Political Film: Not Just R&R

Cynthia Leck

Last Friday, as an alternative to the typical weekend scene students, faculty and other guests gathered in Golden Auditorium for the premier of Avant Garde filmmaker James Benning’s new film, RR.

During the 114 minute film, viewers experienced 43 shots of trains traveling across the American landscape. Edited together from the 216 shots that Benning filmed throughout the U.S. over a two month period, the film takes the viewer to spaces where nature and industry meet. In doing so, it provides both a visual description of the varying American landscape and a political message about our consumption and use of this landscape.

“The idea was to find and film trains in many different landscapes across the US…The shot length would be determined by the length of the train and the speed. Every shot would contain the complete train,” Benning commented on his intentions with RR.

The film presents a striking contrast between the natural landscape and the constructed railway system. This visual conflict, along with interesting angles and the movement of trains along the depth plan, makes the film formally and visually commanding.

Beyond being an aesthetically forceful film, RR presents a political statement about America’s history of over consumption.

“On a political level I want to question consumption without any solution,” Benning said. “Just to make us aware of the overconsumption we’re involved in.”

This interaction between the aesthetic and the political is a constant theme in Benning films.

As the child of a lower middle class home in Milwaukee, Benning reflected on his reasons for delving into filmmaking.

“[I] basically bought a camera to escape from that offal world,” Benning said. “It was a wonderful world, but I call it offal because there wasn’t much justice there.”

This impulse to escape in conjunction with his graduate degree in mathematics influenced Benning to make films that function as an “elegant solution” to a visual problem. Yet Benning realizes his films also function beyond this elegance.

“Even though I didn’t want to make political films it kind of crept into my work,” Benning said. “My films are still, I think, driven from an aesthetic but they’re always affected by what I believe in…which makes them political films in the end.”

As a close friend of Film and Media Studies professor Jon Knecht, Benning has screened numerous films at Colgate.

“[Knecht] provides me with an ideal audience for what I’m doing because he educates his students that the film culture isn’t this narrow Hollywood culture but it has a much larger vocabulary,” Benning commented.

Well, we at Colgate are thankful for this vocabulary and for visiting filmmakers like James Benning who allow us to use it.