Casting a Glance on Avant-garde Structuralism

Srikar Gullapalli

Over the past week, there has been an extravaganza of film screenings at Golden Auditorium. The Film and Media Studies department has screened a number of movies made by the two distinguished filmmakers in residence, James Benning and Sharon Lockhart, both immensely talented and well respected in the avant-garde film industry and recipients of numerous awards.

The week culminated in the screening of Casting a Glance, directed by James Benning. For this film, Benning chose as his topic the enormous earthwork created by artist Robert Smithson, the Spiral Jetty, in Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Art & Art History and Film & Media Studies John Knecht while talking about Benning said that Benning had made around 26 features and even had a prolific period where he made five films in two years. Knecht explained that Benning was initially educated to be a mathematician, and then he got a degree in printmaking and finally studied communication and film at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Clearly, this artist cannot be viewed through a uni-dimensional lens.

When Benning talked about the Spiral Jetty, one could see the playfully intimate and deeply personal connection that he had with Robert Smithson’s work. One could hear it in the tone of his voice when he calmly explained that it cost around $30,000 and was built over four weeks or when he exclaimed how important Smithson’s work is to our world. This personal connection is ubiquitous in Casting a Glance. Benning talked to us of the critic who called this movie “Benning’s love letter to Smithson,” and one could very clearly see why.

Benning made 16 trips to the jetty between 2005 and 2007, and filmed it over distinct and ever-changing environments. Benning’s use of a16mm film camera instead of HD was interesting and provided a unique aspect to the film. In Knecht’s words and as is seen very clearly in his film, Benning is an “artist who observes and reports back” and who shows immense “dedication to the visual art and the eye.” Benning’s movie is characterized by long stationary and singularly beautiful shots. It’s almost a trompe l’oeil of still photography and film. This paradox jars the viewer into a distinct and fine level of perception that would have usually passed him by.

“He pays intimate attention to structure and reduces the entire structure of modern-day Hollywood films (editing, quick shots et al) to the basic and core backbone of what it really means to make a movie,” senior Adam Hughes said of Benning. “His movies are quite minimalist, but seeing one of them is really perceiving things.”

Indeed, Benning talked about his love and need for rigorous structure in his movies. In Casting a Glance, every shot is the same length and each section has the same number of shots.

The distinct perception that Benning draws from his viewers was nicely articulated by sophomore Amber Bertin.

“Benning’s movies are really about looking and listening to things,” Bertin said. “He’s really concerned with people paying attention to the very small details of the shot. It’s about looking for and listening to things and finding the intricate connections between the two. It’s absorbing the entire vista like you’re there yourself.”

That’s not something you get very much from Hollywood. This writer will now be watching a lot more avant-garde cinema and hopes you will too.