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James Benning (film director)

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James Benning
Benning in 2012.
Born1942 (age 81–82)[1]
EducationUniversity of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Years active1972 – present[1]
Children1, Sadie Benning

James Benning (born 1942[1]) is an American independent filmmaker and educator. Over the course of his 40-year career Benning has made over twenty-five feature-length films that have shown in many different venues across the world. Since 1987, he has taught at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).[1][2] He is known as a minimalist filmmaker.[3]

Early life and education[edit]

James Benning was born 1942 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[1] Benning played baseball for the first twenty years of his life. He earned an undergraduate and master's degree in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, which he attended on a baseball scholarship. Benning experienced a political awakening and racial consciousness during the late 1960s, participating in civil rights protests led by Father James Groppi in segregated Milwaukee.

Benning dropped out of graduate school to forfeit his military deferment since his friends, who were mostly not in school, were being drafted and dying in Vietnam. Benning instead joined the War on Poverty, teaching children of migrant workers in Colorado how to read and write, and helping to start a commodities food program that fed people living in poverty in the Missouri Ozarks. Benning often uses this background as part of his film work.[4][5]

At the age of 33, Benning received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he had studied with David Bordwell.

For the next four years he taught filmmaking at Northwestern University and CalArts (1988—present).[2]


Benning was hailed cinema's voice of the Midwest with his 1976/1978 films, 11 x 14 and One Way Boogie Woogie, made in Chicago and Milwaukee and the surrounding rural region. In 1980, Benning moved to lower Manhattan, where, with the aid of grants and funding from German Television, he continued to make films, most notably, American Dreams (1984) and Landscape Suicide (1986). Leaving New York after eight years, Benning moved west to teach film/video at California Institute of the Arts, and has taught there ever since. In the early 1990s Benning made a series of text/image films: North on Evers (1991), Deseret (1995), Four Corners (1997), and UTOPIA (1998), often invoking histories of how antagonistic cultural and economic agendas over land use shape landscapes and configure social environments.

Benning has employed diverse methods, themes, structures, and aesthetics, investigating narrative and anti-narrative modes, personal history, race, collective memory, place, industry, and landscape. His philosophy of "landscape as a function of time," and "Looking and Listening" (which is also the name of a course taught by Benning) is particularly evident in his films since 1999 in the form of fixed, stable shots. For instance, each of El Valley Centro, Los, and SogobiThe California Trilogy (2000-2001) is composed of 35 2½ minute shots. Nightfall (2012) consists of a single 98-minute shot made at a high elevation in the woods in the west Sierras that begins in late afternoon as the sun is going down and ends in near blackness.

Benning's use of duration reflects his accord with Henry David Thoreau's passage from Walden, "No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking at what is to be seen?"

Benning divides his time between Val Verde, California, and a small town in the Sierra Nevada north of Bakersfield. There, in 2007, Benning built a replica of the cabin Thoreau constructed in 1845 on Walden Pond. The following year Benning erected a copy of the cabin Ted Kaczynski built in 1971 in Montana. Inside the cabins Benning has installed a number of copies he made of paintings by artists that have deeply inspired him, including Bill Traylor, Henry Darger, and Mose Tolliver. These locations are near to California Institute of the Arts where he is teaching in the film department.[6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14]


Benning published a book of poems titled Thirty Years to Life in 1973, and Fifty Years to Life, Texts from Eight Films by James Benning in 2000, both with Two Pants Press in Madison, Wisconsin. Reinhard Wulf's feature-length documentary, James Benning: Circling the Image, was released in 2003. In 2007, the Austrian Film Museum also published the first substantial monograph on the filmmaker, James Benning, edited by Barbara Pichler and Claudia Slanar. In 2011, Julie Ault (ed.) collaborated with Benning on the book (FC) Two Cabins by JB, published with A.R.T. Press. Scores of reviews, articles, and essays on Benning's work, as well as interviews with the filmmaker have appeared in publications worldwide.


Benning worked exclusively in 16mm until the increasing obsolescence of the medium necessitated he convert to digital. His first digital film was Ruhr (2009), commissioned by Werner Ruzicka for the Duisburger Filmwoche. Digital filmmaking allowed him to branch out in different directions including re-makes of Faces (2011) and Easy Rider (2012), as well as the two-hour one shot film Nightfall (2011). Benning's work has always traversed the film sphere and the art field, finding constituencies in both. He made 16mm installations at Art Park (1977), the Walker Art Center (1978), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1980), and has recently created digital installations at Las Cienegas Projects, Los Angeles, (2011), 21er Haus, Museum of Contemporary Art, Vienna (2012), and Argos, Centrum Voor Kunst en Media, Brussels (2012).


Benning is represented by neugerriemschneider, Berlin. He continues to distribute his own films, as he has for his entire career. Benning has been supported by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Film Institute, New York State Council on the Arts, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the University Film Association. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s Werner Deutsch and Cologne-based WDR-TV supported Benning's work with commissions and the purchase of broadcast rights. The Austrian Film Museum in Vienna is restoring and archiving all of Benning's 16mm films as well as, over time, producing DVDs of the works. The Academy Film Archive, in conjunction with the Austrian Film Museum, preserved Benning's film Chicago Loop in 2013.[15]


Film works by Benning
Date Name Medium Duration Notes
1971 Did You Ever Hear That Cricket Sound? 16mm, black and white 1 minute [16]
1972 Time and a Half 16mm, black and white 17 minutes [16]
1972 Ode to Muzak 16mm, color 3 minutes [16]
1972 Art Hist. 101 16mm, black and white 17 minutes [16]
1973 Michigan Avenue 16mm, color 6 minutes co-created with Bette Gordon.[16]
1973 Honeylane Road
1973 57
1974 I-94 16mm, color 3 minutes co-created with Bette Gordon.[16]
1974 Gleem
1974 8½ × 11 16mm, color 32 minutes [16]
1975 The United States of America 16mm, color 27 minutes co-created with Bette Gordon.[17]
1975 Saturday Night 16mm, color 3 minutes [16]
1975 An Erotic Film
1975 9-1-75 16mm, color 22 minutes [16]
1975 3 Minutes on the Dangers of Film Recording 16mm, black and white with tint 3 minutes [16]
1976 Chicago Loop 16mm, color 8 minutes [16]
1976 A to B 16mm, color 2 minutes [16]
1977 One Way Boogie Woogie 16mm, color 60 minutes [16]
1977 11 × 14 16mm, color 80 minutes 65-shot narrative featuring a man's affair, a young hitchhiker and a lesbian couple traveling the Midwestern United States.[16][18]
1978 Grand Opera 16mm, color 81 minutes
1978 Four Oil Wells 16mm, color, installation continuous has been lost.[16]
1979 Oklahoma 16mm, color, installation continuous was on a 4 screen installation, has been lost.[16]
1980 Double Yodel 16mm, color, installation continuous has been lost.[16]
1981 Last Dance 16mm, color, installation continuous has been lost.[16]
1982 Him and Me 16mm, color 88 minutes [16]
1984 American Dreams 16mm, color 55 minutes [16]
1985 O Panama 16mm, color 28 minutes co-created with Burt Barr.[16]
1986 Landscape Suicide 16mm, color 95 minutes [16]
1989 Used Innocence 16mm, color 95 minutes [16]
1991 North on Evers 16mm, color 87 minutes [16]
1995 Deseret 16mm, color 82 minutes [16]
1997 Four Corners 16mm, color 80 minutes [16]
1998 Utopia 16mm, color 93 minutes [16][19]
2000 El Valley Centro (California Trilogy part 1) 16mm, color 90 minutes [16]
2001 Los (California Trilogy part 2) 16mm, color 90 minutes [16]
2001 Sogobi (California Trilogy part 3) 16mm, color 90 minutes [16]
2001 B-52 (sound only)
2004 13 Lakes 16mm, color 133 minutes added to National Film Registry in 2014.
2004 Ten Skies 16mm, color 101 minutes [16]
2005 One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later 16mm, color 121 minutes [16]
2007 Casting a Glance 16mm, color 80 minutes [16]
2007 RR 16mm, color 110 minutes [16]
2009 Ruhr digital, color 122 minutes [16]
2010 John Krieg Exiting the Falk Corporation in 1971 digital, black and white, nstallation 71 minutes 2 screen installation, with 2 objects.[16]
2010 Pig Iron digital, color, installation 31 minutes 2 screen installation.[16]
2010 Faces digital, black and white, silent 130 minutes [16]
2011 Twenty Cigarettes digital, color, single channel installation 98 minutes [16]
2011 Nightfall digital, color 98 minutes [16]
2011 Two Cabins digital, color, installation 31 minutes 2 screen installation.[16]
2011 small roads digital, color 104 minutes [16]
2012 Easy Rider digital, color 96 minutes [16]
2012 The War digital, color 56 minutes [16]
2012 Stemple Pass digital, color 123 minutes [16]
2013 BNSF digital, color 193 minutes [16]
2013 Natural History digital, color 77 minutes [16]
2014 Farocki digital, color, silent 77 minutes [16]
2016 Spring Equinox
2016 Measuring Change
2017 L. Cohen digital, color 45 minutes A film centered around time and change on an Oregon farm field, featuring a Leonard Cohen song.[20]
2020 Maggie's Farm 84 minutes [21]
2022 The United States of America digital, color 97 minutes World Premiere at 72nd Berlin International Film Festival
2022 Allensworth color 65 minutes

Personal life[edit]

Benning's only child is the artist Sadie Benning, born in 1973.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Film File: 11 x 14". Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin. 2018. Archived from the original on November 26, 2022. Retrieved April 28, 2021.
  2. ^ a b Bradshaw, Nick (June 20, 2018). "The Sight & Sound Interview: James Benning". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on April 24, 2014. Retrieved April 28, 2021.
  3. ^ Patterson, John (March 2, 2017). "The Love Witch director Anna Biller: 'I'm in conversation with the pornography all around us'". The Guardian.
  4. ^ "Interview with Senses of Cinema".
  5. ^ "Interview with journalist Neil Young". 2002.
  6. ^ "James Benning's Art of Landscape:Ontological, Pedagogical, Sacrilegious". sensesofcinema.com.
  7. ^ ""TORTURED LANDSCAPES"". Archived from the original on December 8, 2007. Retrieved January 8, 2007.
  8. ^ Bruyn, Dirk de (January 2009). "Communicating the 'Unspeakability' of Violent Acts in Cinema (James Benning's 'Landscape Suicide')". Violence in Film Conference Proceedings. Inter-disciplinary.net, London, England.
  9. ^ "JAMES BENNING rétrospective JEU DE PAUME 20/10/09 – 17/01/10". Revue Independencia. Archived from the original on January 6, 2010.
  10. ^ "The Films of James Benning". Canyon Cinema.
  11. ^ Hughes, Darren (October 7, 2011). "Naked Repose: A Conversation with James Benning about Twenty Cigarettes". MUBI.
  12. ^ "(FC) Two Cabins by JB". artresourcestransfer.org. Archived from the original on May 7, 2013.
  13. ^ "Time Overlaps Itself: James Benning's John Krieg and the Act of Sustained Recollection". Moving Image Source. October 7, 2011.
  14. ^ "An Interview with James Benning – Filmmaker/Artist". 4:3. June 13, 2014.
  15. ^ "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av MacDonald, Scott (July 1, 2019). The Sublimity of Document: Cinema as Diorama. Oxford University Press. pp. 496–498. ISBN 978-0-19-005214-0.
  17. ^ "The United States of America". Mubi.com. Archived from the original on September 15, 2011.
  18. ^ 11 x 14 (1977)-Letterboxd
  19. ^ "A Review of Utopia Directed by James Benning". Archived from the original on October 7, 2011. Retrieved April 11, 2010.
  20. ^ "L. COHEN, a film by James Benning". Hammer Museum, UCLA. June 13, 2018. Archived from the original on August 14, 2022. Retrieved April 28, 2021.
  21. ^ "First Look 2020: Maggie's Farm (canceled event)". Museum of the Moving Image. March 15, 2020. Archived from the original on February 15, 2020.
  22. ^ "Sadie Benning by Linda Yablonsky - BOMB Magazine". bombmagazine.org. Retrieved April 28, 2021.

Further publications[edit]

  • Barbara Pichler, Claudia Slanar (Ed.): James Benning. FilmmuseumSynemaPublikationen Vol. 6, Vienna 2007, ISBN 978-3-901644-23-8.
  • James Benning, American Dreams / Landscape Suicide, Edition Filmmuseum, 2-disc set, 2011 Österreichisches Filmmuseum
  • James Benning, casting a glance / RR, Edition Filmmuseum, 2-disc set, 2012, Österreichisches Filmmuseum
  • James Benning, California Trilogy, Edition Filmmuseum, 2-disc set, 2012, Österreichisches Filmmuseum
  • James Benning, Deseret / Four Corners, Edition Filmmuseum, 2-disc set, 2013, Österreichisches Filmmuseum
  • James Benning, natural history / Ruhr, Edition Filmmuseum, 2-disc set, 2014, Österreichisches Filmmuseum
  • James Benning, 11x14 / One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later, Edition Filmmuseum, 2-disc set, 2018, Österreichisches Filmmuseum
  • James Benning, Grand Opera. An Historical Romance / O Panama, Edition Filmmuseum, 2021, Österreichisches Filmmuseum