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‘Los’: James Benning’s Los Angeles
by Aidan Collins

Never has one of the largest cities in the country looked so empty, so alone. The opening shot of James Benning’s Los presents a flowing man-made river down from a mountain. The shot lasts two and a half minutes long, as with the other 34 evenly framed and centered shots of this film. When thinking about Los Angeles and filmmaking, the most popular films are structured and narrative-based. Benning disconnects his work from the influence of literature, building upon the experimental art form. A structuralist filmmaker, Benning found and captured different locations scattered throughout the greater Los Angeles area. He brought his 16mm camera, set up the shot, and started rolling. One take, one try, and the film about the small, lonely locations of the sprawling city of Los Angeles is done. 

Benning’s Los is the second in his California Trilogy, the other two films being El Valley Centro and Sogobi. All three films apply the same rules: 35 shots that last for two and a half minutes. Benning’s filmography consists of a similar style. He shot 16mm early on in his career until it became too expensive to work with. Notable works Benning completed on 16mm were The California Trilogy, The United States of America, and Landscape Suicide, with RR being the last film he made on celluloid. Since moving to digital, he has made experimental films exploring Americana across the country with films like small roads or Ruhr. Benning is also a professor at CalArts where he teaches film with notable students such as experimental filmmaker Deborah Stratman.

For all 35 shots, Benning creates a common composition. The horizon meets in the middle letting just enough action come in from the bottom and top of the frame. Benning is not set out to photograph each location as overtly stylized but as a document of a seemingly unknown location within an even larger area. A city of over 10 million people and it feels like James Benning was the first to find this location. Pedestrians will enter the frame as if they were an actor on set. Then they will notice they are being filmed. Some continue walking, some turn around quickly to hide their face. Cars will speed down a highway or get stuck in traffic. He films an empty baseball stadium rather than a game filled with fans. Whatever is representative of Los Angeles, Benning, and his camera, will be there to capture it. The ambient noise of people talking, cars driving past, and planes overhead, all occur just outside the frame in the peripheral. There is more to the shot than is presented. Although it is shown as a static, centered shot of a Los Angeles location, the use of sound keeps the viewer aware of the framing of the shot.

An inconceivably large city already, Los Angeles is filled with noise pollution. Ears become immune to the traffic, the planes, the honking, the sirens, and just about everything that is going on outside one’s field of vision. Benning tones down the noise so much that Los makes each location unique. In a quarry, the sound of trucks and dirt can be heard so crisply that there is nothing else. At a traffic intersection, cars will honk and the rubber will scrape against the tar. Los Angeles becomes a much smaller city. In the two and a half minutes that the viewer gets to experience this shot, they become acquainted with everything in it. Things in the frame start to pop out making every action feel deliberate even though it is purely a documentation of 35 different locations.

Los Angeles is a lovely city but its thundering size can be daunting. Each location could be miles apart but the distance would never even be noticed because Benning stitches each shot together so effortlessly. Los, rooted in structuralist filmmaking techniques, makes use of a fixed camera position and minimal editing. In making each shot composed nearly the same way, Benning connects each shot visually. One shot will end by cutting to the next making for an almost seamless cut. Almost as if all of these locations were right next to each other, and the film was one long camera move from left to right. The time of day and location may change, but each shot lingers so long that the eyes take a second to adjust once the cut happens. As if it were the end of a dream, the film wakes you up with the giant, crashing waves of Puerco Beach in Malibu. The film simply ends with waves and then cuts to a list of the locations shown that the viewer can visit. Los makes one of the largest cities in the world feel like a ghost town as if the viewer is the only person to be alive for the length of the film. As if after the shot cuts to the next, the location Benning used no longer exists. In doing so, this “ghost town” only exists in memory. Although the shot feels like forever, the memory is fleeting and one can only hope to escape back into the world James Benning filmed and seemingly created through the camera.