For better or worse James Benning is a filmmaker married to a method. His films usually consist of a series of static camera positions with each shot equal in duration. One Way Boogie Woogie and 27 Years Later are sixty minute films built out of one minute shots. Each shot documents are part of Milwaukee’s landscape. The images are that of a declining industrial landscape. On occasion, cars, dogs, and even the people make brief appearances. They soundtrack is a mix of ambient recordings, radio advertisements, boogie woogie tunes, and even a Leonard Cohen song. Both films share the exact same soundtrack. The visual difference between One Way Boogie Woogie and 27 Years Later is that of change. Returning to the same locations and camera set-ups as before, Benning and his camera observe how time as altered the landscapes, and to some degree the people who sparsely populated the first film.
Bennings decision to re-shoot One Way Boogie Woogie again and play the two versions of the film back-to-back creates a simplified version of the children’s game Memory. Shots from the second film appear in the exact same order as they did in the first film and a participant is only left trying to visualize how the original location looked in contrast to what is being documented twenty-seven years later. The exercise is interesting, but grows tedious. Holding steadfast to the rules he has given himself from the outset, Benning’s exploration feels trapped and unable to explore the greater changes that have occurred overtime.
Time has drastically changed the landscape of Milwaukee, much more than you’d suspect from watching Benning’s two films. While each image is well composed and saturated with color, there is little to root these images to Milwaukee. Visible changes, while showing both decay and growth, are too limited. They do not show the cultural or economical changes that have truly altered the city. Asking Benning to include these issues into his film would be would be asking too much. His film cannot tackle such weight because it is anchored to a structure.
This is not to say that Benning will not take some liberties, many I would label as wrong decisions on his part. A shot of a brand new American flag is replicated in the proceeding work by a worn and tethered flag. I highly doubt this to be the same flag. Just as, an image of dogs at play from Boogie Woogie is replaced twenty seven years later is recreated with a singular, white faced dog. Surely, this cannot be the same dog in both films otherwise we may have a new record for canine longevity. If Benning is willing to make these alterations than why does he refuse to provide a new soundtrack for 27 Years Later?
The indentical soundtrack does create a helpful, connective tissue between the two works, but it also leaves me with a feeling of malaise. One of the greatest attributes of any Benning film is the creative use of sound. His soundtracks are typically filled with descriptive, non-diagetic sounds that hint to a larger world just outside the camera’s gaze. So, it is disappointing when he does not take advantage of this power to help illustrate the change at play between the two time eras.
I assume he never set out in 1977 to recreate the same film nearly three decades later. Had he the foresight, he might have framed images more susceptible to time. One Way Boogie Woogie is the journal of a wanderer traversing a blue-collar environs capturing images that captivate his eye. Benning is in large part a pedestrian filmmaker in the truest sense of the term. He strongly advocates that budding filmmakers take to walking before they take to shooting. It’s a philosophy he attributes to Werner Herzog. Knowing this, I cannot help but think of Fata Morgana when I hear Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” on Benning’s soundtrack.
Two years ago, when I saw Benning’s 13 Lakes and 10 Skies I had a transcendent experience. During the One Way Boogie Woogie and 27 Years Later double bill I could do little more than fidget in my seat. I tried to embrace the films for their meditative qualities, but quickly found my interest dissolving into a mere game of site identification. With Milwaukee being my new home, I wondered if I could locate each landscape. Even this grew tiresome and I began to wonder if I might not have to add these films to the rather short list of films I have walked out on. I decide to labor through them, even timing the shots and counting down the number of images left to endure. There were small rewards, like two ethereal images of steam and two images of neon signs, but stacked against the volume of less mesmerizing images this was not a statistically impressive showing.
I believe that you have to wrestle with great art. Whether I have had to revisit a film, perhaps multiple times, or simply grow as a person, I know that instantaneous satisfaction quickly dissipates and that the more revolutionary experiences came with struggle. I would like to think that in time I may cherish these two films as much as I do Benning’s other films or any piece of art that has transformed my way of seeing the world. Right now, I’m mixed with frustration and disappointment. Perhaps, 27 years later I will feel differently.