There are seven shots, one of them lasting about an hour. In each shot, the camera sits still and observes a setting for minutes on end. There is no plot, no story, no characters.
That is pretty much the aesthetic program behind James Benning’s latest documentary, Ruhr, his first foray in digital filmmaking. For those who intimately know Benning’s work over the course of his 40-year career, the style will be familiar. For me, Friday night’s screening of Ruhr at the Walter Reade Theater—as part of the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde series, which ran throughout this past weekend—represented my first-ever encounter with the work of this American avant-garde legend…and, for the most part, I was floored by the experience.
For Ruhr, Benning decided to go abroad—a departure from previous films like RR (2007), Ten Skies (2004), and Deseret (1995)—and explore the landscapes of Germany’s Ruhr Valley. His new film, then, is a record of his impressions of the area surrounding the Ruhr River.
Within Ruhr’s seven stationary shots, Benning tries to capture a whole world. The film’s first hour is made up of the first six shots—all of them taken on ground-level, including indoor locations, such as a tunnel, a log factory, and a mosque, and outdoor settings such as a forest just outside of an airport, a Richard Serra monolith tagged with copious amounts of graffiti, and a normal residential street. Some shots have human figures, some do not (most amusingly, a couple of mosque attendees block the camera’s view of the proceedings). The position of the camera in each shot is akin to a spectator standing/sitting—or, in the case of the forest-outside-the-airport shot, possibly even lying down—in a given setting, and the extended length of each shot allows us to fully settle into that environment, to observe details we may never have grasped before in our own daily lives. (Who knew, for instance, that there was such a significant gap between planes taking off and the rustling of trees and leaves underneath?) Ruhr, thus, invites us to actually see what’s in front of our eyes. And Benning’s order of the shots is just as fascinating as the shots themselves: In this vision of nature versus modernity, technology not only mingles with the natural world within shots, but across them, creating a wholly visual dialectic.
All of that contemplation on the ground, however, gives way to its second hour in the skies: an extremely elongated shot of the chimney of a Coke plant that gives off a stack of smoke every once in a while as day slowly transforms into dusk. This approximately hour-long shot feels like an epic-length culmination of Benning’s unspoken nature vs. technology concerns, with each blowing of smoke seemingly puncturing the blue sky behind it, and the natural world operating the way it always does, without comment.
Ruhr is a challenging, beautiful, and rewarding work of art that has the power to sharpen the senses, inspire contemplation, and refresh our awareness of the world around us.
The 48th New York Film festival runs from September 24 to October 10. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.