connor’s review published on Letterboxd:
One thing I've come to notice over the past couple years is that structuralist cinema, despite its tendencies towards technical rigor and the intellectualized premise, for me often provides an immensely personal and emotional experience that may or may not be intentional at all on the behalf of the filmmaker*. I believe that this is in large part due to the way that so many of them overtly outline their structures in a way that directly informs the way a spectator watches them: here, there are ten shots of ten skies. It is a predetermined course. Elsewhere, there are thirteen shots of 13 Lakes, a systematized equation linking images to letters of the alphabet in Zorns Lemma as a series of words/images eventually give way to singular signifiers, three segments detailing Three Landscapes**, and so on. And in this outlining of the films’ structures, the filmmakers, wittingly or otherwise, establish within their work a sense of the resoundingly terminal. We know that when the tenth shot of the tenth sky has ended, the film will be over. So, by making his images intrinsically finite, Benning here makes the structural, as well as the political, framework implicitly tied to a very personal sense of The End.
In addition to that sense of The End, the effect is then compounded by the nature of the images themselves: clouds in the sky. Perhaps it's innate, perhaps it's learned, but looking to the clouds as representations of other things--objects, animals, faces, stories, etc.--is something I imagine pretty much everyone has done and will likely continue to do throughout their lives. They're boundless and amorphous, and they're not the product of our own direct will. They simply exist within and as a product of nature, and because of that, the significations they may take on feel different from what one may get out of works of man-made art. I personally couldn't care less about the existence of some god or another, but I also find it hard to look at these skies and not feel an evocation of the divine.
This is why, when I look at these limitless bodies within the frame frequently being gradually overtaken by darkness, I find myself seeing loss, abstracted and real. And within the absence, everything may be found***.
I actually expected this to be a perfectly tranquil, calming experience, but instead I was met with devastation, grief, regret, and yearning. Images take on the forms of things I'm nostalgic for that never existed in the first place, things that I know will eventually be gone, and that I know have already left me. Light and shadow meet in the heavens to unknowingly sort out the turmoils of those beneath them.
Benning himself has referred to this in the past as an anti-war film, and I'm sure that that also partially informs how I felt about it while watching, with it being "about the antithesis of war, [about] the kind of beauty we're destroying." Over the entire runtime, there's a curiously quiet soundtrack sourced seemingly from distant, stray conversations, news reports, and neighborhood sounds in various languages that gradually forms into a piece of its own, paralleling the images themselves. There are scant moments in which anything of note can actually be made out, and so the audio becomes a similarly shapeless entity, constantly shifting, ostensibly subliminal, and full of potential suggestions and gestures that are generally far too fleeting to actually be made anything of. However, during the eighth shot, the sounds of far-off gunfire become instantly recognizable, and serve as an anchor of sorts to the film’s thematic concerns. We see nothing but the sky in flux as the firearms sporadically announce themselves to the world, with the frenzied barking of dogs in tow. In the shot prior to this, a stream of billowing smoke--presumably resulting from some sort of localized, large-scale industry--shoots convulsively from the bottom of the frame, effectively disrupting the visual calm of the hour preceding it. Nevertheless, the flowing of the smoke eventually becomes a constant, and thereby settles the image back to a sense of peace; the disturbance is there, but it’s negotiable, and with time, folds itself back into the norm. Meanwhile, in the following shot with the gunfire, the sudden violence is barely detectable--the audio is hardly even noticeable to begin with****. The “beauty” that Benning refers to is presented as eroding in a manner that is largely disregarded anyway.
In the same vein, the images that the clouds give themselves to erode as well, as the shapes scatter and distend, memories in the process of being forgotten, figures in the process of dismantling themselves before there’s any time to notice what’s been happening to them all along.
A blank canvas presupposes a desire to see something upon it, and projection is, in a way, a part of identifying with any work of art. Maybe I saw in these skies whatever I wished to see. But through doing so, there is nevertheless an undeniable deliverance--catharsis through self-interrogation.
I love this film because it is at once nothing and everything, and because it welcomes the spectator to participate in its malleability. At the time, this is evidently exactly what I needed, and I cannot be more grateful to James for providing me with it.
In these skies, I saw the faces of those that I’ve lost, of those I’ve left behind, and of those I fear may later become a part of my past due to my own eventual, or even present, error, or perhaps just because that’s how being a person works. People come and people go.
In the end, as much as I had terribly wanted it not to, as much as I wanted more than anything else to continue looking for figures among the clouds, to safeguard them from eventual loss, the tenth shot necessarily comes to an end, as it had always indicated it would; the tenth sky has finally come and gone.
The film has come to an end
The images have come to an end
The sky is gone
And along with them are the things I saw, the things I wanted to see, or didn’t want to but needed to see
All of them are gone, and I am left alone with a black screen in front of me.
the world spins
*And probably just as often (to my knowledge, at least), I tend to be somewhat alone in these feelings, but hey, that's what's great about art.
**I’m aware that Three Landscapes isn’t really a structuralist film so much as it’s just a landscape film, but whatever, I’m running on 4 hours of sleep and have now been awake for 22
***See Tony Conrad's The Flicker, or really any flicker film of a similar style
****I watched this with the volume kind of super high because I wanted to hear the wind