Sonntag, 17.03.2002

Interview with James Benning on California Trilogy

At the Forum section during Berlinale 2002 James Benning showed the entire CALIFORNIA TRILOGY: EL VALLEY CENTRO, LOS, and SOGOBI. The first part of the trilogy, EL VALLEY CENTRO, had also been shown at the Forum in 2000. Anna Faroqhi has interviewed the filmmaker.

Anna Faroqhi: How did you start out with your California trilogy?

James Benning: I started out just making EL VALLEY CENTRO. And that came from making UTOPIA, the film before EL VALLEY CENTRO, in which I used the entire sound track from Richard Dindo’s film, The BOLIVIAN DIARY OF CHE GUEVARA, to which I cut images of Southern California, images of the desert, from Death Valley down to the Mexican border. My idea in UTOPIA was to bring Southern California to Dindo’s film because I thought what Che was addressing in his diary, Imperialism, was actually occurring in Southern California in a reverse way – the importing of cheap Mexican and Central and South American labor into the California desert to do farming in the Imperial Valley, a valley just north of the Mexican border. So UTOPIA got me interested in farming, especially corporate farming. And then I realized that the Central Valley, where EL VALLEY CENTRO was shot, was the ultimate place; it feeds a quarter of the United States. I could look there to see how corporate farming functions. And that is how EL VALLEY CENTRO got started. Then, as I roamed around the valley, I learned more about it: that there are 13 prisons there, 8 of which are privatized, large supplies of oil, and a housing industry that is beginning to eat up the farm land. I wanted to somehow represent all of those enterprises, to locate them in this huge valley that is 550 miles long and 60 miles across. Early on I decided to make a portrait film and not use text as I did in my prior four films. I had exhausted my idea of the text/image relationship and wanted to go back to image making, to just look at things as pure images.

F.: Is that where the idea of shooting full camera loads came from?

B.: The idea was to go back to the beginning of cinema, to use full camera load to get at something, kind of like the early films recording a train coming into the station or two people kissing. A 16mm camera load is 100 feet, that’s 2 minutes and 47 seconds. I thought I’ll use 2 and a half minutes of that so I can slide the shots, cut off some at the tail or head, to adjust the timing of the shots. I was interested in recording things over a 2 and a half minute period, seeing what activities happen in that period of time. So, when I went to the Central Valley I would look around and see how certain farm equipment moved or crop dusters flew or how people fished and then set up the camera in order to capture this found choreography. That’s how the trilogy started and once I was about two thirds though shooting EL VALLEY CENTRO I decided I liked this portrait idea so much that I would make a companion film, an urban companion. So, I started LOS as soon as I finished EL VALLEY CENTRO. And then about halfway through LOS, I decided to do a trilogy, I thought it would be interesting to add a third film about wilderness that would cause a re-reading of both LOS and EL VALLEY CENTRO. For instance, in The Central Valley, only 5 percent of the land in the Valley is what it used to be a hundred years ago. The wilderness and the wildlife have almost been completely erased, rivers have been dammed, lakes have been drained. The ecology of the valley is nearly destroyed or at least has been replaced. Of course, it is now very efficient for farming. However, most irrigated farming proves to ruin the land over time. In so many years the land will be rendered useless. The salt content of the earth tends to exaggerate from irrigation. Because of that in SOGOBI, the final film of the trilogy, I wanted to go back and make a film purely about landscape and the environment. As I was making SOGOBI I had two ideas: I’d either make all of the shots pure nature with no human traces, or I’d add some shots that would slowly reference human encroachment. Of course, that is what I did in the end. 9 or 10 shots are like that. However, the first shots are of pure wilderness, almost Biblical and then around the 10th shot a fire helicopter enters from the top of the frame, invading the space both in picture and sound…

F. A helicopter, yes.

B.: A helicopter coming from top, kind of like God, dipping down. Which is ironic, because of the way fires are fought in California – they try to put them out immediately. They’ve been somewhat successful at doing that and because of their success the underbrush hasn’t burned in over a hundred years. So now, when they get fires they can’t put them out as quickly, because there is an abundance of fuel; the wildfires are enormous. The fire that the helicopter was fighting was very large.

F.: There’s a shot of a tree burning in SOGOBI…

B: That is actually from the same fire, but it was filmed after the fire had passed though. But fires comes back and reburns. Areas catch that haven’t burned before. I was interested in how slow and methodical the fire was when it reburned. It would flame up and then go out and then start up again and go out. I like the gentleness of the reburning compared to the violence of what had been there the day before.

F.: Did you shoot that?

B.: No, I did not shoot the violent burning. In fact my first idea was to fill the screen with fire. And then I thought, well, that’s way too dramatic for this film. I thought the more minimal after-burn was much more interesting. At least, that’s the way I was thinking about it. Maybe if I had gotten that shot filled with fire I would have liked that too. I did spend a week chasing the flames.

F.: So you restricted yourself to how you show things. How much did you restrict yourself to certain areas in your films?

B: LOS was shot in greater Los Angeles, which goes all the way down to the San Diego County line, about 70 miles south of the center of Los Angeles. I also shot in my little town, Val Verde, which is about 50 miles north. And I shot at the ocean and inland as much as 40 or 50 miles east. Greater Los Angeles covers quite a large area. There is a shot of a double highway, a road under a road which is right next to the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles. And there is a shot of businessmen and women passing through Arco Center Plaza. And then there is also a shot of maybe 200, 300 policemen gathered in a group. That was outside the Democratic National Convention near the southern edge of downtown. Those shots form the center. But the film looks at many different places. There is the shot of kids waiting for a school bus. I have people playing soccer somewhere else in a Latino community. There are people jogging on a boulevard in Santa Monica. And planes landing at LAX. A shot of cattle waiting to be slaughtered at a meat packing plant located in a large industrial area. There is a community garden that looks very much like the third world. There is a shot of visitors leaving the LA Central Jail and another shot of homeless people passing by.

F.: The shots in LOS, are they about what you can see in the streets?

B.: They are all made from the streets. But they are mainly images that most people wouldn’t think of, that is, they aren’t or I hope they aren’t tourist photos. I don’t have a love-hate-relationship with L.A. I have mainly a hate-relationship. So, because of that I have a biased view when I show this city. It’s my bias, it’s my view. And I actually like that I’m so biased. When you see LOS you have to go back to EL VALLEY CENTRO and ask just what my biases are there. Which I think are less, because with the Central Valley I do have a real love-hate-relationship. I really love the kind of vastness of irrigated farming, the long fields are beautiful and the machines move with such grace. But I have huge problems with who does the work and who collects the profits. The Valley is filled with hard working people that live in poverty. And the money ends up in corporate pockets, sometimes thousands of miles away. But still I don’t think I’m dogmatic with my approach. I tried to map the Valley’s diversity into the film.


B.: SOGOBI was a pleasure to make. It was in a way more difficult to make because of the logistics, because I was covering the whole state of California. I had lots more driving to do. Not just driving but driving through blizzards and extreme heat. And not only driving but also walking through blizzards and walking in this extreme heat and having experiences that were much more on the edge. I’d find myself in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden I’d realize that maybe I overextended – there I was in Death Valley, 120 degree Fahrenheit weather, wind blowing 40 miles an hour, the worst sand storm you could imagine. I became dehydrated and delirious to the point where I, when I got back to the car, I could not even remember what shot I had made. So I went back out and did it again. And when I got back the second time, again I wasn’t quite sure what shot I had made. I was so crazy from the extremes of that place. And the same thing happened when I was filming the blizzard in the high Sierra. I walked in very deep snow, it was a lot colder than I had thought. By the time I got the shot and started back I thought, ‚Well, am I going to get out of this?‘

F.: You were shooting alone in all these films, did both, sound and camera…

B.: Yes, I always work alone, I’ve never had a crew. I just think of myself as an individual artist that happens to use film as the medium and so I always approach it that way. I drive down to Kodak and buy the film, I cut my own negative… I get help with sound mixes but I am very active in the mix too. I just have a technician (of course he is really an artist) that I’ve been working with over the last 10 years and he understands my aesthetic.

F.: What about your sound ratio?

B.: I shot almost everything in sync. In all three films I set up the tape recorder first and recorded a bunch of ambient sound. While I was doing that I would watch what I was actually going to film so I could determine exactly where I wanted to put the camera in order to capture what I described earlier as found choreography. So I might take 5 or 6 minutes of wild sound and then I always shoot in sync. Almost always. But, for instance, I didn’t do sync sound in the shot of the sand storm because it was just too overwhelming. Most of the time I use the sync sound but sometimes I have to cut some of the sync out because some noise happened that I didn’t like. Or the sync is a little weak and I need to add a sound to help sweeten it. But the sound tracks of all three films were built with the hopes of re-creating the sense of place that I felt. I am very much interested in the sound of place. Maybe a third of the shots were chosen for the sounds themselves rather than the image.

F.: What about the images? How much did you film?

B.: With the first two films I filmed exactly the same amount. I shot 48 rolls of film, and I developed 37 of these rolls and used 35 of those shots. It’s a very small shooting ratio. Then with SOGOBI I shot 130 rolls of film because I was having so much fun and also because my first idea of just having pure wilderness shots void of people – because of this investment in minimalism, I felt I had to shoot more, it’s much more difficult to be subtle. And I am still not sure that I shouldn’t have stayed with this strategy – maybe it would have been stronger without the helicopter, without the ship going through. Perhaps this absence would have implicated man even more.

F. So it is not only about nature but about man, too. Since actually, nowadays you can’t think about nature without thinking of man, too.

B.: Yeah, exactly. So, first I wanted to have this kind of romantic view of what this land was like before we were here.

F.: How did you finally get to choose the scenes for SOGOBI?

B.: I just drove around. I know Death Valley really well. I know a lot of the Sierras quite well too. So I knew certain places. I knew I wanted to be in a snow storm, in a sand storm, in a fire… in nature. I knew I wanted to do a shot at Mono Lake because the lake is in Owen’s Valley, which was drained of water when Mulholland built the pipeline to bring water to Los Angeles. Which almost killed Mono Lake. Now there is a program to get some water back. The shot of Mono Lake in SOGOBI refers back to the very first shot in LOS which depicts the original spillway that brought the Mono Lake water into Los Angeles. In fact it is the spillway where 5,000 people lined up during its inauguration. Each person had a cup and Mulholland said, ‚There it is, take it,‘ and they all dipped their cups into the water and took a drink of Mono Lake water, 300 miles to the north. I wanted these kind of connections in the film. The tufa towers seen in the Mono Lake shot are visible only because of the lake’s low water table. They were under water before LA stole the water. And near the end of LOS you see a brushfire. It’s a huge fire with smoke going way up into the air. You can hear from a distance helicopters that are fighting the fire. You see them there as little specks, which the SOGOBI helicopter references. And in the 4th shot of SOGOBI, the burnt land is the brush that was burning in LOS. So, there are those kinds of connections. And there are many more. Like the first shot of EL VALLEY CENTRO that shows a hole in a lake, water going down a drain like in a bath tub; and the last shot of SOGOBI that shows the same lake but in the summer – the mystery is revealed. And the billboards, all three coincidentally owned by Outdoor Systems. In EL VALLEY CENTRO you see an anti-drug billboard, ‚Where Meth Goes Violence Follows‘. Methamphetamine is produced on out-of-the-way abandoned ranches throughout the valley. You can sometimes, driving on back roads, smell it cooking. And then the billboard in LOS is a large billboard on Sunset Strip of DKNY… I don’t know what they make…

F.: Clothes.

B.: Yeah. It’s a very sexy billboard with two people embracing in the rain. Of course it is not raining in the shot, it’s sunny. And at the side you see cars on Sunset Strip going back and forth in heavy traffic. In SOGOBI the billboard is in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It says ‚Available‘, with a phone number, and you hear one car pass by after a few minutes of desert quiet. And then, there is a ship in each of the films. In EL VALLEY CENTRO there is a ship that looks like it’s going through a field.

F.: Like in Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso.

B.: Yeah, but here it’s an asparagus field. It is rather humorous actually. And then in LOS there is a ship that is leaving the Long Beach harbor but before the ship enters the frame there are two sea lions that are swimming in the water so you think the shot is about them. Then all of a sudden a big container ship is pulled through the frame by a tugboat. When it gets half through the frame the seals leave. Off screen you hear one of them barking. Then the ship exits and the sea lions swim back in as if I had paid them. Then in SOGOBI there is a shot of a ship entering the San Francisco Bay going beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and you see just the water and the shadow of the bridge. Then the shadow of the ship enters the bottom of the frame and finally a huge Korean container ship crosses the entire frame exiting at the top. I spent two days on the bridge waiting. It was quite exciting. And there are cattle in each film, shot in a different way. The cattle in LOS are extremely dramatic because they are penned up and very close together, positioning and repositioning. They are very agitated. The smell of blood is there. And you can almost hear death in the air. There is a highpitched sound from some kind of machinery offscreen… It is very disconcerting.

F.: And the cattle in SOGOBI are happy cattle.

B.: I said the other day that if I was a cow that is probably where I would want to be. They look very content.

F.: Please, describe the editing process with your films.

B.: I edited the first two films by taking a frame from each shot then mounting them on cardboard slides, like 35mm still slides (they make 16mm slides to hold a 16mm frame). So I could edit those films on a slide projector rearranging the 35 shots. Which is quite an ordeal even with only 35 shots. It seems so easy, but the number of combinations is 35 factorial which is a very large number, 1 with 29 zeroes. To actually find the best combination is near impossible. But of course I eliminated a lot of possibilities by having certain criteria – knowing that I wanted this shot to begin the film, this shot to end the film, and maybe particular shots, for example, shots of water, here or there. I’d then edited according to the amount of movement, or the amount of sound, or quietness, the color, the texture, the frame, the horizon. By editing in a slide tray I could quickly compare how the images would cut from one to the next. I actually edited both, EL VALLEY CENTRO and LOS in about four hours.
With SOGOBI I was going to do the same. I carefully mounted all 130 shots on slides. I was going to Korea to teach for two weeks. But I forgot to pack the slides. Instead I had some note cards with me, so I wrote down the first 35 shots I could remember. I edited by moving the note cards around. I drew a little picture of each frame on each card, then made notes about how much sound each shot had and how much movement and started to edit that way on the airplane. By the time I landed in Korea I actually had pretty much the final order of the film.

F. In all the films you have a sequence of 35 images of 2.5 minute duration each. In the end you have titles describing what you saw in the images. The titles are retelling the entire film.

B.: That structure was built in EL VALLEY CENTRO. And the next two films followed that same structure. In EL VALLEY CENTRO I wanted to code and then cause a re-reading of the whole film by naming what you see and exposing ownership. Like, you might not know that this was a cotton picking machine, and also almost all of the land is owned by the large corporations, like railroads, or oil companies, banks causing a political reading. And so, those titles at the end describe what is seen, who owned the land, and where it was located, what small town it was near. Not only do I want to bring out the politics, but I want the viewer to recall the whole film, to play with memory. The end titles are exactly 2.5 minutes (like each shot) making the film exactly 90 minutes, because 35 shots times 2.5, makes 87.5 minutes plus the 2.5 minutes of titles for a 90 minute total. Then I continued that strategy with LOS. In LOS the politics aren’t as clear because a lot of time I was filming public spaces and ownership wasn’t easily attributed. LOS isn’t as specifically political as EL VALLEY CENTRO. But if you see EL VALLEY CENTRO first those politics carry over into LOS. And of course Los Angeles was built on the same politics, the politics of water. And then with SOGOBI, some manmade systems are identified, so you learn who owns the cement company and that huge rock quarry. And the military convoy is identified as Marines from 29 Palms, the military base that trains soldiers for desert warfare…

F.: It sounds pretty much like a mathematician working here.

B.: I suppose you can see mathematics in these films because they have a rigorous arithmetic structure. But I think mathematics affects my work in a less literal way. When I think about mathematics I think of how abstract it can be. And that kind of abstract thinking I apply to filmmaking.

F.: It is about simplicity, isn’t it?

B.: Exactly. There are about a thousand, maybe 5,000 proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem. You can prove it with Algebra or Geometry, there are many different ways to do it. Some of them are kind of foolish, some of them are clever, and a few of them are really elegant. The thinking in those elegant solutions is the kind of thinking I try to apply to filmmaking – but not in a literal way, I’m talking about abstract thought. So, my point is, any kind of discipline can be applied to something else. If you study structural anthropology somehow that kind of thinking can influence the way you put a film together.

F.: Is simplicity what you go for in the titles of the films, too?

B.: EL VALLEY CENTRO, well, it’s an English word with two Spanish words. I wanted to mix English and Spanish because the people that speak English collect the profits and the people that speak Spanish do the work, the physical work. And then LOS comes from Los Angeles, of course. It’s how Chicano gang kids refer to Los Angeles, they call it Los. I wanted to reference that, but I also thought it was a good title because there is no way to represent the diversity of a place as large as Los Angeles with just 35 shots, so LOS is an incomplete portrait of Los Angeles. It is just my look at 35 places. I don’t mean that to be read in a negative way. I do believe LOS represents the way I feel about the city. Maybe it’s a bleak look but it is my bleak look. And Sogobi is a Shoshonean Indian word, from the Indians of Nevada and Western California. Sogobi means Earth in their language. (If you search the word Sogobi in you will find information about a Shoshonean protest against US government and military abuse of their land. They ask for your help.)

F.: How do you fund your films?

B.: I make films cheaply because I do everything myself. Each of these films were made for less than $ 15,000 and that includes gasoline and the motel bills. Mainly it is just film stock and lab costs.

F.: All of your salary as a teacher goes into that?

B.: Pretty much. I am able to barely get by, even cheap films are expensive. But then, I do recoup some of the money with rentals and doing visiting artist things and then I have the benefit of going to Europe a couple of times a year to show films. Occasionally German television helps out. It just bought the trilogy and the two films before that, which will allow me to make some more films. So I never really make a profit because the money all goes back into filmmaking. But it is great to know I have money now to keep working for the next five years or so.

F.: That’s WDR?

B.: Yes, and ZDF bought the other two and they are kind of sharing I think the five films together. In the past I had also received money from ZDF which allowed me to move to New York for eight years and just do my work without having a job and I was also awarded most of the grants that used to be available in the US.
I actually don’t apply for grants any more, unless I am nominated for something. There are so few grants for younger people. When the NEA stopped giving individual grants the first grants they canceled were grants for emerging artists. It was criminal because it has denied a whole generation support. That happened almost 8 or 9 years ago. People have to find money elsewhere, and the private sector didn’t kick in and take up the slack. Clinton completely dismantled and destroyed any art funding for young people. We didn’t just begin a right wing government; it’s been that way for quite a while.

March 7th, 2002

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