Moments of transcendence are rare in cinema, but when they do come along, you’re left trailing after the filmmaker hoping he can offer more of the same. My first and only prior encounter with the work of James Benning was 2004’s 13 Lakes, and while its screening at Anthology Film Archives last year stands as one of the most overwhelming aesthetic experiences I’ve had in recent memory, I wondered what more could surprise me about a style that seemed chained down by its own rigidity. If Benning’s latest, RR, reveals the unexpected range of variations that so-called “structural” cinema can accommodate, it also, at least initially, amounted to a mild disappointment. Where much of the pleasure of watching 13 Lakes stemmed from the film’s lean, mathematical organization—its commitment to ten-minute shot lengths, a pre-announced number of shots, and uniform half-sky/half-water compositions—RR is avid in its portraiture of trains passing through American landscapes, and racks up a total of 43 chapters in its nearly two-hour length. The result at first feels excessive, mainly because the film never aims to duplicate its predecessor’s distilled form.
RR replaces 13 Lakes’ elegiac stateliness with a folksy, all-American taste for forward motion. This tonal shift is achieved by moving our attention away from the philosophy behind Benning’s structural choices, and relocating it in the rhythms and movements plainly laid out onscreen. Click here to read the rest of Andrew Chan’s review of James Benning’s RR.