The celebrated experimental filmmaker, James Benning, will be on hand Saturday and Sunday for screenings at the National Gallery of Art of three of his most recent, notable films: Twenty Cigarettes, small roads, and Two Cabins.
Twenty Cigarettes is based on 20 of Benning's friends he filmed while they each smoked a cigarette. Small roads is 47 shots of roads crisscrossing the U.S. from the Pacific coast to the Midwest which the movie maker says is "a list of the roads in question and the cars that drive on them."
Two Cabins concerns "utopian and dystopian versions of social isolation” and shows Benning's construction of Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond and the cabin built by Ted Kaczynski (AKA the Unabomber) outside Lincoln, Montana.
Benning’s presentation is part of the exhibit now on display in the National Gallery's West Building, "The Serial Portrait: Photography and identity in the Last One Hundred Years."
One of his recent films is about Pussy Riot which organizers have asked him to withhold from public screenings until management details can be worked out.
Twenty Cigarettes is not actually about smoking but “looking at people, their faces as landscapes.” Benning was “much more interested in their gestures and how they reveal themselves.” Initially, some of his friends appear self-conscious which “disappears over time.”
Backgrounds are “somewhat minimal” but they provide a clue about the person’s environment. Is she rich? Poor? An animal lover? Does he have children? After consulting with the subjects, Benning chose backdrops.
He edited some of the sounds, removing distractions and sometimes making additions, which provide more clues about the subject’s identity. When it comes to sound, Benning said, “I am not a purist."
He is “very proud” of the film and the “diverse friendships” he has. It’s a “complex reading.”
Two Cabins didn’t start as it became. The film is more about obsession, Benning said, and an outsider's perspective. “I am too old  to build a real house” so he built one with the same dimensions as Thoreau’s, but it's not an “exact replica.” Half the books in Benning’s Kaczynski cabin are Benning’s and half, Kaczynski’s. Benning has not see Kaczynski's actual cabin (still on display at the Newseum, across the street from the National Gallery). Kaczynski’s desk has “exactly the same dimensions" as Thoreau’s, Benning said.
He used actual sounds from Walden Pond and Lincoln, Montana for Two Cabins which has no narration. Benning said Kaczynski’s writings mention the sounds of annoying planes overhead.
A book about Two Cabins was published last year which Amazon describes this way: “Benning's engagement makes discernable a multitude of contacts between their motivations, beliefs, and experiences of seclusion. Benning's armature artfully unfolds a complex articulation of practices of dissent, nonprescriptive ways of living, and the politics of solitude.”
Benning is a mathematician whose conversation is sprinkled with references to math.
In an interview with Mark Peranson for Cinema Scope Online, Benning supplied two mathematical equations for Twenty Cigarettes, one made by him, the other, by the cast. The film premiered last year in Berlin at the International Forum of New Cinema.
He came to filmmaking "quite late” after he thought about it off and on for almost a decade, stimulated by Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren (1917-1961), "one of the most important American experimental filmmakers" of the 1940s and 1950s (Wikipedia).
Benning was born in Milwaukee and spent part of his teens, twenties and thirties protesting the Vietnam War, earning a math degree, a master of fine arts, and teaching at Paul Smith’s Junior College in New York. The Paul Smith administrator was also the head of the local John Birch Society who didn’t take too well to those whose politics didn’t match his, and he kicked out Benning and several other faculty members because of their anti-Vietnam postures.
The ouster opened up a door for Benning, much like what happened to Milton Rogovin, a photographer in the serials show, whose optometry business disappeared after he refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1957, paving the way for Rogovin to pursue his passion, photography.
Benning’s path took him to the University of Wisconsin and a course in filmmaking. He bought a camera but sat on the career possibility for three years before taking the plunge and making his first film, Did You Ever Hear That Cricket Sound, in 1971.
Financing for movie making comes from teaching, his reputation, and from German television which encourages "uncommon cinema.” The Web indicates, and he confirmed, that his following outside the U.S. is bigger than here. Venues for his films are art houses, museums, and festivals. He’s had screens at the Sundance Film Festival, in Vienna, London, Kenya, Asia, Japan, Hong Kong, and Austria, to name a few sites. Two Cabins was re-constructed and installed in Berlin as part of 2012 International Forum of New Cinema.
Sometimes a friend helps him, but Benning's work is his own. He’s the editor, cinematographer, sound man, producer, and director. Technology permits him to be totally independent and "has freed me," but “I am in a turmoil" because with the freedom comes loss of time, and he asks himself: “Did I gain or did I lose?”
Benning teaches at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Ask him about prime numbers. Visualizing that film is an easy thing.
Who: James Benning
What: Three films
When: Twenty Cigarettes (2011, 99 minutes), 2:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012
small roads (2011, 103 minutes), 4:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012
Two Cabins (2011, 60 minutes), 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012
Where: East Building Concourse Auditorium, The National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden is located at the National Mall along Constitution Avenue and between Third and Ninth Streets. The East Building is at the corner of Constitution and 4th Street NW.
How much: No charge. “Admission to the National Gallery of Art is always free.”
For more information: (202) 737-4215
Metro stations: Judiciary Square, Navy Memorial-Archives, or the Smithsonian