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Thinking Inside the Box

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El Valley Centro

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by James Benning.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

El Valley Centro, James Benning's latest feature, is a fairly minimalist effort consisting of 35 shots, each of them two and a half minutes long, filmed in direct sound with a stationary camera in California's Central Valley. About halfway through I found myself, to my surprise, thinking about Joseph Cornell's boxes, those surrealist constructions teeming with fantasy and magic--dreamlike enclosures that make it seem appropriate that Cornell lived most of his life on a street in Queens called Utopia Parkway.

Benning's films are typically about farmland, deserts, or industrial landscapes. The two features preceding this one are Four Corners, shot around the point where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet, and Utopia, shot in desert country starting in Death Valley and heading south across the Mexican border. Benning hails from Wisconsin, and most of his early films are made up of midwestern landscapes. He moved to the west coast several years ago to teach at Cal Arts, and ever since he's been shooting various kinds of midwesternlike emptiness and decay in the western states. Two years ago he started offering free December screenings of his new films at a private loft in Wicker Park, when he was back for the holidays, and apart from screenings at Cal Arts, these have been the films' American premieres. Benning will launch El Valley Centro in the same loft, on the fourth floor at 1550 N. Milwaukee, at 7:00 and 9:00 on Sunday, December 5.

One thing that reminded me of Cornell's boxes was the perfectly squared off screen in the loft--masked to emphasize the borders--and the precise way the projected images filled it. I've seen only Benning's films on this screen, so it's possible that other films shown on it, if they were artfully composed, would evoke Cornell's boxes. In any case, this screen wonderfully demonstrates the profound difference between a TV screen and a movie screen--besides the quality of the images--because it's strikingly well defined, in contrast to the curved and therefore ill-defined borders of most TV screens. TV screens make you feel like you're peeking at something through a ragged hole in a fence, thereby reducing the effects of composition and emphasizing what might be called "screen content": familiar faces, generic plots, recognizable logos, and so on. In other words, the aesthetic inferiority of video and TV is less a matter of unclear images than of poorly defined frames--which helps explain why Benning hasn't released any of his films on video. Without their distinct frames, many of their special qualities would be considerably diminished.

Benning's talent has always had more to do with form than with content--more to do with style than with "having something to say," as many people would put it, even though form and style can be as expressive as content. Leftist politics often hover in the background or around the edges of Benning's films, but he never seems to know how to integrate them into his nonnarrative structures. In El Valley Centro they might be faintly present in shots such as those of an oil fire and of Mexican grape pickers; they might be slightly more visible in the final credits, which identify the preceding shots by listing the subject, who owns the land, and the location. For shots 5, 6, 18, and 27, for instance, the titles read, "hay raker, Tejon Ranch, Arvin," "freight train, Southern Pacific, Bakersfield," "dredge, Delta Dredging Co., the Delta," and "freighter ship, Naviera de Chile, Stockton Deep Water Channel."

Identifying who owns land isn't leftist in itself; it encourages me to also think of this film as somehow an industrial. But it does impose a way of reading the locations that such shots usually can't convey by themselves, a way of reading that has leftist possibilities. In this respect, Benning's "cast list" of subjects, owners, and places resembles the long roller-title afterthoughts in Utopia--an attempt to shoehorn material in at the last minute to avoid a purely formalist surface.

I'll try to describe briefly the four shots identified above to give some notion of the range of formal possibilities in this film. The "hay raker" shot contains a certain amount of formal suspense as a hay raker, starting as a tiny speck, moves steadily toward the camera from the far side of a field until it reaches the foreground and turns offscreen to the right; we continue to hear its progress after it moves out of the frame, then see it reemerge, retreating leftward down the field. The camera's position makes this second trajectory almost horizontal in relation to the frame while the first trajectory is mainly vertical. Variations on this pattern appear in shots 8, "field workers, Union Pacific, Sutter," where a man with a hoe moves toward the camera; 11, "plow (fog), Martin Rodriguez Farm, West Butte," where a man drives a plow toward and then away from the camera; and 17, "cotton picker, Prudential Insurance, Buena Vista Lake (dry)," where the cotton picker, like the hay raker, approaches the camera, swoops around it, and retreats down an adjacent path. In all four cases, the people using the tools or driving the machinery give no sign of being aware of the camera.

There's also formal suspense in the "freight train" shot, because the train enters the frame horizontally after a few seconds and because the train is so long it's hard to guess which will end first, the shot or the train. The train disappears just before the end of the shot; as it passes one can see through some cars and not others, which sets up a kind of irregular percussive visual rhythm.

The dredge in the delta is completely motionless, and so is practically everything else in the shot, apart from a few ripples moving across the water. Discounting a bird or two, there's not a lot of variable sound either. The interest of such a shot lies in the way it makes one much more observant than usual of slight movements and faint sounds. Consequently, one "enters" this shot much more fully than one enters either of the previous two--simply to establish one's bearings. The same is true of shot nine, "California State Prison, Department of Corrections, Wasco," filmed from such a distance, behind barbed wire and a dirt road, that voices apparently barking orders in the distance provide the main "action."

The freighter ship glides horizontally across the upper portion of the screen, and later a sailboat follows the same route; what makes the movement magical in both cases is that one can't see the water that carries these vessels, merely the embankment beside the channel. (A similar effect is obtained in shot 13, "F/A 18 Hornets, Blue Angels, Lemoore Naval Air Station," where one can see planes moving down a runway near the top of the frame but not the runway itself.) A road also runs parallel to the embankment--though one becomes aware of it only when a car drives down it--and a generous expanse of field fills the foreground.

The Benning film that El Valley Centro most resembles is his 1977 masterpiece, One Way Boogie Woogie, which consists of 60 one-minute shots with a stationary camera, all filmed in the industrial valley near Milwaukee where he grew up. But the underlying impulse in that film is more playful and less documentary; many shots seem deliberately staged for the camera, turning each one into a kind of puzzle rather than a box designed to be filled by chance occurrences.

Back in the 70s the most characteristic Benning composition was a horizontal triptych. In El Valley Centro it's a simple two-part vertical construction, and the appearance of the horizon line almost invariably in the same place in every shot ultimately leads to a certain monotony. Though I had a nice time watching this movie overall, I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more if I'd had more of a sense of logical progression--or regression--from one shot to the next. What one has by the end is an arrangement of attractive boxes of the same size that are neatly stacked together but not in any particular order.

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