Saturday, September 13, 2008
NYFF - RR
Bonneville Salt Flat; container train.
In RR, James Benning sets the camera down 43 times in 43 places around America and watches: a train comes into view, passes through the frame, and out. Each location is either beautiful and picturesque or beautiful / ugly (in a rugged, this-is-where-trains-go-in-America way).
It is a spectacular and inspiring film for train lovers, historians, students of Americana, lovers of visual art, and certain film buffs; for others, not so much.
It is like being stopped behind a crossing gate as 43 trains go by (with the background changing with each new train).
There is something numbing and hypnotic, relaxing and compelling, about watching trains. Something like watching waves at the edge of the ocean or clouds passing across a mountain. Also, it's extremely nostalgia inducing: remembering important train rides from times past.
It is soporific, too. Riding the subway I used to nod off for a few seconds between stops. Watching this film after counting the first 29 cars, I did sometimes nod off and then come back with a start a dozen or two cars later, before the last of the cars came by. Most trains were 50 to 100 cars long.
Somehow I felt a little sad as each train passed away.
There was no information about the trains in the film -- though press notes and an on-line site list all the locations. The sound track was a combination of mostly ambient train noise and occasional oblique commentary, for example, an excerpt from Eisenhower's famous speech warning about the "military-industrial complex". (More sophistication may be buried in this film than can be evident by simply viewing it once.)
I can't help wondering, though, what made this film part of the "Views From the Avant-Garde" series at the New York Film Festival. Putting a camera down and letting the film roll was avant-garde, perhaps, half a century ago. Warhol pointed a camera at the Empire State building all day, or watched a man sleep all night long, long ago. Stan Brakhage in '81 made a film called "RR" with images of the landscapes seen from from train windows and with the abstract images suggested by the views from the moving trains. (It's the exact opposite of Benning's perspective in his RR which looks at trains not from them.) Benning's film is abstract, artistic, and many other things. But it is not avant-garde. It does not break new ground either in technique or content. (Note - this is not meant to deny the fact, explained in the press kit but not made explicit to the viewer, that a huge amount of modern filmmaking effort and technology, including painstaking video and audio editing went into creating the finished film). Yet, it is not ahead of its time; or leading in new directions. In many ways, it is rather old-fashioned. It is newly (and skillfully) fabricated, old-fashioned avant-garde.
Note for train lovers: Over the Christmas-New Year's holidays each year, the Bronx Botanical Gardens holds a wonderful model train exhibition. I made a little video blog post of the model trains ( not to be compared to a real film about real trains!) about the event two years ago: