The title of James Benning’s newest film, Casting a Glance, could likewise be taken as a summary statement on Benning’s remarkable four-decade career, during which he has gazed longer, deeper, and more meaningfully upon the changing landscape of America — particularly that of the American West — than any other filmmaker of his generation. When the 2004 Buenos Aires Film Festival held concurrent retrospectives of Benning and John Ford, it was only too obvious how much the younger director had carried forth the work of the old master — even if, in Benning’s stock company, the actors have names like Sky, Forest, Highway, and Lake. (Still, they are no less stoic and reticent than the Duke in his prime.) In Casting a Glance, Benning’s subject is the Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson’s massive and majestic 1970 earthwork sculpture consisting of some 7,000 tons of basalt rocks jutting out into the Great Salt Lake. For 18 months, starting in May of 2005, Benning and his 16 mm camera visited the Jetty under all manner of nautical and atmospheric conditions, and the resultant footage has been playfully assembled as a supposed chronicle of the sculpture’s entire 37-year history. Over just 80 minutes of screen time, water levels rise to cover the jetty entirely, then recede to reveal it once more. The bright, blue skies of summer give way to winter’s gray; the brilliant black of the basalt becomes encrusted with crystalline salt. And, without so much as a cameo from Al Gore or Leonardo DiCaprio, we come to understand more about the measurable effects of climate change than from any movie that has yet come along on the subject.
Casting a Glance isn’t the first time Benning has visited the Great Salt Lake. It was also one of the stars of his 2004 film 13 Lakes, which receives an encore local screening this week at Filmforum. The most remarkable section of that movie, however, belongs to Oregon’s Crater Lake, which sits in such ghostly stillness that even the birds chirping throughout the film seem awed into silence. Then, in the distance, there is a startling sound of gunshots, or perhaps fireworks, and we realize that for a moment we had forgotten there was such a thing as man. In addition to 13 Lakes, Filmforum will also screen Benning’s companion film, the beguiling Ten Skies, in which the filmmaker points his camera into the ether from 10 different locations all within a 100-mile radius of his Val Verde home. (13 Lakes at Filmforum, Egyptian Theatre; Sun., Oct. 7, 7 p.m. Casting a Glance at REDCAT; Mon., Oct. 8, 8 p.m. Ten Skies at Filmforum, Egyptian Theatre; Sun., Oct. 14, 7 p.m.)