Conversation with James Benning

James Benning came to Rio on the invitation of Festival Ecrã, where he presented his latest feature, “The United States Of America” (2022), and led  a masterclass at SESC Copacabana, where he stayed for the duration of his visit . The movie screened as part of the festival on Friday, the 8th of July, at the Cinemateca do MAM, and the masterclass occurred the following day. In it, James talked about one of his installations, “Two Cabins” (2010), for which he remade cabins originally built by Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski and duplicated paintings originally done by outsider artists like Bill Traylor, Moses Tolliver, Joseph Yoakum, Martín Ramírez, Henry Darger, Black Hawk, and Jesse Howard. 

This conversation was conducted on July 10th, the morning after Benning’s masterclass, in the lobby of SESC Copacabana, where we spoke with him, prompted by the prior days’ events. Some recurrent themes surfaced throughout : the relationship between Benning’s work and the work of other experimental filmmakers and conceptual artists, in particular Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton; the importance of  empirical experience, which Benning takes as material and structure for his works; and, finally (and this can be taken as a consequence from the previous point) the protagonism assumed by the creative process not only in the making of his works but also as a theme for them. This last point often appears to originate from a literal interpretation of the Aristotelian quote “we learn by doing:” Benning’s reconstructions of cabins and paintings – which require submitting himself to the peculiar stages of each process – and the direct observation of landscape in his films – which materially confronts historic scenery and uninterrupted time – comprise two exemplary instances of this ethos. The specific experiences of  his characters’ or landscapes’ stories that  the  films deal with  are re-staged not through fiction, but through this kind of confrontation.

At a certain point in the conversation, Benning talks about David Mancuso’s parties during the 1980’s, where Mancuso carefully coordinated the music throughout the night in order to emulate his own experience of listening to the sounds of nature as a child. This story provides a parallel to Benning’s process, in which an experience never dilutes itself, it just transforms: “it’s just that the material has changed,”  he answers us, in another moment, regarding his transition from film to digital. From nature to New-York lofts, from film to digital, from Thoreau to Kaczynski, from idea to practice, and from one practice to another, it becomes evident that the artist is, in fact, interested in the empiric knowledge that each experience offers him, and which he can then offer his audience and students; as he mentions on more than one occasion here, the classes he teaches at CalArts constitute themselves, essentially, of “paying attention,” seeing and listening, a proposition that his own films seem to materialize.

We’d like to thank Festival Ecrã for inviting and welcoming James to Rio, for screening his film  and organizing his masterclass (for that, too, we’d like to thank SESC Copacabana). We’d also like to thank James himself, for the very stimulating film, class, and conversation.

introductory text by Paula Mermelstein and interview conducted by Gabriel Linhares Falcão, Matheus Zenom and Paula Mermelstein


Matheus Zenom: Yesterday, in the masterclass, I was glad to hear about “Two Cabins”, because we only knew the film by watching it on YouTube, without any context about the whole project, which surprised me very much. So, I wanted to ask you: how do your films get made? Like the one we watched the night before, “United States of America”: how does a film like this is done? Do you shoot the images before having a project or do you conceive it and then shoot the images?

James Benning: Almost always the project is in my head completely and then I go out and execute it. So, with “United States of America”, it was pretty much inspired by the first film [of the same name] I made with Bette Gordon [“United States of America”, 1975], about 40 years ago, and that was the initial idea, to make another version of “United States of America”. I also thought about my own isolation because of Covid-19. I could go outside but I wouldn’t go as far as every state in the Union, and so right away there were these limits on how the film would be made.

Image from “United States of America” (2022) by James Benning

Paula Mermelstein.: During the masterclass, you’ve also said that when you were remaking the Bill Traylor painting’s you felt like you could understand the problems he faced when he was painting. I thought that was very interesting and that maybe the process behind “Two Cabins” was something similar: (re)constructing the cabins and understanding what they meant.

JB: That’s an interesting question in terms of the cabins. When Thoreau made his cabin, he found trees in the area he was going to build, and made lumber from those trees. And I went down the hill to The Home Depot and drove it back up on my truck. So, I had a completely different experience. But that’s kind of what Kaczynski did. When I built his, I had these wonderful pictures from Richard Barnes; he not only took these pictures of Kaczynski’s cabin in the FBI warehouse, but he was able to take black backdrop paper and do front, side and back shots, so you had four elevations photographs of the cabin. So, I could scale everything from those photos and make it close to what Kaczynski did. So I really felt like I was having almost the same experience as Kaczynski, because I knew what materials he used, I knew how he did things wrong or different. He did one interesting thing: when you build a roof you generally use the same amount of rafters on the left side and the right side. But he built a roof where there were eleven on one side and twelve on the other, which didn’t make sense to me at all. But, I did the same anyway. And then I found out that by them not meeting evenly at the top, there was less torque, the roof didn’t want to twist as much. I asked Julie Ault who corresponds with Kaczynski to ask him about the roof, but he insisted there were that same amount of rafters on both sides.

Unabomber Exhibit D” (1999) photograph by Richard Barnes

PM: Were you also corresponding with Kaczynski?

JB: I wrote him a few times. But Julie Ault, who edited “Two Cabins,” is still writing him, although he’s now been moved from the maximum-security prison in Colorado to a hospice in South Caroline because he’s in a bad state, from cancer. But I also heard now that he’s been responding to the therapy so maybe he’ll be moved back. He’s a very interesting guy once he’s locked up and can’t hurt people. Because he’s quite brilliant, but he also has a mad side to him. He killed three people and harmed many others, so he’s no hero of mine. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from him.

MZ: His book is also published here. Does he still write?

JB: Well, he just wrote a book about the environment that’s quite good. Early on when he was in prison, he was so angry at his mother and brother that he wrote a book saying they were lying about him and it’s really quite embarrassing, it’s very petty. And that has just been republished. I can’t believe he can’t see how that book puts him in a rather dismal light. I guess he’s too close to the argument. But his writing on the environment is quite good. I think we need to be warned about how technology is affecting us, mentally at least.

MZ: Your films call attention to some of the geographical and cultural aspects of life in the United States. Sometimes, like in “Landscape Suicide” (1987), you present something of a “dark side” of this. You are working with notions that are common to (at least) the American spectator, but you present it in a very rigorous form. Like, there’s a reoccurrence of the American flag in your films.

JB: I use the American flag many times in different films for a number of reasons. One that it’s probably the most recognizable flag in the world. And another one is that I think of myself as a patriot, but not a blind patriot, like a lot of people who fly flags. I’m very aware of the history of my country and the atrocities that it has exported and imposed all over the world and in the United States. So, I use the flag as a symbol but also as a patriot I want my country to behave well and become better. That’s the kind of patriotism I attest to. It’s also beautiful the way the flags tell you how fast the wind is blowing, and they underline very wonderful waves that linger in time.

Image from “Glory” (2019) by James Benning

PM: In films like Landscape Suicide” you combine the actual landscapes of the story with reenacted interviews. I was wondering how do you balance what is invented and what is directly registered when making a film? Is that something you think about beforehand?

JB: First, I should probably comment on narrative itself. When I first started making films I knew narrative cinema much better than anything else. I wasn’t interested in making traditional narrative films but I was interested in storytelling. So, the earlier films that I’ve made, even though they are quasi-narratives, have direct narrative elements. The idea of using real stories to develop narrative interested me, I was very interested in that in “Landscape Suicide”, in using monologues that actually existed and were recorded, and in using non-actors that could just rely on that dialogue. So, they had to faithfully say the actual monologue and I tried to directed them to not act out the meaning, letting the language speak for itself. That seemed to be a good direction to take because many people believe they are the actual people, which is very interesting.

Image from “Landscape Suicide” (1987) by James Benning

PM: And what narrative movies or filmmakers did you like?

JB: I like more minimal kind of narratives, like “The Passenger” (1975) from Michelangelo Antonioni. I also like “Zabriskie Point” (1970), because it was narrative and visual. Films like that.

MZ: Does Asian cinema also appeals to you?

JB: I don’t know it very well and I should. Everybody else talks about Ozu in relationship to my films. I’ve seen “Tokyo Story” (1953) and a few others of his and I very much like the work, I think we’d probably think a lot alike. But he hasn’t influenced me because he came upon me after I was already working, but it’s nice to find these connections.

Image from “Sanma no Aji” (Autumn Afternoon, 1962), film by Yasujiro Ozu

Gabriel Linhares Falcão: You talked about CalArts before. Are your classes there usually outside or inside the school?

JB: I have a class that goes outside. I teach it once every two years, maybe, in the spring time. We go to places and just practice paying attention. It’s a class that takes all day, we leave at eight in the morning and sometimes get back at ten at night, or midnight. We generally spend the whole day somewhere and really pay attention to things.

GLF: No cellphones in there? [laughs]

JB: That’s hard to control but most of the time I go to places where there’s no cellphone reception. And then those are the places I wish we had them, because that’s where somebody might get lost, so we worry [laughs]. But I don’t require them to do anything except to have that experience but I expect them to work hard and to really pay attention. What I’ve found is that the work of most students who take the class gets much more subtle afterwords.

GLF: Many times in your career you comment that “seeing is a discipline”. In the masterclass, you talked about discipline in the work of Henry David Thoreau, and I was wondering about your own discipline with your work…

JB: Well, as a young boy I had an uncle who would take me, my brother and his son out of the city and we would go on walks. He didn’t say “pay attention” or anything, but just through time I started to learn things. I remember one day when I was very young: the sun was hot and there was this cool breeze, so you feel hot and cold at the same time. I still remembered the first time I felt this to this day, when I realized you could have those two sensations at the same time. At the time, I thought this was interesting. I actually tell this story in “Telemundo” (2018), a film I made with Sofia Brito. Now, I feel that it was a very smart observation. I was very impressed that something had just happened to me. From then on, I paid more attention to things, because I wanted to have those kinds of experiences where I learned something very subtle, very new.

GLF: You work with strict structures in your films, but it seems that during the process of filming you sometimes change it into something that could fit better.

JB: I’m always open to having an experience change the film. I’m not that rigid to think it and then just completely do it. But many times I am. Like when I made “One Way Boogie Woogie” (1977), I went around the city, the industrial area, and I took stills to study it. I knew I wanted to make a film about this area but I had no idea how or what. And then when I looked at the stills they kind of suggested just to do “stills with time” and make them all the same length, so there is a kind of democracy of looking; this place gets as much attention as that place. So, the process grew out of the process of taking still photograph. “One Way Boogie Woogiewas a very early film when I was just beginning to develop these kinds of structures, but that’s where it came from, from just looking at this industrial landscape with a still camera.

Image from “One Way Boogie Woogie” (1977), film by James Benning

PM: In regard to this industrial landscape, there are two other artists that I think relate to your work in some way, Bernd and Hilla Becher.

JB: Yeah. Certainly, they influence me in a way that I realized that all that industrial area that I hung around in Milwaukee as a kid and enjoyed, was aesthetically pleasing, they confirmed that.

GLF: Could you talk about your transition from 16mm to digital?

JB: I thought I’d never change, I really liked film. And then it became just so hard to work with labs, their tolerances went all to hell. It would take a long time to get a print and then the theater’s projectors were getting worse and not being worked on properly. So, it took six months to get a print of an hour and a half film and then just two weeks to ruin it from bad projection. I couldn’t take that. And then, once I switched, I found digital fits my ideas better. I mean, I like the look of my 16mm films, but some of them I think are not giving me the resolution I’d like them to have. What they do have is grain and a nostalgic feel to them, that many people get seduced by. I can let that part of it go. It’s not so interesting to me. If the new “USA” [United States of America, 2022] was on film I don’t think it would be as powerful. 

GLF: Has your way of measuring time changed in this switch?

JB: Yeah, it liberates me. Also, the idea of not having to work with a lab is the best thing in the world. I can do all my postproduction, color correction, by myself. So, I have total control of the image. And, generally, projection is pretty good, you might have a little problem but that rarely happens. Generally, now, projection is so much better than 16mm and prints don’t get ruined over time, they stay the same. And people can steal them more easily so that’s a good part [laughs].

GLF: In “BNSF” (2013) you did a single three-hours long shot. Did you always want to make those long takes, like Andy Warhol’s “Empire” (1965)?

JB: I wanted to make long takes but I was mostly interested in the limitation of the reel size. When I made “One Way Boogie Woogie”, I used a hundred-foot loads and that meant I could do a two minute and forty second shot, or I could do two shots approximately 80 second each. So, the film stocks and the locations themselves were dictating the length of the shots. In “13 Lakes” (2004), I used a four-hundred-foot loads which would give me eleven minutes and then, if I used ten, I could slide a little bit and get rid of something in the beginning or end that I didn’t like. That was a consideration but I never wanted to do something like Warhol’s “Empire” where he kept re-loading the camera and doing it for so many hours. Mainly because I didn’t have that kind of money.

Image from “BNSF” (2013), film by James Benning

GLF: Do you have a connection with the work of Warhol?

JB: Well, I like his work a lot, I think his films are brilliant. And just the whole environment that he created with people coming to The Factory, how there was always a camera there, that was quite brilliant. I like some of his early films with Taylor Mead and Viva etc. This crazy kind of open narratives of people rambling.

MZ: There’s a big difference between your method of work and Warhol’s. As you’ve said before, you work alone; it’s you who does the framing and conceives the structure.  While Warhol mostly hired people to photograph his films for him.

JB: I think Jonas Mekas shot “Empire”. There’s a nice moment in the film where someone accidentally turns the light on in the room and then turns it off quickly. When that happens, you see Jonas reflected in the glass, if I remember it correctly.

MZ: Talking about Warhol, I remember your film “Nightfall” (2012). It’s a one-shot film, composed by the strict lines of the trees in a forest, where you record the duration of this nightfall. While the image gets darker and darker, the sound gets louder and louder. I find that very interesting because there are two forces there that cross each other in some way, and you found it in nature.

JB: That’s kind of what my looking and listening classes are about. You see things like that and hear things like that. There’s this man, David Mancuso, who ran a loft in New York City and had these disco parties in the 80’s. He would play the music to warm people into the evening and then, as it got more wild, he would react to the crowd and play things that way. These would be eleven hours parties, and in the last two or three hours he would slow everything down. So, I was very aware of that when I made “Nightfall”, and now I made “Ten Years Later” (2022), a companion film to it. Actually, it’s like the last half of “Nightfall” – not quite the last half, because when it gets dark in this, I make it get darker a little quicker. I filmed it in the same spot for daybreak. So, it starts with the title “Nightfall” and then you see nightfall. Then it goes to black and it says “10 years later”, then “daybreak”, and starts to get lighter. It’s in the exact same place and the sound in the morning isn’t as loud as it was at night, it’s very subtle. And then, it suddenly changes, there are more birds. So, you get a different experience in this. What happens in the film is that the area where I filmed is completely ravaged by forest fire, so when it comes up, everything is gone, it’s all burned, it’s all black sticks. So, it becomes very political.

MZ: You started making films in the early 70’s and you belong to a different generation from the one we usually associate with “experimental cinema”, with Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton and Gregory J. Markopoulos. Did you have any sort of contact with that previous generation?

JB: I became very good friends with two of the filmmakers from that generation, Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow. And I became close with them because I thought of them as artists not as experimental filmmakers. I thought they made conceptual works and that’s what I was interested in. So, they’re probably my biggest influences, those two people. As for Brakhage, I find his films more lyrical. I like many of his films, some I don’t like – like with anybody. But I didn’t like his philosophy of seeing, it was a bit romantic for me.

MZ: Thinking about this previous generation of filmmakers (Snow, Frampton), they usually worked with short durations in their films while you, on the other hand, since the late 70’s, have worked in features.

JB: Well, Snow did “Rameau’s Nephew” (1974), which is two and a half hours or so. Some of Frampton’s films were longer and he also was designing the “Magellan” sequence that would play over a whole year, so it wasn’t just about the film getting longer but the presentation, that went to a whole year, where we would see something every day. Unfortunately, he died before that was realized. But he had filmed certain films for the equinox because he believed that certain days of the year were special. And those films were finished, some of them. I mean, I suspect people thought “Wavelenght” (1967) was a very long film, it’s about 30-40 minutes? So, they weren’t as short as Brakhage’s films but even he made some longer films like “The act of seeing with one’s own eyes” (1971), where you see an autopsy in his kind of style a number of times. And then he filmed the autopsy completely straight, unlike what he used to do. That was one of his conceptual films that I thought was brilliant. Even he at times affected my brain a bit, especially with that film. I was really taken by it, confronted by it, because it went from this lyrical, ironic beauty, of an autopsy to the reality of it. Also, his films in Pittsburgh, in the steelmills, were great.

Image from “The Act of Seeing with one’s own eyes” (1971), film by Stan Brakhage

MZ: You already talked about this, but I was wondering how the duration of a film, its length, appeals to you? Not just the length of the images themselves but the relationship between the images that creates a sense of narrative, like you’ve said before.

JB: Maybe now, later in my career, I’m a little more afraid of making films that are so long. I mean, I push my audience pretty far already. When I made “United States of America”, I could’ve made each shot five minutes and then it would’ve been a very long film. So, I simply divided it. An hour and a half by fifty and came up with approximately a minute and forty-five seconds for each. And when I did that I thought it was kind of playful, you know, this is so arbitrary. And it’s interesting because I think it gets close to “One Way Boogie Woogie” which has one-minute shots and those I thought were so long when I made that film and now one forty-five seems so short. [laughs]

PM: You talked about conceptual art and I was wondering if you like the work of Ed Ruscha, and if you have any contact with him?

JB: I know of Ed Ruscha quite well because he is a Californian artist and I actually taught his son, Eddie [Ruscha] Jr. It’s weird because I’ve never met him [Ed Ruscha], but I’m very much interested in his work as I am with other people from CalArts, where I teach.

PM: Some of his works, like “Twenty-six gasoline stations” (1963), remind me of your films.

JB: Yes, and I wasn’t aware of those. I mean, that’s a kind of coincidence. But I think when you think conceptually some of these ideas just rub up against each other.

MZ: There’s something about these films, like “13 Lakes” (2004) or “10 Skies” (2004), that is very primordial: you start with a basic principle and shoot natural sceneries. But there’s also something, a particular technique, that’s yours; you see a shot and you think, “That’s a James Benning shot”, not only because of the duration of these shots but from the framing itself. Is that something premeditated?

JB: Well, I agree with that, but I don’t know if I can define what that is. Because I made so many different kinds of films. People think I make only one kind of film, but they’re very different. Still, there is something that connects them all and I think it’s the image, what you’re talking about, that kind of magic, like a stamp through the image. Even though the ideas from one film to the other can be extremely different.

Image from “13 Lakes” (2004), film by James Benning

GLF: Would you say that’s because of your use of negative space? That’s something very particular, I think.

JB: Well, I can redefine that more as an offscreen space. I am very aware of offscreen space and I like to use that through sound and develop that space. Maybe that’s one thing that is consistent through a lot of the films, this use of sound and drawing attention to the space behind the camera, to the left of the frame, or above it, all those different spaces.

GLF: I was very impressed when a couple of days ago someone asked you about the music that sometimes plays in the background of “United States of America” (2022) and you said that it was made in the post-production. 

JB: Sometimes I use music that connects to the image itself or I try to connect it to it, as if it’s coming from a source in the frame or outside it, other times I just use it as if it was magically floating in the air somehow.

MZ: When we were doing research for this interview, we discovered a text of yours in October magazine [Sound and Stills from “Grand Opera”, vol. 12, Spring, 1980].

JB: Yeah, of “Grand Opera” (1978). 

GLF.: Stills and sound, right?

JB: Yeah.

MZ: It called our attention because it’s a magazine that we like very much because it talks about cinema in relation to other arts, it doesn’t separate the two. It’s something that you talked about before, of what appealed to you in Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow was that they thought of themselves as artists. That’s the way we see your work also, it’s the work of an artist.

JB: Well, that’s a great compliment, I think. Now I’m doing these works that aren’t just films, installations that create large environments, like the one in my house [“Two Cabins”]. But, like I said yesterday, even though I’m doing these large environments I construct them using the same thinking that I use to make a film. I don’t think of them as different at all, it’s just that the material has changed. 

GLF: Talking about October, did you have a close relationship with people like Annette Michelson, Rosalind Krauss and P. Adams Sitney?

JB: I think that came about when I made “11×14” (1977). It played in a conference in Milwaukee in a “20th century studies” or something. They invited a lot of theorists but also a number of filmmakers. And that’s where I met Michael Snow, and Annette Michelson, Amy Taubin and Chantal Akerman were there. In fact, I met all those people at once in an elevator. We were going up and someone said “there goes the avant-garde” [laughs]. Which was funny. So, I met them there and then right after that I moved to New York City and Annette Michelson invited me to over her place to talk to me about “Grand Opera” and my relationship to Yvonne Rainer and the other artists in that film. Then, she asked me at that time “Would you want to make something for the magazine?”. It might have been that or I might have already made it and brought it, I can’t remember if she suggested. But I didn’t know her well. Amy Taubin, I got to know well and they lived in the same building, where the “Earth Room” is, Walter De Maria’s “Earth Room”. I don’t know if you know that. He filled a loft space with dirt inside. It’s absolutely gorgeous. You go in there and you smell this rich black earth. They rake it every day and water it.

Earth Room” (1977) by Walter De Maria, 197 m³ (250 yd³) of earth in a 335 m² (3,600 ft²) room

MZ: Where you somehow influenced by the critics? Do you get any responses that affect your work?

JB: I mainly do that with friends that are artists, some of them are writers. I’m very close with Sharon Lockhart and Rachel Kushner, who is in “Readers” (2017). And, so, I talk to them, we talk about what they’re doing, what I’m doing. And with Rachel it’s interesting because we hang around quite a bit, she takes notes when I tell her stories and, now, I’m in her novels. She did this short story that comes out today, actually, I think, in The New Yorker, that’s part of their summer fiction magazine. She’s got a new story in there where I’m basically the main character. It’s kind of fun when your friends are artists and you grow from each other. She affects me and I affect her.

PM: I have one more question that’s a little more personal. I was wondering if you know and like the painter Forrest Bess?

JB: I made a film two summers ago where I went to seven different folk artists’ places. So, I went down to Texas and I filmed the island off the Texas coast there, where he worked. I’ve done a number of Bess’s paintings also. And they just had a big show in Kassel and they invited me to talk about Bess. So, I’m an authority on him [laughs].

PM: I love his paintings.

JB: They’re amazing. Somebody just had a whole bunch of them that where kind of stored in a garage. So, there’s a whole new set of them that just came about. When he started painting, you know he was a recluse, living off the coast of Texas, and he wrote to Betty Parsons’ gallery in New York. They corresponded and he sent her some of his paintings. And she started showing him. At that time, she was showing Jackson Pollock and a number of other great guys that were just coming up. And Forrest Bess was there too. Of course, he didn’t connect with all those other guys. But now, that’s he’s dead and gone, his works are becoming almost as famous. He had this philosophy that if  he could become a hermaphrodite, he could live forever. So, he self-operated to make himself a woman and a man at the same time. And he documented that with photos and sent those photos to Parsons’ to say “I want this in the next show, this is part of the show”, and she wrote back saying “Well, this is very interesting, but I think those photos are probably for a different institution.” Which is funny because when I finally saw his paintings, they were in the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, they did a retrospective of his work there and they had all the documentation. So, you know, he was just eighty years ahead of his time. [laughs] He realized that all of this is in the work. I think that’s kind of brilliant. I mean, I think he was a tortured man, to come up with that theory. But, yeah, it’s very interesting.

“The Hermaphrodite” (1957), oil on canvas by Forrest Bess