific instrument that goes beyond what humans alone can perceive about the world(though it can be), but that it mimics two senses we use to make up our own idea of what objective reality must be.
I mean “I hope it’s clear that i don’t believe…”
What it’s coming to here, it seems, is the difference between “objective reality” (which, oddly enough, easy to define) and “truth” (which is a problematic subject, and has become increasingly unfashionable). And what it seems Mr. Benning is suggesting is that what he’s always been after is truth, not objective reality, and that if there was an “objective” aspect to earlier films, it was always in the service of truth. I hope I’m right in understanding it in those terms, and, if I’m not, I’ll be glad to be corrected. I guess this question is for Kalvin. We’ve never really discussed “truth,” but we have, over the years, talked a lot about “objective reality,” to which I think (in what you’ve written and said about how films portray cities, communities, performances, etc.) you are more devoted than anyone I know. Not just “objective reality,” but its manipulation, too. I recently discussed this subject with Ramnin Bahrani, a filmmaker known, for better or worse, as a “realist,” in the course of an interview that’ll see light here in a little bit and Bahrani pointed out that he is more motivated by a desire to convey the truth of a situation than by “realism,” which in cinema has come to be associated with an idea of conveying “objective reality.” I agree with you that cinema, which combines photography and sound recording, “lets the world in” to a greater degree than any other form. But do you think that, because of those qualities, there’s no place for “truth” in filmmaking? And is cinema less personal than literature?
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I have little to add to what Mr. Benning and Ignatiy have already said here, except perhaps to clarify that I’m also very reluctant to pigeonhole “realism” as an attempt to somehow simply reproduce “objective reality”. For me, and for Mr. Benning (if I understand correctly), it’s a certain attitude and attention to the real – an approach that is, dare I say, a question of ethics more than anything else. There is, of course, a place for striving for truth in every artform, but what that “truth” might be (in relation to reality) when/if achieved is a theoretical and ideological minefield. What I find strange is Kalvin’s suggestion that an acknowledgement of this tension, built into the very fabric of the shot, somehow invalidates, or corrupts, Mr. Benning’s practice. “We all have our own prejudices”, indeed.
Ignaity, I do think that cinema is inherently less personal than literature. For example, last night I was watching FLYING: CONFESSIONS OF A FREE WOMAN – sorry for detracting from Mr. Benning’s work here – and even though the film is highly personal and uses all the techniques a director has to make the work communicate their thoughts and feelings (voice over narration, in camera confessions, home videos, etc.) I don’t feel that it can say as much about the inside of a person than words can. But, it’s tricky because what Jennifer Fox’s movie adds to her diary, you could say, is a record of what she looks and sounds like not only in general but in different states of emotion. That is something the written word alone cannot do. But does that give us a better understanding of her thoughts and feelings? Yes and no. If we were to spend the same amount of time watching her 3 hours movie as we were to read a real diary or autobiography by her I trust that it would be close which would reveal a greater truth about her inner state, but that the book would win. I say it would be close because her film is already so personal and substitutes the written word for a lot of voice over, keeping us alert at all time her to not only the sound and image of herself but of her thoughts and feelings. So is it possible to understand someone without ever seeing them or hearing them? It seems contrary to human nature, but for the arts, I think so. I mean you wouldn’t say that was true on the streets – seeing and hearing is crucial for providing “truth” there – but when you’re trying to distill the inner world of a person, finding out their “poetic truth”, it may not be as necessary. I’ll be looking for your interview, Ignaity. Bahrani’s work is great. I think CHOP SHOP is one of the best movies of the decade. Matthew, I feel kind of like one of those jackasses that called Bob Dylan a traitor when he went electric. I could imagine them thinking “The acoustic guitar is so much more truthful! Electric is fake noise.” Look, I’m excited to see Mr. Benning go digital, but I felt a little “betrayed”, even though it was to be expected, that so much of his beloved sound and image, which comes from closely studying the actual source location with your own eye and ear, was manipulated in post. As I already said, what I valued in his work previously was this purity of sound and photography. I’m not sure what I admire in his new work, other than that the images and sounds are still striking and hard to forget. I just feel that the thinking behind them has changed. I don’t mean to say that he was never after a “poetic truth” previously, but that if he was, he did so by working with, rather than against, the natural world. And that’s what interested me.
sometime in the mid 1960’s i saw Dylan perform all of his of his new Electric music acoustically; then he took a break and came out with the Hawks and did all his early songs fully electric…
James, That sounds like something Dylan would do… Out of the 8 or so times I’ve seen him play in the 2000s (I’m 25) he’s always played electrically, though sometimes at the keyboard (due to arthritis). But his music, in some ways, is getting older and older which each new album. Anyway, that’s a different topic.
i added a comment about the last shot in Ruhr at: http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/blog/rotterdam-2010-part-iii/
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Thanks for clarifying that further, James.
As someone coming to Ruhr with almost no background in cinema or visual literacy, as a reader and writer, I have to say that Ruhr affected me like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I learned much about the world, about myself, through it⎯about how the translation of energy from one form into another forms rhythms which themselves are only interesting in their breaks because the breaks suggest larger, more mysterious rhythms at work, rhythms at higher levels of attention. So the nature of my own attention seems different to me now because the film helped me attend to those rhythms. The question of art’s fidelity to reality is an old one, and quite misplaced, I think. As Mr. Benning points out, the shots were composed in a frame. And they are still in a way no human eye ever could be, which allowed me the opportunity to experience something that I never would have, even if I had been in those particular places at those particular times. I wouldn’t question any alterations made by the maker of the film than I would trouble with a composer organizing the notes into a score. The manipulation of the matter reality through a human consciousness is one way to understand art, and quite precisely personal, it seems to me. And Ruhr changed my understanding of what might be an objective reality or a truth. That also seems quite personal to me—a translation one person’s personal into another’s—and I’m glad to my bones to have gotten the experience. So, should Mr Benning happen to read this: thank you.

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