“I was still a young boy when I saw my first motion picture,” Siegfried Kracauer recalled in his Theory of Film. “What thrilled me so deeply was an ordinary suburban street… Several trees stood about, and there was in the foreground a puddle reflecting invisible house facades and a piece of the sky. Then a breeze moved the shadows, and the facades with the sky below began to waver. The trembling upper world in the dirty puddle—this image has never left me.”
A hundred years have passed since that moment but Kracauer’s primeval image (or rather, his sense of that image) is evoked with a power I wouldn’t have thought still possible by James Benning’s 13 Lakes and Ten Skies. Made in 2004, these extraordinary landscape films (which had previous showings as part of the Tribeca Film Festival and “Film Comment Presents” series) are now having what amounts to a theatrical run—screening nightly for a week at Anthology Film Archives. They are, in a word, glorious.
Benning, who’s been making movies for more than 30 years, first achieved avant-indie prominence with jokey structural conundrums such as 11 x 14 and One Way Boogie-Woogie (his remake of which is also showing as part of this Anthology series). He has since directed a number of experimental narratives, but his most enduring interest is the American landscape. Eschewing the hit-and-miss soundtrack juxtapositions that characterized earlier films, Ten Skies and 13 Lakes are the purest of these. Each is a succession of static 10-minute takes that simply record the natural world. Save for an occasional boat or tiny plane zipping across the frame, the camera is the lone human presence.
If these movies are described as “contemplative” or “painterly,” it’s because they more or less compel the viewer to regard the scene with a painter’s attention—noting, for example, the degree to which light affects the sense of depth or how a subtle vortex of moving water and clouds causes a perceptual vapor to seemingly float off the screen. Painters also provide the basic vocabulary: The screen divided between a white sky and off-white lake creates a luminous Rothko effect. Some of the images in 13 Lakes are as ascetic as an Agnes Martin canvas—sky and water are almost one, save for the mysterious iridescent band limning the shoreline. Others are busy with marsh grass horizons or foreground vegetation. Still others—a mountain suspended like a cloud in mid-screen, a lake creating a kaleidoscopic mirror image of the surrounding terrain and overhead—are astonishingly beautiful.
Ten Skies is less pictorial and, as Benning’s camera is pointed straight up to offer the view- point of a stationary rocket, its images confound notions of gravity and scale. Everything here is insubstantial. (Jules Olitski is the post-painterly abstractionist who comes to mind.) Some skies are as dramatic as a Tintoretto; others are studies in a mottled gray wash or feature an all-over textured white stipple against a blue field. If Ten Skies is tougher to watch than 13 Lakes, it’s because the lack of tangible objects makes duration appear all the more apparent: How much (or little) can happen in 10 minutes? A pink haze develops; a massively vaporous formation dissipates.
Although either film would lend itself to a gallery installation, Benning has resisted the necessary transfer to DVD. There are no digital improvements. Only nature and the camera could produce these
effects—motion pictures as the Lumiére brothers made them.