Friday, January 25, 2008

Sundance: Lake Effect

[Film Fest] For a screening of a film by a pioneer in experimental cinema, I was engaging in a little experiment of my own: Could I really sit through 80 minutes of images of one location?

James Benning's casting a glance is of particular significance to a local journalist, since the subject of the avant-garde legend's visual essay is Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, the massive stone-and-earth art piece in the Great Salt Lake. Over the course of 37 years, from April 1970 through last year, Benning shot footage of the Jetty, capturing the changes in its appearance as the water levels of the lake fell and rose over the decades. The shots last anywhere from one to three minutes, the only background noise generally consisting of the lapping of waves or the calls of shore birds.

There are levels of cinematic geek-dom, and I generally don't fall into that level that finds the material described above absorbing; give me a story, or give me No-Doz. And indeed, I'd be lying if I said I didn't nod off once or twice (though, to be fair to myself, at this point in the festival anyone who says they aren't nodding off hasn't been working hard enough). But there are also astonishing images here, from salt-covered stones that resemble alien eggs, to foam being blown over the surface of the lake like white tumbleweeds. There's tedium, yes, and there's beauty, and a somewhat remarkable look at a work of art that made an impact on the natural world around it, even when it was hidden below the lake's surface. (Scott Renshaw)

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