Relatively speaking, the aesthetic, technological and ideological leaps taken by avant-garde filmmaker James Benning — from his final work on 16mm celluloid, 2007’s elegiac railroad travelogue RR, to his debut in the digital realm, 2009’s Ruhr — are no less dramatic than those made by James Cameron from Titanic to Avatar. Nor is this the two filmmakers’ only point of connection. Best known for his series of ravishingly photographed contemplations of the Western United States (including the late masterpieces Deseret, TheCalifornia Trilogy and 13 Lakes), Benning in Ruhr casts his inimitable camera-eye upon the equivalent of a galaxy far away: the titular manufacturing district in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region. There Benning, like Cameron, hones in on the implicit and explicit tensions between man and machine, the natural world and the synthetic one, while the nearly limitless shooting capacity of digital allows him to test the temporal elasticity of cinema like never before. Divided into two halves running one hour each, Ruhr begins in an underground motorway tunnel where cars shuttling forth in both directions are interrupted by the incongruous sight of a pedestrian leisurely passing through on foot. From there, it’s off to a steelworks where automated conveyors ferry long steel rods to and fro along the screen’s x, y and z axes — a 3D effect for which no special glasses are required. Then it’s on to the Dusseldorf airport, where departing planes are glimpsed surreptitiously through a thicket of trees, their engines creating delayed ripples of wind; to a mosque, where worshipers seem to mimic the up, down and sideways movements of the steelworks, their backs periodically cloaking Benning’s camera in a secretive shroud; and to Richard Serra’s monolithic 1998 sculpture, Bramme for the Ruhr-District, where a lone janitorial worker painstakingly removes offending graffiti. Ruhr’s second half is a single-shot showstopper — a 60-minute close-up on the 70-foot “quenching tower” of the Schwelgern coking plant, which every 10 minutes belches forth billowing, ashen clouds that swirl about the tower and eventually consume it. At first, the image suggests J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiery Mount Doom, but with each passing repetition it takes on the more distinctive countenance of an all too real nightmare image from the dawn of the last decade. The associations are provocative if you want them to be — airport surveillance, a mosque, a smoky World Trade Center simulacrum. But after so many cinematic appropriations of 9/11 imagery to mostly exploitative ends, Benning takes the first major step toward freeing those images from the prison of our cultural memory. (REDCAT; Mon., Jan. 11, 8:30 p.m.; redcat.org)
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