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Nudging the Mind: James Benning’s 13 Lakes

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Nudging the Mind: James Benning’s <em>13 Lakes</em>

The most advertised aspect of James Benning’s landscape film 13 Lakes is the fragmentation of its 135-minute running time into thirteen stationary shots, each ten minutes long, each separated by a black screen. So a few moments into the first segment, amid the nervous coughing and rustling of a New York audience, my MTV-bred attention span felt a twinge of panic and secretly wanted to negotiate for mercy. Instead of thirteen lakes, why not ten? Instead of ten minute shots, how about eight minute shots? Then came predictable suspicions about the sentimentality of yet another artist calling us to smell the roses, and the film’s ability to evade all criticism by consisting solely of unquestionably beautiful images.

Benning’s collection of lake-portraits is an oddity: an experimental film that effaces authorship and demands no mental somersaults; a work of art that looks uncomfortable on a theater screen, but would be inappropriate on a gallery wall. Choosing to sit and behold it, one can’t help but think how perversely it agitates the urban sense of what constitutes wasted time. How should we react to it? 13 Lakes is substantially different from any contemporary nature documentary I can think of; on the surface, it doesn’t pretend to offer any images that couldn’t be found through regular sightseeing. It doesn’t flaunt technology’s enhancements of the naked eye, like Microcosmos, nor does it orchestrate a dance between objects and the elements, like Abbas Kiarostami’s Five. For all its subtle environmentalist implications, there isn’t a single-minded, apocalyptic agenda being promoted here, as in Koyaanisqatsi or the recent Manufactured Landscapes.

By aiming for a tone more austere than any of these previous films, Benning achieves something far more complex and valuable. What at first comes across as a naïvely Zen privileging of order over thought soon opens the floodgates to a cycle of art-centered ideas. You would never anticipate this by how sneakily Benning draws us in. The illusion of ascetic purity he sets up, the sense of our being left alone to receive sound and sight without a filmmaker mediating or intervening, only serves to make us hypersensitive to the moments when art does interrupt, when the switch between the appearance of objectivity and the camera’s essential subjectivity is flipped.

Benning sets out to replicate the actual experience of perceiving, and to prove what this experience can teach us when paralleled with the act of filmmaking. Rejecting the fetish for spectacle and grand scope that has marked contemporary photography (including the work of modern landscapists Andreas Gursky and Richard Misrach) and popular cinema, he has chosen plausibly human angles and an aspect ratio that fills our vision without crowding our periphery. We emerge from the film with our natural sense and scale of sight intact, but also with the desire to see as if our eyes were cameras, tools that could automatically aestheticize and record.

Despite Benning’s superficial attempt to make a film in which the auteur disappears, 13 Lakes reveals itself to be mindfully directed, as when a shot lasts just long enough for a boat to drift from the center to the outside of the shot, or when the final segment contrasts boldly with its predecessors by framing the tide so that it comes at a parallel angle toward the screen’s bottom edge, as if to meet the audience on the other side. In these scenes, we realize how new an experience the filmed landscape is in the history of the arts, how the movie camera is able to capture, with a visual soberness, the sensuality of motion that literary descriptions and still photographs don’t access.

The film multiplies in meaning when we can see through to Benning’s agency as a creator (a role it seems he would rather we forget). His choice of form turns time into an aesthetic question, and the viewer’s short-lived restlessness is a natural first response. By seizing a subject that is so obviously the province of the other visual arts; by offering viewers the freedom of attentive perception so rare in movies; by setting a ten-minute limit to control that freedom, Benning highlights the temporality of cinema against the materiality of painting and photography, and contrasts the different levels of attention we use to regard these art forms.

Benning’s construction of reel time—slow and patient, but also charged and anxious—is built out of our knowledge of how long each shot will last, a length that feels either too long or too short, but is always somehow unsatisfying. The rigid structuralist formula, combined with the almost mathematical precision of the film’s half-sky/half-water compositions, clash with the unpredictability of nature and the fluidity of our reactions to it. That tension is what seduces us. As in the outside world, during the rare moments when nature-watching is at its most focused and pleasure-driven, these cinematic encounters can be addictive, partly because they pull us closer to the terrible beauty of the sublime as Edmund Burke described it, closer to the infinity that nature symbolizes when pitted against our mortality.

Like many practitioners of photography’s deadpan aesthetic, Benning chooses to alert us to our contemporary world in crisis by nudging (rather than wedging) the mind open, by leaving space and silence for us to consider (privately, prayerfully) what issues may lie beneath the placid surface. This isn’t the same as avoiding taking a stance; Benning’s intentions are sewn into the editing, even if he rejects the argumentation of montage in favor of the hard facts of the landscapes. Vital to 13 Lakes’ formal impact are the seconds-long blackouts separating each segment, simple gestures that become progressively more moving and are sometimes quietly devastating: without a warning or fade-out, they yank us from the abundance we enjoy in the appearance of reality into the blank-faced artifice of art.

On the most obvious level, their meaning is a link between the film’s aesthetic inquiries and its political/moral implications. We start off interpreting these moments of emptiness as subtle reminders that the physical world can indeed be destroyed, that our current situation has provided us with shortcuts to this most extreme, unimaginable erasure. Then we start to notice how the blanknesses reiterate for us a series of truths in their rhyming of camera and eye: how they indirectly demonstrate that cinema is not just documentation but also perception; that the camera has become as permanent a participant as the eye in the act of making the world visible; and finally (perhaps most significantly) that there is a paradox between the reassuring belief that the visible world needs the eye for its existence and the crushing fact that the actual world continues without us.

The film’s first scenes seem to stretch on and on before we get the hang of how to approach them, but as the sheer luxury of close perception proves habit-forming, and as we recognize that Benning is trying to teach us how our adoration of the physical world is the blueprint for all aesthetic experience, we begin to read the ends of scenes as pleasure being denied. Benning’s (and our) gaze moves from blank-eyed to enraptured to elegiac, an evolution that duplicates the disappointment experienced in daily life when we realize we cannot stare indefinitely at a sunset or a flower or a mountain. Despite always being there, the world is constantly wriggling out of our possession.

This is the lesson Keats had to learn when he couldn’t merge with that nightingale, and it’s a truth that paintings and photographs don’t easily express because of their tangibility, their illusion of control and fulfillment, the fact that we can touch them and often throw our arms around them. Only cinema—the art made of light, with its simultaneous evocation of the eye’s clarity and memory’s mistiness—could so naturally celebrate how intimate we can sometimes feel toward the physical world while also mourning how fundamentally alien we are from it. Though the scariest potential tragedy Benning’s blackouts hint at is a political/moral one—that of the world in future being snatched away by our carelessness and abuse—this is nested in the unavoidable existential/aesthetic tragedy of our senses, memories, and art being incommensurate to the world and our deepest longings for it.

As if in answer to Cézanne, who once claimed his goal was to make nature and art the same, Benning has proven—even while giving us the closest approximation of what the world is as it meets our eyes and ears—that the distance between nature and art (as well as nature and us) will always be too far to bridge. 13 Lakes offers up humility not as a fancy moral pose, but as an acknowledgment that art reflects (rather than transcends) human weakness. Its overwhelming power springs from its suggestion that art, artists, and audiences must now and then be humbled by the world they live in.

Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.