Is RR an observation or a comment, a film of trains or a film about railroading in America? For nearly two hours James Benning is content to sit with his camera and watch trains pass, and the answer is probably all that and quite a bit more.
Whatever RR is, the chances are slight that another movie will make it onto a big screen in Los Angeles this year boasting a director-cast relationship (and let's not hold it against these wonderful players just because they're made of metal) as perfectly dynamic as what Benning pulls off here. His ensemble is a real murderer's row: 43 trains of all shapes and sizes, from a slinky Southern coal-hauler that moves across the Tennessee River Bridge like she owns the thing to a little work car that scuds across the frame with Chaplin's sense of humor.
Even better, Benning has the good sense to let them shape the picture: Each shot lasts as long as it takes the train to make its way across the frame, bringing out a triangular relationship between the camera (and its placement), its object and time that not many directors seem to have any use for these days.
As well as this works as an aesthetic and film-conceptual treat, it opens up into something much larger: Like Thom Andersen's major minimovie Get Out of the Car, RR uses a fixed 16mm camera and shot duration to crack open the image and pull out the entire experience of living in America, from joy (nostalgia for the days of boxcar jumpers) to fear (the sickly red algae that covers a river) to anger (a train chugging across Lake Pontchartrain that could be loaded with oil from the Deepwater Horizon) to hope (the dirty beauty of the final shot).
For the last 40 years Benning has been one of the great directors of American films, and RR is all the evidence anyone needs that as a chronicler of our country he deserves a place alongside Chaplin, Griffith, Ford and Wiseman. And the soundtrack, which includes everything from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Woody Guthrie to “Fuck tha Police” to Gregory Peck reading from the Book of Revelation, all on a lush bed of directly recorded ambient sound, is worth the price of admission.
Benning will appear at Sunday's L.A. Filmforum screening.
RR | Jan. 9, 7:30 p.m. | Los Angeles Filmforum at the Egyptian Theatre | lafilmforum.org