The end of the line

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"The film is called RR, but I like to call it ‘Railroad,’ because RR sounds like a pirate movie."

— James Benning

TRAINS A short stretch of celluloid is a representation of a train, one image following the other in rapid succession, connected by essential blocks of black, moving forward in time and space, and, when projected, rotating on a wheel. Cinema began with a train entering a station, shot with a fixed camera, chugging toward the screen. Barring a change of mind or circumstance, the masterful RR will be the last of James Benning’s works shot on 16mm, and how fitting that this 37-year phase closes with the image of a locomotive, pointedly stopped in front of a wind farm outside of Palm Springs, scrapped tires lying in the foreground, the end in a line of 43 trains shot across the United States (and the final frame of 34 extant films).

After a prolific three-year period that has seen Benning produce five crucial works — likely exhausting his stock of 16mm film — while teaching, driving across America, and building a full-scale replica of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin, technology has vanquished this last of the old-time filmmakers.

Those familiar with Benning’s landscape films will be comforted by RR‘s fixed camera and continental scope, but the film marks something of a crucial advance. As opposed to the awesome 13 Lakes (2006) — 13 individual lakes, each shot lasting the full 10 minutes of the 16mm cartridge — RR finds Benning adopting another structural principle: the signified (the train) takes over from the signifier (the camera).

Every shot is mesmerizing, yet the film builds, acquiring a cumulative power, as the simplicity of structure gives way to infinite experiences. To some, trains invoke nostalgia; to younger viewers, classical antiquity. To trainspotters, well, RR is Valhalla. And just as Benning’s California Trilogy (2000–01) concerns work and water, RR becomes a film "about" American overconsumption. Benning lets what’s on screen tell the story, with the tumultuous history of railroads and western development only alluded to by songs and words on the soundtrack. Filmed and recorded, as always, by a one-man band, all of its shots captured without permissions or permits, maybe RR is a pirate movie.

SFBG How far back does RR‘s genesis go? Were you into railroads as a kid?

JAMES BENNING Yeah, I like trains a lot. When I was a kid I had a little model train, an American Flyer. When I was a teenager we used to play in the train yards in Milwaukee, and that was fun, because we weren’t supposed to go there. We’d hop on slow freight trains and ride them for like a mile, and then jump off.

SFBG When you started making RR, was there a specific plan? Did you know the exact locations where you wanted to shoot?

JB I was pretty familiar with the major US lines. When I drive from Wisconsin to California, I pass by the lines that run through the Midwest. I know the lines that go up and down the [east] coast from New York to Washington. Other lines I knew through research, by getting a good railroad atlas. I wanted to film according to landscapes, too. I knew I wanted to do a shot across Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, and a shot in Mississippi of a train going through the kudzu growth, and [a shot of] this famous park called the Rat Hole in Kentucky. I also used a Web site [www.railpictures.net] that says it has "the best railroad pictures on the Net." It has thousands of still photos by railroad fans.

SFBG Is it accurate to call RR a landscape film?

JB The initial idea was to use railroads to define landscape because they can only go up a 2 percent grade. But as it became apparent to me that the film was going to be about trains more than landscapes, I learned more about different kinds of engines. The second shot is of the only piggyback train — where you take semi trucks and load them onto cars — in the film. Later there’s a RoadRailer, the train that looks like a long white snake. I shot that in the Rat Hole, an area that used to be all tunnels. I was shooting from above, which was the best vantage point [from which] to film it.

For me, the film came to be about consumerism and overconsumption — I could feel the weight of the goods going by me. Especially the oil and automobiles, as I saw a lot of tanker cars and auto trains. They pass each other constantly.

SFBG The mathematical nature of RR is impressive. One comes to realize the number of variables at play — the size and expanse of the train, the number of cars, the colors, the speed, the landscape, the angle where the train comes into the frame and where it leaves. All of these factors pile up.

JB It’s the way I always work: I’ll set up a problem for myself. I basically collaborate with the train in that it’s going to suggest the length of the shot. I thought I could vary the distance the camera was from the train, vary the angle that the train approaches from, and change these angles from shot to shot to build rhythms. The variables make it possible to take this idea that is confining and make it grow. The same thing happens with earlier films like 13 Lakes, where I set up an idea — to shoot a lake with the same amount of sky and water — and the problem is how to show the uniqueness of the lake.

SFBG RR must have been a very different experience from shooting 13 Lakes.

JB That’s true, because in shooting 13 Lakes, I was waiting for the best moment to turn the camera on. In RR, I’m waiting for the train, and hopefully it will correspond with the best moment to turn on the camera.

SFBG One is more your choice, and the other is the train’s choice.

JB Yeah, I enter into this collaboration with the train. It’s going to choose the moment. Of course if I am on a line that has five trains an hour, then I can choose the time of the day. But if I’m at a line that has one train a week, then I’m at the mercy of the train. The one place I shot like that was at the causeway that crosses the spillway outside of Lake Pontchartrain — the Kansas Line. That train comes by once a week. I waited all day, and that train came by at 4 in the afternoon, on a day [when] it was 110 degrees with 100 percent humidity.

SFBG Is everything in RR there as you found it? That last shot with the tires strewn by the tracks seems too good to be true.

JB Yeah, it’s outside of Palm Springs. In the film that Reinhard Wulf made about me [James Benning: Circling the Image (2003)], we stop at the same wind farm. On the soundtrack I talk about going back to places I’ve filmed and seeing how the places change. That area is just littered with stuff, so it wasn’t hard to find a good frame with tires.

SFBG When I saw RR, the audience gasped at that final shot, like they do at the mirrored image of Crater Lake in Oregon in 13 Lakes. It isn’t comparable in beauty. But there is perfection to the composition: the colors of the train match up with the landscape, the blue of the sky and the white of the windmills.

JB The other thing is that as the train gets slower and eventually stops, the sound of the train gives way to the sound of the windmills. There is this slow dissolve between train noise and wind energy that somewhat suggests an alternative way of living, a cleaner energy. After [one] screening, an interviewer said that he found it to be hopeful, but I find it kind of ironic, as it seems too late. The tires lying there like the death of the automobile — the death of our culture, really — and the use of oil, all of that is in play.

SFBG The general perception of RR is that the film’s structure is precisely a function of the length of each train — the shot begins when the train enters the frame and ends when it leaves. But that’s not exactly the case.

JB Most of the time there’s an empty frame, the train enters, it leaves, and then there’s a cut. I would like to have drawn that out. For me the film is very much about time and about waiting, but I didn’t want waiting to become part of the film. I wanted you to realize through the absence of waiting that I had to wait.

SFBG Something else happens within RR. At least twice, maybe three times, there is an optical illusion. After the train leaves the frame what’s left behind seems to vibrate.

JB It happens a lot.

SFBG Were you aware that this would occur?

JB I wasn’t when I made the film, but when I started to project the work print, I was shocked. You don’t need a film to get that optical illusion — you can stand in front of a waterfall, follow the water down, then turn your head. [Likewise,] your eyes will follow the train so that when it’s gone, the effect remains and even kind of warps.

SFBG Most of the trains in the film are freight trains, there are maybe only one or two passenger trains.

JB There are two: one was a commuter train, one was a passenger train. The amount of commuter travel, at least on the West Coast, is minimal — you hardly ever see a train with people in it. Amtrak leases the right to use rails from the companies that operate the freight trains. I’ve taken most of the Amtrak train routes. They’re fun … and slow.

SFBG How long did you shoot?

JB I shot for two and a half years, probably. I had so much fun that I didn’t really want to stop. I still miss it. Sometimes I go back to those same sites and wait for trains, just to have that feeling again.