I began El Valley Centro in November of 1998; I was driving through the Great Central Valley looking for places to film. I wasn’t going to start shooting for at least six months; I wanted to just look and listen – to get to know the Valley well before I would make images. But almost immediately I came across an oil well fire with flames high into the sky. I returned home for my Bolex and Nagra. Determined that landscape is a function of time, I let a full roll of 16mm film (100 feet) run through the camera. At that moment I knew I would make a portrait of The Great Central Valley using 35 two and a half minute shots.
Nearing the completion of El Valley Centro, I began planning an urban companion piece, Los, that was to be a portrait of Los Angeles. It seemed logical, for the politics of water certainly run from the Valley to the City. Los would have the same structure as El Valley Centro and would look and listen with the same intensity. The two films would be connected with the last shot of El Valley Centro pumping water out of the Valley over Wheeler Ridge while the first shot of Los would show Mulholland’s first spillway (still in use) bringing water into LA.
James Benning, December 2001
For over 30 years all of my films were shot on 16mm and could only be seen in a theater with 16mm projection facilities. I was never a promoter of my films (I would rather be working on new ones), yet they made their way to festivals in Europe, the US, and finally Asia. However, not too long ago, perhaps around the turn of this recent century, I was still considered (by those who knew my films) to be under-valued. Some people too pride in saying they had seen one of my films.
For the first twenty years of my career, there was no alternative. The only way to see my films was in projection. And because movie theaters were only projecting film prints back then, they maintained their equipment and had reliable, well-trained projectionists. I cannot remember any bad projections during these first twenty years. So when DVDs were introduced, my only reaction was: “No way, this is not film.”
So what has changed? Everything.
First, I’m getting older. It’s easier to give in. Perhaps leaving a record that is more easily accessed has become most important to me. I suppose, I also want to become more democratic.
And the mediums are now more blurred. I no longer work in 16mm. I have come to appreciate digital media. Ironically, today I have seen 16mm film look better projected digitally than the standard way. This is because digital media can be color corrected with more accuracy, and you can now change the contrast in a way that was never possible before. And of course 16mm projection is dying while digital projection is getting better every day. I should also mention that people now have much better home viewing systems with bigger screens and better sound.
And lastly, perhaps it’s my reaction to the fetishization of film material. Digital media isn’t film. It has its own aesthetic that is still being found. It’s a new medium, a new and exciting place to work. I can now make images that I couldn’t make before.
At this point, DVDs are the least expensive consumer format. Blu-ray discs offer better quality, but are more costly. As for the future… it’s probably here already. 4K digital copies will soon be available to play on your eyeglasses. You’ll be on the inside looking out. Film will become nostalgia… but then again, perhaps these DVDs are my attempt to keep film alive. The California Trilogy is the 3rd set, making seven of my films now available on DVD with further releases already planned for the coming years. I very much like seeing my films projected. Now that you know about them, perhaps you will seek them out in a theater and get a chance to see them as they should be; projected as 16mm films.
James Benning, Val Verde, 2012