Experimental filmmaker

James Benning

James Benning (born 1942) is an independent filmmaker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Over the course of his 40-year career Benning has made over twenty-five feature-length films that have shown in many different venues.

At the age of 33 Benning received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin where he had studied with David Bordwell. For the next four years he taught filmmaking at Northwestern University, University of Wisconsin, University of Oklahoma and the University of California, San Diego.

Benning was hailed cinema's voice of the Midwest with his 1976/1978 films, 11 x 14 and One Way Boogie Woogie, made in Chicago and Milwaukee and the surrounding rural region. In 1980, Benning moved to lower Manhattan, where, with the aid of grants and funding from German Television, he continued to make films, most notably, American Dreams (1984) and Landscape Suicide (1986). Leaving New York after eight years, Benning moved west to teach film/video at California Institute of the Arts, and has taught there ever since. In the early 1990s Benning made a series of text/image films: North on Evers (1991), Deseret (1995), Four Corners (1997), and UTOPIA (1998), often invoking histories of how antagonistic cultural and economic agendas over land use shape landscapes and configure social environments.

Benning has employed diverse methods, themes, structures, and aesthetics, investigating narrative and anti-narrative modes, personal history, race, collective memory, place, industry, and landscape. His philosophy of “landscape as a function of time,” and “Looking and Listening” is particularly evident in his films since 1999 in the form of fixed, stable shots. For instance, each of El Centro, Los, and SogobiThe California Trilogy (2000-2001) is composed of 35 2½ minute shots. Nightfall (2012) consists of a single 98-minute shot made at a high elevation in the woods in the west Sierras that begins in late afternoon as the sun is going down and ends in near blackness.

Benning's use of duration reflects his accord with Henry David Thoreau's passage from Walden, “No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking at what is to be seen?”



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