Monday, February 19, 2018

Notes on 11x14 by James Benning, USA: 1977, Berlin Filmfestival2018-IV.-Forum

Cinema can tell stories or just evoke them depending on the imagination of the spectator. Between this very simple statement there are numberless shades of grey. In the Forum-program (the festival presented a restored version blown up on a 35 millimetre print) one can read: “11x14 is film theory in images.”
The more films we see the more books on film we read, over the years a certain accumulation about cinema is approached.
But what is this knowledge actually worth it if it is not paired with impartiality, a fresh mind which still preserve a certain kind of openness? Some years ago, I watched with a friend Benning´s RR, film composed of long static shots about trains passing by. Suddenly a person from the environment of my family came to my mind, someone who has nothing to do with art, avantgarde,- or experimental cinema but who is a passionate lover of everything which has to do with railroad or trains. I can imagine that he would have enjoyed the film at least as much as I did.

The screening of James Benning´s first long film 11x14 is not just a rediscovering of a part of film history but it seems to me as an audiovisual quest for the reason why we love watching films and what fascinates us that we can´t stop staring at the screen. Knowledge is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with a certain curiosity.

There is a long shot taking place in a local driving train on the way over suburbs to a big American city. I felt it was about 8 to 10 minutes long. If there was a cut between this long moment, I have not recognized it. We see a person dozing in front of the front window of this rail car. We can hardly recognize more of this person than a shadow. The front window becomes a screen itself and we see for now nothing else than the landscapes passing by: industrial regions, suburbs. The noise of the rail car sliding on the rails is omnipresent.
At first it looks like a visual demonstration of André Bazin´s thought that the apparatus and the filmmaker retreat in front of what they reveal, the piece of the real world displayed on the railcar´s front window. On the other hand it appears to me as poetry not far away from this long Bob Dylan song which appears at least twice in this film.

I have often thought and occasionally written about the affinity between the mechanical aspect of analog cinema ( both for recording and projecting) and trains, especially in the films by Ozu. Despite the differences in scenes for example like the famous train sequence in Ozu´s Banshun, the train scene in Hitchock´s North By Northwest and their different dealing with time, these moments came back to my mind. While Ozu´s and Hitchcock´s montage creates an artificial time, Benning uses a piece of real time. But despite these differences, all three train moments are intense and unforgettable. The windows of this train finally reveal a piece of world beyond the frame of the film.
The late 70s in Benning´s 11x14 is for me less abstract than Ozu´s post war Japan of the late 40s or Hitchcock´s thriller of the late 50s, because it takes place in my life time. It gives me an idea about time which has passed long ago within my existence.

Cracks in walls and buildings are visible. The noise of trains sliding on their rails is almost an acoustic memory of mine in the 1970s, signs of the fugacity of buildings and machines. The film itself seems like a laborious restored and preserved ruin. The sense for the mortality of all things, which is now nearly disturbed by digital image making devices, is very special here. This is another analogy I often thought the chemical memory of film and the biochemical of living beings.Once recorded the whole art, poetry and idea of a film like 11x14 is depending on the matter on which it is recorded like a human memory from a living body.

Another moment of this film stays with me. It takes place in a kitchen of an elderly couple. On the left side of the frame we see the woman making the dishes, on the right side the man is sitting on a table. Right in the middle of the picture, we see a corridor which leads into the “depth of the image” Another person is sensible at the end of the corridor, probably taking a shower in rooms which are hidden in this shot.This shot emphasizes at the same time the flatness of the film image but also its ability to create an illusion of space. In the same shot the film is what it is but also what it can evoke.

Film keeps time captured like amber”, German filmmaker Winfried Junge once said. The sentence in mind makes each moment in 11x14 unforgettable.

For minutes an image does not show anything but a big factory chimney which is blowing huge masses of smoke into the air. Again the Bob Dylan song. At first it seems like an endless loop of one of these “empty shots” of Ozu but the longer this moment lasts the stronger my feeling for its transience increases. Even though this shot seems to get rid of all traces of “meaning”, it seems very precious to me.

Young people enjoy a picnic in a park. On a big field, we see a combine harvester. This is a film where even the small transitions between every shot is memorable.

And often the films appears to me as a composition of recorded memories as authentic as film can capture memories.

The Austrian Film museum in Vienna restored this film in collaboration with the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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