As modest and self-explanatory as its lower-case title suggests, small roads is James Benning's latest contemplation of American landscape as an awesome man-made sculpture. In contrast to RR, which was focused on moving railway vehicles, small roads examines the ways in which paths—firmly asserted in asphalt and only occasionally traversed—shape the visible world.
Shot with digital camera over the course of two years (even as Benning was working on other projects), the movie arrives barely annotated, so that you need the director himself to point out its underlying geographical journey—starting in California and headed first to the South, then to the Midwest. What we see are 47 immobile shots of roads in a roughly organized order that follows the succession of the seasons. At first, the structuring principle seems to be that each shot has one moving car in it before the image peters out. It comes as a minor shock, then, when shot number eight ends with no vehicle appearance whatsoever. From then on, all bets are off—in a manner of speaking.
As with the single speeding motorboat that never fails to draw an applause from an audience in the otherwise vacated 13 Lakes, so does small roads have its fair share of visual puns and found bits of business—of which a snow plough revealing a previously indiscernible road is only the most spectacular. In fact, the whole film can be seen as a succession of contemplative 47 shorts spliced together, and in this is evocative of Benning's 11 x 14, the 1977 meditation on what a single shot can allow for.
Overtly minimalistic but—by Benning's own hilarious Q&A admission—“highly manipulated,” small roads is said to contain a number of collage-like images, using disparate elements shot on different days, which were only then put together for a desired effect. Be that as it may, the final product is so seamless as to warrant dismissal by those who subscribe to facile definitions of filmmaking craft.
Less of a creator than a supreme student of creation (both natural and man-made), Benning admits to following the reality itself in shaping his latest vision—and thus, the business of each shot allegedly mirrors the business of the road it portrays (the vacant roads are given three minutes of screen time each). Given his dogged persistence in documenting the American landscape on what seems to be its own unspoken terms, Benning is a paragon of diligence. A self-described “big fan of working hard,” he's a national treasure to be reckoned with: the Frederick Wiseman of stillness.
The Rotterdam International Film Festival runs from January 25—February 5.