James Benning - Allensworth
Credit: Courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, Berlin
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Allensworth — James Benning [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 22, 2023

Since moving from 16mm to digital nearly fifteen years ago, James Benning’s films have become more and more stringent, foregoing surface incident in favor of intensive examination of the outside world. The freedom to make the films he wants, whenever and wherever he wants, has led to a profound paring-down of cinematic language in which fixed-frame images of mostly nonhuman subjects — landscapes, buildings, trains — are offered to the viewer for minutes at a time. By temporalizing space in this manner, Benning’s films seem to ask us to look beyond the placid surface of these shots, and to consider the unseen social relations that brought them into being, as well as the power structures that keep them in place.

Even by Benning’s minimalist standards, his new film Allensworth addresses the viewer with a radically reduced palette. Composed of twelve shots, designated by the months of the calendar and lasting five minutes each, the film examines what remains of the titular California town, established in 1908 by Black Americans in order to live and prosper outside the reach of Jim Crow. The town is now a state park, standing as a monument to its own defiant history.

But as Benning shows us building after building, there is a funereal stillness pervading this place. Benning’s films often play with sudden motion within a relatively static visual field. But it takes a full eight minutes before we see any obvious movement in ALLENSWORTH, in this case a car speeding by in the background. And it’s nearly seventeen minutes before we hear a distinct noise, with a train going by outside the frame of the third shot. In fact, despite the occasional drifting of clouds or leaves blowing on a tree, most of Benning’s images in Allensworth resemble snapshots, in particular the works of WPA photographers like Walker Evans and Gordon Parks.

Even the month-by-month organization seems designed to avert any disruption of the film’s placid surface. After all, California isn’t exactly known for having seasons in the conventional sense. It’s as though Benning is aiming for a time-based presentation of a state between the living and the dead, between the immutable past and its present-day reverberations. The lone exception is “August,” which features a young girl (Faith Johnson) standing in front of the blackboard in a schoolroom reading poems by Lucille Clifton. Again, there is a contradictory element at work here. (For the most part, school isn’t in session in August.) But this performative intervention brings the film to life. Allensworth may be asking us to look at what remains of the town in much the same way we listen to Clifton’s poetry, activating the words of the past and demanding that we observe not just their distance from us, but also their constant proximity.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 7.5.