Day 9: Ways of Seeing
The esteemed Village Voice critic Jim Hoberman first brought my attention to the work of avant-indie pioneer James Benning in his review of Ten Skies and Thirteen Lakes, so I’d been looking for an opportunity this past week to catch a screening of Benning’s new film, Casting a Glance, premiering in the New Frontier section, which highlights more unconventional films that hew closer to the art world than the indieplex. After a long, grinding week of film watching, writing, and interviewing, I was ready to see something glacial and sedative, preferably nonnarrative, and I had a feeling that Casting a Glance would be that and more. So yesterday afternoon, I packed off to the Holiday Village theater with my pal Carolyn Kaylor, the presentation manager of the Sundance Film Festival, who happens to be a friend (and admirer) of Benning’s. She was overseeing the projection of the film. We sat in the nosebleed seats, which to my mind affords the best view in that venue, and gives one a lordly feel over the rows of seats below.
Shot in 16mm, Casting a Glance is, on the surface, an homage to the artist Robert Smithson and his iconic natural sculpture, Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1,500-foot-long coiled breakwater on Utah’s Great Salt Lake, fashioned from 7,000 tons of volcanic rock. Benning made sixteen trips to the landing between May 2005 and January 2007, setting up beautifully composed still shots at various points on the quay that capture varying water levels, seasonal change, and the subtle markings of the passage of time. (The film begins with footage taken between 1970 and 1973, though the program notes make no mention of that, or what instigated the filmmaker’s return to the subject.) Sometimes, we see the Spiral Jetty at a distance, from an elevated position. Other times, Benning shoots the horizontal plane where sky and water meet, or frames an algae-stained rock buffeted by little salt waves. These real-time landscape images, in their various permutations of mist, haze, snow, and evening sunlight, evoke the paintings of Mark Rothko and the abstract photography of Hiroshi Sugimoto.
Benning revisits the same shots at different intervals, recording and observing the transformation of Smithson’s monumental sculpture as it is weathers the elements. Nothing much happens; this is film as pure vision, pure duration. Only a handful of times is there any sign of human activity, and these moments provide the film’s grace notes. Once, in a long shot, a dog marches out onto the nautilus-like quay, only to be summoned back by his master. In another sequence, we see tiny figures strolling out along the same thin spine of the jetty. But odder still, apart from these minor interludes where humankind traipses through the majestic scenery, are Benning’s more deliberate intrusions. During one of the 1973 segments, each new shot is accompanied by someone (probably the artist) whinnying off-camera. Then, during a lovely still of the lake at dusk, with the frame bisected by a fire-orange strip of light, we hear the faint strains of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’s rendition of the Everly Brothers song “Love Hurts.” Sourced (I’m guessing) from a ravaged old cassette tape, it sounds like a recovered memory transmitted from an alternate universe. What’s the connection?
As I was leaving the theater, a woman next to me said to her friend, “I hate movies that don’t teach you anything.” But madam, I disagree: This is a film that teaches us how to look, how to wait, and how to keep looking even though we think we’ve seen everything there is to see in an image. It is the 37-year-long act of one artist intermittently “casting a glance” at another. I’d say we have a lot to learn from that way of seeing, and much to gain from contemplating our relation to time and the natural world.