A Wonderful Resource for Experimental Video and Film, and a Wonderful New Film in the Same Vein

Okay, I'm supposed to be doing a comprehensive Film Festival piece here and, I swear to God, I will shortly. (Where have we heard/read that before?) But I stumbled onto a terrific resource for experimental film and video -- okay, I didn't exactly stumble onto it, it was linked from an e-mail list I'm on -- and I want to share it with you. The site is called tank.tv, and it can be found at -- surprise -- http://www.tank.tv.

The site is updated monthly or bi-monthly, I'm not sure which, but the October-November featured artist is Ken Jacobs, and the site has a huge selection of his work for you to look at. The clips are in Quicktime, so you ought to have that software (heck, you ought to have that software anyway), and they run in a smallish pop-up screen so if you have a pop-up blocker, you'll need to permit the site to show them, all of which takes about 10 seconds and two mouse-clicks. To access the archives, which are substantial, you'll have to register for the site, but it's free and the material there is well worth the few minutes you'll need to do it.

Speaking of Ken Jacobs, his latest film and a large selection of his recent work will be on display at MoMA later this month (I'll be reviewing the new film Return to the Scene of the Crime for Jewish Week shortly) and Anthology Film Archives will be showing a selection of his early works on December 19 and 20, a perfect Hanukah gift (or something like that).

Now, speaking of the New York Film Festival, their 12th annual Views from the Avant-Garde showcase is running even as I sit here typing. I only had the time and opportunity to see one of the programs in the series this year, although the assembled total is very impressive (Nathaniel Dorsky, Andrew Noren, Bruce Connor, Craig Baldwin and many, many more). The one film I did see, however, is definitely worthy of any ten-best list I could imagine for 2008 (if it gets a minimal theatrical release, i.e., a week somewhere in town).

James Benning is, if I may be permitted a shorthand identification, one of the finest landscape filmmakers America has produced. Although his work frequently plays with narrative, many of his recent films, 13 Lakes, Ten Skies and the new one being shown tomorrow (Sunday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.), RR, are nothing less than meditations on the American landscape and/or skyscape.

Where the structure of the other two films I just mentioned were dictated by Benning's arbitrary decision to use sequence shots of ten minutes each, RR (which he pronounces "Railroad," saying to an interviewer that if you just sound the title out, "it sounds like a pirate movie") uses long takes whose duration is dictated by the time required for a freight train to appear on screen and wend its way through the shot until it has disappeared. The film is 112 minutes long and includes 43 trains, photographed all over the U.S., but mostly in California, where Benning is now based. In a structural film like this (and I'm using the word casually, not in the way that one might use it to classify the work of, say, Paul Sharits), variations are the heart and soul of the work. Benning makes cunning use of variations in camera angles, distance from the subject, the seasonal changes and a fascinating range of landscapes (desert, forest, water, hills, plains and so on) to create visual interest. (Of course, for some of us, the mere sight of trains in motion is interesting enough.) At the same time, he makes inventive use of the soundtrack, mixing in a few soundbites of local radio stations, with everything from a Blue Jays-Rangers game (Nolan Ryan on the mound) to Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land," while most of the film uses direct sound, emphasizing the tension between nature sounds (lots of crickets here, and faint breezes) and the sounds of the man-made world, primarily the trains themselves. The result is a hypnotically beautiful work that, at the same time, offers a covert but very powerful rumination on the ways that industry has raped the American environment. RR is a must-see film, a phrase I am loath to use, but this time it's really true.

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