by Noah Rosenberg
I can still see the composition of L. Cohen when I close my eyes: a nondescript green field extends diagonally towards a snow-brimmed mountain. A couple of metal trash cans, and the most significant color in the frame: a small yellow plastic container (probably for car oil), are laid out toward the center left. There is a rusted red broken down tractor on the far right, edging off screen, and wooden phone poles lead down a dirt road with scattered RVs like white horizontal brush marks. This composition is striking for many reasons: first, as the film starts you realize that you will be looking at this shot for 45 minutes, and there is no breeze, so the slight movement of clouds or grass will not be there to entertain you. The signals of time passing are the audio of airplanes, wildlife, the occasional voice in the distance, and slight color changes in the image texture, which you can see if you pay close attention.
The audience is quiet. It is as if we are being led in meditation, a looking meditation. I see the back of James’s head, his long grey hair falls over a worn plaid jacket as he looks calmly at the screen. The image is still. I watch others around me. As time passes, some are fidgeting, uncomfortable, taking deep breaths, moving in their seats. I can feel people say to themselves, “alright, let’s focus, keep staring at the screen.” I adjust my position in my chair, and stare ahead: has something changed? Maybe the plastic yellow container has gotten a little darker, or the shadows have moved slightly. It’s hard to tell. I look at the dead bundle of grass closest to the camera and observe its hue as compared to the plastic container.
I squint and try to see the larger color shapes; the yellow dead grass curves up like a hill with scattered green bushes, the brown dirt extends diagonally, like a flag into the first horizontal dirt path, and then moves up through the phone poles. The reds are mirrored on either side of the screen by the tractor and the rust on the metal trash cans. A solid green rectangle of grass resonates in the center, and the blue white gradient of the sky fill the top. The colors are not vivid, and the composition is not outwardly striking, yet, the longer I look at it, the more I see, and the more beautiful it becomes. My thoughts wander back to my painting classes. During long critiques we would look at one piece for hours and slowly more emotions would release. My thoughts drift off, I think of the friend I saw today just before the screening. I haven’t seen her for many years, I think back on our past relationship, and wonder what she’s up to now.
I think of many things. I look back at the screen, focus. Then, suddenly, the landscape starts to darken. I move to the front of my seat, blink my eyes. Yes, the landscape is darkening, quickly. A shadow of a bird flies overhead, it sends a chill down my spine: the first sign of moving life in the film. The steady composition is fading, black swirls in, a ripple of wind spreads through the landscape, and all you can see now is an iridescent scarlet halo outlining the mountain in the distance. The darkness lasts for several minutes. I am alert. I can feel the audience on the edge of their seats. The anticipation I feel is not the same as seeing a car chase or climactic scene in a Hollywood blockbuster. This anticipation is not fueled by fear, or desire, it is open and welcoming, and non-expecting. My heart is steady, my body is calm, I am satiated, curious, but not anxious. Slowly, the landscape starts to lighten, and that familiar composition – the one I have been looking at for the past 25 minutes- comes back to light. Leonard Cohen’s song, “Love Itself” plays. I sit back in my chair and watch the landscape, again.
The painting People in the Sun by Edward Hopper comes to mind when I think back to this screening. In fact, Hopper’s whole oeuvre reminds me of Benning’s work. There is a simplicity in composition, a celebration of light and landscape, quietness, solitude. During the Q & A, James was asked about his relationship to solitude. He told the audience that he bought land in the Sierra Nevada not too long ago and built a little house on it. He tried to live there for long periods of time to better understand his relationship to solitude. He said that while solitude is important to him, during this experience, he realized that there is a difference between solitude and loneliness. L. Cohen is undoubtedly about solitude; the solitude of being alone with the landscape. Yet there is power in sharing this solitude with others, in recognizing its importance, so that we can continue to experience it. Benning says he “doesn’t make films for audiences”, but this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want audiences to experience them. Benning makes work based on what he feels is important, so when we experience them, they do not follow social conventions. We do not get the comfort of a narrative, background music, smooth edits, or contextual explanation – yet this is not to hide anything from the audience – for he is generous in answering question about his work. This way of making provides a raw, unequivocal, yet shimmering portrait. It is elusive and steadfast, it is about solitude, and togetherness. We connect with each other, ourselves, and the bodies in space, as the moon passes over the sun, over the landscape, and through the camera.