Trust to the gaze | Bleader

Trust to the gaze



But enough of my ruminating on Grindhouse and on to something less frenetic—or specifically this: why hasn't James Benning's 13 Lakes screened yet in Chicago? Almost two years since Cinema Borealis/Chicago Filmmakers promised to bring it to town, but so far we're just running on fumes—anxiety of expectation or whatever you want to call it. Plus: it's already played in Kansas City, fercrissake!

Not that there's any shortage of temporary fixes—aka structuralist nirvanas: "like watching paint peel," the cynics usually scoff (but not me! not me!)—and the middle of April brought in two: Benning's own One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later at UC Doc, a "remake" cum update of his '77 classic that our critic in chief described as "poignant and fascinating" (which I'll have to take his word for since I couldn't squeeze it in), and Sharon Lockhart's catatonic/contemplative Pine Flat, a Benning-like "documentary" comprising 12 long takes (actually 14 counting spliced-in intermission and credits roll) of ten minutes each, which played for a single night at the Film Center. But if Benning's into clouds and impersonal nature in a never quite pristine state (though not as one of those eco-fanatics—no, never ever that!), Lockhart's more into human socialization: what country California kids do from a behavioral/anthropological point of view. Or maybe it's what the theoretical gamesmanship demands: just open the lens and shoot, goddammit, till the camera roll runs out. Which isn't quite Benning's way: shoot lots and lots of footage, yes (I'm only guessing here), then edit down till you find a few deliciously "raw" strips that encapsulate a theme—ergo: "narrative" without human intervention, or maybe it's simply nature elaborating on itself. But Lockhart's more serendipitously open-ended, in basic approach if not final effect: trust to the "miracle" of unedited duration, the fact of things changing and layering over time, and let the phenomenological interest accrue: indeterminable minutiae, small revelations and surprises ...

Of course, it's only a miracle if it works, though most of the time Lockhart does manage to cover her bets. Like the overhead shot of kids playing in a water pool (is it lake or stream?: the perspective doesn't clue you in), where everything solid seems to deliquesce and merge: what's subject and what's ground?—it's hard to tell in this prismatic, rippling stew. Or of preteens necking in a field (pictured above) or goofing off in a forest clearing: if nothing's definitively planned (or has it been?—we're never quite sure) then almost everything's fair game—assuming that anything happens at all, which is the ongoing tension here. Or the rapturous closing sequence of a tree enshrouded in mist: will it ultimately vanish in the billows or is it all just a shape-shifting tease?

In her still photo shows, Lockhart's been criticized for not filling in the blanks—"all subject matter and no content," as Jerry Saltz put it in a 2006 Artnet piece. Maybe it's true of her stills—not much room to maneuver there, just discrete, frozen instances in time—but with film, where "content" accumulates through sheer duration (plus active intervention by the viewer), a lot of the basic grunt work's already been done. Trust to the method seems to be Lockhart's way, her basic faith in unedited, catatonic staring. I think she may be on to something ...