The end of the line

Trainspotting America with James Benning's RR
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"The film is called RR, but I like to call it 'Railroad,' because RR sounds like a pirate movie."

— James Benning

TRAINS A short stretch of celluloid is a representation of a train, one image following the other in rapid succession, connected by essential blocks of black, moving forward in time and space, and, when projected, rotating on a wheel. Cinema began with a train entering a station, shot with a fixed camera, chugging toward the screen. Barring a change of mind or circumstance, the masterful RR will be the last of James Benning's works shot on 16mm, and how fitting that this 37-year phase closes with the image of a locomotive, pointedly stopped in front of a wind farm outside of Palm Springs, scrapped tires lying in the foreground, the end in a line of 43 trains shot across the United States (and the final frame of 34 extant films).

After a prolific three-year period that has seen Benning produce five crucial works — likely exhausting his stock of 16mm film — while teaching, driving across America, and building a full-scale replica of Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin, technology has vanquished this last of the old-time filmmakers.

Those familiar with Benning's landscape films will be comforted by RR's fixed camera and continental scope, but the film marks something of a crucial advance. As opposed to the awesome 13 Lakes (2006) — 13 individual lakes, each shot lasting the full 10 minutes of the 16mm cartridge — RR finds Benning adopting another structural principle: the signified (the train) takes over from the signifier (the camera).

Every shot is mesmerizing, yet the film builds, acquiring a cumulative power, as the simplicity of structure gives way to infinite experiences. To some, trains invoke nostalgia; to younger viewers, classical antiquity. To trainspotters, well, RR is Valhalla. And just as Benning's California Trilogy (2000–01) concerns work and water, RR becomes a film "about" American overconsumption. Benning lets what's on screen tell the story, with the tumultuous history of railroads and western development only alluded to by songs and words on the soundtrack. Filmed and recorded, as always, by a one-man band, all of its shots captured without permissions or permits, maybe RR is a pirate movie.

SFBG How far back does RR's genesis go? Were you into railroads as a kid?

JAMES BENNING Yeah, I like trains a lot. When I was a kid I had a little model train, an American Flyer. When I was a teenager we used to play in the train yards in Milwaukee, and that was fun, because we weren't supposed to go there. We'd hop on slow freight trains and ride them for like a mile, and then jump off.

SFBG When you started making RR, was there a specific plan? Did you know the exact locations where you wanted to shoot?

JB I was pretty familiar with the major US lines. When I drive from Wisconsin to California, I pass by the lines that run through the Midwest. I know the lines that go up and down the [east] coast from New York to Washington. Other lines I knew through research, by getting a good railroad atlas. I wanted to film according to landscapes, too. I knew I wanted to do a shot across Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, and a shot in Mississippi of a train going through the kudzu growth, and [a shot of] this famous park called the Rat Hole in Kentucky. I also used a Web site [www.railpictures.net] that says it has "the best railroad pictures on the Net." It has thousands of still photos by railroad fans.

SFBG Is it accurate to call RR a landscape film?

JB The initial idea was to use railroads to define landscape because they can only go up a 2 percent grade.

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