casting a glance / RR Review
Sculptor and land artist Robert Smithson created the Spiral Jetty in Utah’s Great Salt Lake during the April of 1970. A construct of earth, rock, salt and algae, it remains there to this day; all 1500 feet of it heading out from the north-eastern shore before coiling in on itself. At the time of conception the lake was suffering from drought and unusually low water levels meaning that, for much of its lifespan, the Jetty has been entirely submerged. Meanwhile, those periods of visibility have been marked by change as the elements take control. What was once mostly black rock set against earthy water has become a white, salt-encrusted spiral within waters that appear pink thanks to the heavy algae and bacteria presence.
During its construction, Smithson made a film of the Spiral Jetty by the same name. This 28-minute piece captured the immense machinery used to create the causeway and employed helicopter shots to show off the grandiosity of the end results. Smithson himself delivered the voice-over, situating his piece within wider geological concerns. Sequences of the Jetty are intercut with library footage and newly-filmed material of the American Museum of Natural History in New York plus more artistic touches involving pages torn from history books and a quarry in New Jersey. Indeed, Smithson didn’t intend for Spiral Jetty to be a mere documentary, but rather a companion artwork in its own right.
Fellow filmmaker James Benning first visited the site of the Spiral Jetty during the late eighties, at which point it was barely visible, concealed by two foot of water. It would later feature in his 1992 film North on Evers and again in 1995’s Deseret before taking centre stage in 2007’s casting a glance. Over a 20-month period, beginning in May 2005, he made 16 trips to the site which would translate into 16 sections in the finished film. Each consists of a static shot from a different vantage point, with nothing quite so adventurous as Smithson’s own helicopter-assisted one, though they hardly need to be. The individual frames fascinate, both owing to their subject matter and Benning’s very precise composition. Sometimes he chooses to show us only a detail of the Jetty, at others it is accommodated perfectly by the screen and, occasionally, it isn’t there at all, having become submerged once more.
In Benning’s own words, casting a glance is intended as a “simulated history”. The film’s 16 sections relate to 16 points in the ‘life’ of the Spiral Jetty from 1970 onwards, each preceded by a title card stating the month and year. Needless to say, Benning has done his research and, as such, these representations are essentially correct even if they were filmed decades after the fact. The result, then, is a kind of mock or fabricated documentary, though some may be caught unawares. At no point, during the opening or closing credits, does casting a glance make clear that its production period extended to just 20 months rather than the full three-and-a-bit decades – that’s still an impressive stretch of time, of course, albeit one that lacks true fidelity. (There again, perhaps the consistency of the 16mm image should serve as a clue; the footage of ‘1970’ looks much the same as that from 2007.)
Further manipulation occurs at the soundtrack level. Benning made field recordings, but tweaked and layered them in post-production to construct another false reality. For the most part casting a glance’s ‘natural’ sounds are barely noticeable: lapping water, the hum of insects, traces of Utah’s wildlife out there, somewhere, in the distance. Yet, on occasion, other elements invade the tranquillity whether it’s a transistor radio playing Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ cover version of ‘Love Hurts’, gunshots or what appears the intermittent ravings of a grown man. The latter was perhaps inspired by Benning’s encounter, during one of his filming sessions, with a pair both armed and extremely high on methamphetamine. As with the imagery we’re not dealing with the outright documentary truth here, though there are clear connections.
Importantly, Benning is able to provide the Spiral Jetty with the film Smithson was unable to, having died in a plane crash in 1973. (The exact date, July 20th, is one of those to be ‘documented’ in casting a glance.) The causeway was designed to interact with the environment and to transform as a result. Smithson’s own film could only capture the beginning of its lifespan, unaware that it would spend decades underwater or that it would still exist today. Benning may not provide a record of that in the strictest sense, but as a representation – and, indeed, a veneration – of its subject, it does a wonderful job.
As he went about casting a glance’s lengthy production period, Benning took the advantage of his trips back and forth to Utah by stopping off at various points throughout the US to capture its railroads. The resulting film, RR, premiered the same year as its partner on this two-disc set and serves as a feature-length portrait of America. It consists of 43 sections recorded over 16 states, each of which lasts for the length of time it takes for a train to enter and then leave the frame. It should go without saying that there’s a great of diversity here, in terms of the landscape, the types of train, the lengths of the trains (and therefore the lengths of the shots) and Benning’s own compositions. As with casting a glance he was sure never to repeat himself, so each new frame is very different.
The simplicity of the set-up is such that RR can be many things. Much like its companion, it’s a calm, hypnotic work and Benning eases us in gently with a series of extended shots before settling into a more wayward rhythm. During the on-disc Q&A extract recorded at the film’s premiere he mentions how worried he was that things could quickly get boring for the viewer – and this after he’d cut down his initial assemblage from four hours to just a little under two. What that fails to take into account is the playfulness on display (you may even find yourself chuckling once or twice), the visual poetry and the little accidents of incidental detail that keep us forever on our toes. Furthermore, as the moving pictures have told us since the arrival of that train at La Ciotat in 1895, there’s something tremendously cinematic about the combination of the railway and the big screen.
Benning focuses his intentions through the soundtrack. Once again, what at first appears to be a series of straightforward field recordings is actually the result of extensive post-production layering. Songs, speeches and sports commentary are introduced, from Eisenhower’s farewell address and its warnings of the military-industrial complex to the fourth verse from Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ that discussed private property and was often cut from cover versions and recordings. The presence of such men, and their cultural weight as key figures of the American twentieth century, is in itself telling, but to use these particular audio snippets points towards RR’s political undercurrents. The railroad isn’t merely an excuse for romantic imagery (cutting through forests and snowscapes) but also a symbol of capitalism, imperialism and destruction. There’s even a reading from the Book of Revelation.
casting a glance and RR represented Benning’s final use of film as a medium. Since their completion he’s switched to HD digital as a means of cutting down on costs. He also knew that the switch was coming and, as such, it’s hard not to notice the connection between RR’s subject matter and the film stock itself. As said, cinema’s relationship with the locomotive dates right back to its very beginnings, but there’s also the similarities of reels and rails to consider: the linearity of motion, the incessant rhythm and the mechanical drive. As a conclusion to a particular stage in Benning’s career (though not a complete end note; he’s made at least another eight pictures since) it’s a mightily fitting one.
casting a glance and RR earn a disc apiece on Edition Filmmuseum’s set. The films were sourced from standard definition masters and had their transfers supervised by Reinhard Wulf, executive producer on RR (and director of documentaries on experimental filmmakers). Both have been intentionally window-boxed “to avoid the loss of picture information during playback on older CRT-based TV sets” which is something of an outdated practice and, needless to say, a bit of a disappointment. Nevertheless, original aspect ratios are therefore preserved and casting a glance is otherwise treated to a perfectly decent presentation: clean and reasonably crisp visuals blighted only by the occasional minor scratch or tramline. RR is somewhat softer and also suffers from prominent edge enhancement and, on occasion, appears a little washed-out. Soundtracks, however, are superb and ably handle Benning’s layered constructions. Given the lack of dialogue in both films there is no need for optional subtitles, though German ones are provided to accompany RR’s onscreen text where necessary.
Both discs also feature excerpts from Benning Q&As recorded on consecutive days in November 2007. casting a glance’s one lasts for 17 minutes, while RR gets a slightly longer 19 minutes. The audience questions have been removed, instead focusing on Benning’s answers as he discusses all manner of aspects from his films, whether it’s anecdotes from their filming (the constant fear during RR that the film would run out before a train had finished passing) or their messages. In both cases there’s a wealth of information to be had that really does enrich our understanding and appreciation. Also present is a 20-page booklet, though do be aware that only one of the essays inside is in English; everything else is in German.
casting a glance / RR can be purchased via the Edition Filmmuseum website.