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.
“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.