But as it became apparent to me that the film was going to be about trains more than landscapes, I learned more about different kinds of engines. The second shot is of the only piggyback train where you take semi trucks and load them onto cars in the film. Later there's a RoadRailer, the train that looks like a long white snake. I shot that in the Rat Hole, an area that used to be all tunnels. I was shooting from above, which was the best vantage point [from which] to film it.
For me, the film came to be about consumerism and overconsumption I could feel the weight of the goods going by me. Especially the oil and automobiles, as I saw a lot of tanker cars and auto trains. They pass each other constantly.
SFBG The mathematical nature of RR is impressive. One comes to realize the number of variables at play the size and expanse of the train, the number of cars, the colors, the speed, the landscape, the angle where the train comes into the frame and where it leaves. All of these factors pile up.
JB It's the way I always work: I'll set up a problem for myself. I basically collaborate with the train in that it's going to suggest the length of the shot. I thought I could vary the distance the camera was from the train, vary the angle that the train approaches from, and change these angles from shot to shot to build rhythms. The variables make it possible to take this idea that is confining and make it grow. The same thing happens with earlier films like 13 Lakes, where I set up an idea to shoot a lake with the same amount of sky and water and the problem is how to show the uniqueness of the lake.
SFBG RR must have been a very different experience from shooting 13 Lakes.
JB That's true, because in shooting 13 Lakes, I was waiting for the best moment to turn the camera on. In RR, I'm waiting for the train, and hopefully it will correspond with the best moment to turn on the camera.
SFBG One is more your choice, and the other is the train's choice.
JB Yeah, I enter into this collaboration with the train. It's going to choose the moment. Of course if I am on a line that has five trains an hour, then I can choose the time of the day. But if I'm at a line that has one train a week, then I'm at the mercy of the train. The one place I shot like that was at the causeway that crosses the spillway outside of Lake Pontchartrain the Kansas Line. That train comes by once a week. I waited all day, and that train came by at 4 in the afternoon, on a day [when] it was 110 degrees with 100 percent humidity.
SFBG Is everything in RR there as you found it? That last shot with the tires strewn by the tracks seems too good to be true.
JB Yeah, it's outside of Palm Springs. In the film that Reinhard Wulf made about me [James Benning: Circling the Image (2003)], we stop at the same wind farm. On the soundtrack I talk about going back to places I've filmed and seeing how the places change. That area is just littered with stuff, so it wasn't hard to find a good frame with tires.
SFBG When I saw RR, the audience gasped at that final shot, like they do at the mirrored image of Crater Lake in Oregon in 13 Lakes. It isn't comparable in beauty. But there is perfection to the composition: the colors of the train match up with the landscape, the blue of the sky and the white of the windmills.
JB The other thing is that as the train gets slower and eventually stops, the sound of the train gives way to the sound of the windmills. There is this slow dissolve between train noise and wind energy that somewhat suggests an alternative way of living, a cleaner energy. After [one] screening, an interviewer said that he found it to be hopeful, but I find it kind of ironic, as it seems too late.
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