– Autumn/Winter 2003

James Benning's California Trilogy: A Lesson in Natural History

Rachel Moore

One fine morning I awoke to discover that, during the night, I had learned to understand the language of birds. I have listened to them ever since. They say: 'Look at me!' or, ' Get out of here!' or, 'Let's fuck!' or, 'Help!' or, 'Hurrah!' or, 'I found a worm!' And that's all they say. And that, when you boil it down, is about all we say. (Which of those things am I saying now?)1

The answer to this, one of Hollis Frampton's trademark riddles, is of course contingent on the reader. This contingency became acutely apparent, and even troubling in my viewing of James Benning's California Trilogy. Like this bird talk, the statements are pretty clear; the problem arrives with their interlocution. Benning, for one, is persistently absent throughout. But like South (Hurley, 1919), the film made from the footage of Shakelton's failed expedition to Antarctica, one is keenly aware that the filmmaker must have actually just been there, just then, of physical presence on terrain in a present, of, well, contingencies. One shot showed their ship 'The Endurance' frozen on top of a wave. The scene was so still you looked all over the frame for motion. A torn bit of sail flutters, barely perceptibly - life. That's what we do, looking these films over, we watch the world become animate, we see the life in it.

Someone familiar with California might understand these films geographically, and indeed, each film is in part a riddle of place, the answers neatly tucked into the back of the film. You know what to call it once you're gone. But only the quickest

  1. Hollis Frampton, 'Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative', Circles of Confusion, Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983, p.66

  2. Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel, Anna Bostock (trans.), Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971, pp.63-64

  3. Ibid., p.64

  4. Ibid.

  5. Here I refer to the profound influence of Lukács's fulsome study of second nature, 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Proleteriat', published in 1923. With regards to the task of reawakening, it has been of particular interest for Adorno and Benjamin. Adorno writes: 'Philosophy has succeeded in refining the concept of natural-history by taking up this theme of the awakening of the enciphered and petrified object' in 'The Idea of Natural History', Bob Hullot-Kentor (trans.), Telos, Spring 1984, p.119. See also Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragedy, The Arcades Project and Adorno's published thesis on Kierkegaard.

  6. Maya Deren, 'Anagaram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film', in FilmCulture, no.39, Winter 1965, p.30

  7. Roland Barthes, 'Brecht, Diderot, Eisenstein', Image, Music, Text, Stephen Heath (trans.), New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, pp.69-78

  8. Ibid., p.71

  9. Ibid., p.73

  10. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, William Lovitt (trans.), New York: Harper and Row, 1977, p.3

  11. Ibid., p.13

  12. Ibid., p.10

  13. Ibid., p.4

  14. T. W. Adorno, op. cit., p.124

  15. In fact, Griffith would stage minor accidents to divert people's attention away from him so that he could film them without their ruining his scene by looking at him.

  16. M. Heidegger, op.cit., p.20

  17. T.W. Adorno, op. cit., p.120

  18. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, John Osborn (trans.), London: Verso, 1977, p.178

  19. Ibid., p.121

  20. The reference here is from Bergson's Laughter but my citation, at this point thoroughly decontextualised, is third-hand. While watching these films I was reminded of Rudolf Mrazek's Engineers of Happy Land, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002, in which Bergson is taken profitably out of the ontext of laughter and into the context of the colonial experience of landscape in his first chapter of the book, 'Language As Asphalt' (p.4).

  21. 21 Rudolf Pannwitz in Walter Benjamin, 'The Task of the Translator', Illuminations, New York: Harcourt, 1968, pp.80-81