From time to time, I see art and I am blown away — Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo, Mindy Weisel, William Thompson — my mesmerized subconscious overflows. Other times I just don’t get it and I contact my artist friends and demand, “How does this constitute art? Why is this work being given exposure? Why should anyone care about this?”
Shown at the Northwest Film Center, “Ruhr” is a seven-part study in time and place that forced me to ask just these questions. I not only wondered why the Film Center had chosen to feature it, but kept asking myself, “When will this be over?”
I understand the filmmaker, James Benning, is considered an artist/photographer/filmmaker of repute and that his body of work has been hailed as important in the sociological study of place and time.
In “Ruhr,” filmed in the industrial Ruhr District of Germany, Benning typifies the impact of industry upon the Ruhr region in seven juxtaposed scenes:
1. A tunnel — every now and then a vehicle passes through it
2. An industrial steel plant — hot poles fabricated and cooled
3. Nature scene — four planes fly overhead
4. Mosque — prayers
5. Graffiti wall — blow torch blackening
6. Side-street — a few cars and people
7. Tower — intermittently engulfed with steam or smoke
That’s it – seven black and white scenes with a stationary camera lasting 120 minutes. It may be a little tedious to view as a film in a theater. At a fall showing at the Northwest Film Center about 50% of the audience walked out before the runtime was over.
But as I have written before in my reviews, there is often surprising value in researching a film before viewing it. In this case, a prospective audience could discover, through an illuminating interview of James Benning by Scott MacDonald, a transformative way of interacting with Benning’s work. In the interview he told MacDonald that his films are a “new way of giving information (or telling a story).” Knowing that his sense of “story” isn’t in the traditional sense, he further explains that in one screening … “I lost half my audience because they didn’t know how to watch the film.”
This is where the key to watching a Benning film comes in – what transforms a frustrating experience into a grand buffet of internal intellectual conversation. As a matter of fact, Benning teaches a class called ‘Looking and Listening’ where he shows his films and then has his students “…practice paying attention. I take them to many different places, often for a full day, and we look and listen. Sometimes we go to an oil field in the Central Valley, or to a mountaintop to watch the sky brighten as the sun begins to rise, or to a homeless neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles, or to the port at Long Beach. We gradually learn that our looking and listening are coded by our own prejudices, that we interpret what we see through our own particular experiences, and we learn that we need to confront our prejudices and learn to see and hear more clearly. And to learn more about what we do see.”
I’m still not convinced that I would recommend that anyone take 2 hours to watch 7 separate scenes of the Ruhr industrial district. Wouldn’t a feature film, a documentary, a persuasive editorial, a research paper or photographic essay have greater impact, interest and focus on a predetermined point Benning wants to make?
In his MacDonald interview, Benning has a retort to this kind of complaint that relates to a systemic communication practice. His prescient response, perhaps portending the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, exhorts us to develop a greater clarity of vision for what we see happening about us. The other mediums are interpretations through someone else’s eyes. Benning wants you to look clearly, without commentary, without suspicions of digital trickery, to interpret the primary data for yourself. He says to MacDonald in 2010, “Yes, I do think people want to know more about things after they learn how to really hear and see. Yes, I do hope they will go on to interrogate not only what I show in my films but what they see and hear in their everyday lives. Paying attention can lead to many things. Perhaps even to a better government.”
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