Anyone who has ever sat through an Andy Warhol movie (or watched writer-director-producer-star Kevin Spacey’s loony biopic of Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea) knows that avant-garde film is often more compelling in theory than in practice. This isn’t, however, the case with James Benning’s mesmerizing 16mm documentary, RR, which plays this Sunday at the Walter Reade Theater.
RR is two hours of watching one train after another go by, all in their entirety. Filmed in various spots around the United States—though several locations, to this viewer’s eye, were obviously in California (Benning teaches at Cal Arts)—the span of time it takes each train to cross the screen depends on the number of its cars as well as its speed. As with people, some trains are fast while others are annoyingly slow. Though he’s limited by a camera that never moves, Benning manages to pull off a number of witty flourishes—as when he has us wait for an idling suburban driver, who has himself been waiting with us in real time, to drive over a reopened track, before jumping to the next choo-choo.
Benning’s 13 Lakes, which is about exactly what its title suggests, played last year in New York to critical raves, and like that film, RR is an idiosyncratic view of the American landscape. It’s a shame that on a few occasions in RR, Benning imposes an artificial sound design (the worst example is his use, late in the movie, of Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex” speech) for the beauty of this picture lies precisely in how little it takes to engross us. Some toys, trains among them, never get old.—Benjamin Strong