Published Sep 15, 2011The Toronto International Film Festival's Wavelengths program exists as both a sidebar of the massive festival and its mini-festival, acting as a kind of adjunct to the venerable Images Festival in April. Occurring over the fest's opening weekend, Wavelengths features a menu of challenging experimental works from around the globe, presenting both shorts programs and non-narrative features.
The centrepiece of this year's Wavelengths is James Benning's Twenty Cigarettes. Benning has been making experimental films and videos for over 40 years. Slow and meditative, Benning's works are often concerned with evoking a sense of time, focusing on minimal subjects and using the camera as an objective reflector of moments. Twenty Cigarettes is comprised of 20 still shots of 20 of Benning's friends smoking an entire cigarette. Benning merely turned on the camera and walked away.
While Twenty Cigarettes takes a while to get acclimated to, its strangely haunting visual voice becomes readily apparent. As you watch each individual subject smoking their lone cigarette, it's impossible to not become engrossed in the particularities of behaviour. While the impatient may be unable to see beyond what's being presented visually and grow restless, those who stick with Benning's work will be rewarded with a rich, moving film.
Twenty Cigarettes simply opens itself up to interpretation. What are its subjects thinking? What are they seeing? Are they enjoying themselves? Are they depressed? Wistful? Hungry? Twenty Cigarettes is the rare film that refuses to draw its own conclusions.
Although Benning denies it, the film also evokes a sense of mortality, as both time and the dark allure of the cigarette compete against each other, but the simple concept here is that this is like a moving painting. Benning has created 20 portraits of people that last for as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette. The rest is up to us. (CalArts)