James Benning

Visiting Artist Profiles

James Benning

By Matthew Harrison Tedford April 9, 2014

The Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars who intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions.

Filmmaker James Benning’s The California Trilogy is a meandering stroll through California, documenting landscapes, daily life, and industry throughout the state. The four-and-a-half-hour series of films—El Valley Centro (1999), Los (2000), and Sogobi (2001)—focuses on the Central Valley, Los Angeles, and the California wilderness. Each film is composed of thirty-five two-and-a-half minute shots.1 In each shot, the unmoving camera meticulously frames seemingly random scenes: rodeos, stock-car racers, military cemeteries, Shoshone petroglyphs, Texaco pumpjacks. Characteristic of much of Benning’s work, the series contains no narration, and the only text appears as titles at the end of each film, describing the location of each scene and sometimes elucidating facts that cannot be intuited visually (such as the corporate ownership of farms). Benning, a longtime faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts, creates a social history of the state by lingering on scenes bypassed by eight-lane freeways or left out of Hollywood depictions.

James Benning. Los, 2000 (still); 16mm; 90:00. Courtesy of the Artist.

Threads run through each of the films, connecting them visually and by subject matter. The series both begins and ends with shots of the Lake Berryessa spillway. In El Valley Centro, the Northern California reservoir is full and water rushes through the spillway, which appears like a black hole in the middle of the lake, sucking water into another dimension. At the end of the trilogy, after traveling through farms, ranches, mines, megalopolises, and suburbs, the viewer returns to Lake Berryessa. This time, however, the waterline is much lower and no water makes it through the spillway. This aquatic bookend foregrounds the centrality of water—the fragile and scarce source of life and income for tens of millions of Californians—in the state’s operations and politics.

This introduction is particularly suitable for El Valley Centro, which documents one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, supplying the nation and planet with tomatoes, almonds, spinach, beef, and much more. This agricultural infrastructure, however, is a great strain on resources—agriculture uses 80% of the state’s developed water supply.2 As water flows out of Lake Berryessa, viewers see an almond orchard, sprinklers watering dirt, lush vegetation, and the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant, all reliant on diverted water from elsewhere in the state. A self-aware Chamber of Commerce sign welcoming drivers into Modesto reads “Water Wealth Contentment Health.”

This alleged wealth is contradicted by scenes of economic and environmental poverty in the region. One scene shows men fishing in a drainage canal possibly polluted with pesticides and other agricultural runoff. In this region of spectacular nutritional abundance, these men are finding their food in the runoff that was once pristine mountain water. These men may even be the laborers who water, tend, and pick the food that is shipped elsewhere, leaving them to scrounge for scraps.

California’s water doesn’t stop flowing at the Central Valley. It drains further south into dense, expansive Los Angeles at a tremendous energy cost.3 The final scene of El Valley Centro—a pumping plant quietly moving massive amounts of water over the Tehachapi mountains, water destined for the drinking glasses and swimming pools of southern California—is an infrastructural cliffhanger, alluding to the second film of the trilogy, which Benning decided to make only while filming El Valley Centro.

James Benning. Sogobi, 2001 (still); 16mm; 90:00. Courtesy of the Artist.

There is a notable lack of people in each of these films, given that they compose a portrait of the nation’s most populous state. Human subjects appear more frequently in Los than the other films, but the nation’s second-largest city still feels a bit hollowed. People are often seen at a distance, or are obscured by buildings or machinery. Rarely is their speech audible beyond sentence fragments. Nonetheless, the lives of Californians are hardly concealed. The landscape, both natural and urban, speaks profoundly about the essence of life for many California residents. A DKNY billboard in sunny West Hollywood, featuring a couple embracing in a downpour, alludes to the movie-like make-believe and conspicuous consumption that define the region for many.4 Another scene, shot near Los Angeles International Airport, presents a banal but region-defining stream of cars driving past a car dealership as ambulance sirens blare and airplanes fly overhead. In some ways, automobiles are the lifeblood of Los Angeles, as water is for the rest of California; oil refineries, highways, bridges, grassy traffic islands, and parking lots flood and animate the landscape. Unlike others in the state, Southern Californians even add “the” before the names of freeways (“the 101,” “the 405”), bestowing Maslowian importance upon this transportation system.5

Sogobi, a Shoshone word meaning “earth,” is ostensibly a film about the California wilderness, but after watching the first two films it is difficult to not see Sogobi as primarily about society. A silent scene depicting mountain dogwoods covered in snow presents an ideal of serenity and isolation. But after witnessing water gush through spillways, aqueducts, and reengineered rivers, after seeing thirsty asparagus farms and baseball fields, a viewer wonders: Where will all of this snow go once it melts? Will it be used for industry and population growth?

The viewer learns only at the end of the film that this peaceful scene is the site of great human tragedy and horror—Donner Pass. In the winter of 1846–47, dozens of California-bound settlers perished when their party was trapped by the heavy snowfall blocking the pass. As the winter wore on, many of the settlers resorted to cannibalism to stave off starvation. This remote location (now a tourist destination) represents a historic migration of people and the beginning of one of the world’s largest economies. Donner Pass is also a dramatic illustration of the costs many have paid to try to live the California Dream.

The next scene similarly depicts a natural setting whose tranquility belies its history of ecological devastation: the iconic and otherworldly tufa towers of Mono Lake, nestled in the eastern Sierras. This image calls back the first scene of Los: the Los Angeles Aqueduct, built between 1908 and 1913, and designed by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Chief Engineer William Mulholland, a loved and loathed figure in California history. The aqueduct was originally designed to divert water from the Owens River in the eastern Sierras to feed Los Angeles. In 1941, it was extended to drain water from Mono Lake, which enabled Los Angeles’ explosive growth—and ushered in environmental lawsuits that persist into the present.

James Benning. El Valley Centro, 1999 (still); 16mm; 90:00. Courtesy of the Artist.

The California Trilogy is billed as a “topographical study,” but it takes on greater depth as something more ethnographic and historical.6 The films do not rely on human subjects or personal testimony to tell the story of California; instead, they parse the equally revealing marks people have made on the landscape. Through these contemplative film essays, Benning creates a nuanced portrait that exposes the intertwined natural and social forces that have shaped the history and life of the Golden State.

James Benning is speaking Monday, April 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the San Francisco Art Institute.


  1. Each scene was shot on a single roll of 100-foot 16mm film, amounting to a 2:47 runtime. This gave Benning seventeen seconds’ worth of editing time for each shot. Anna Faroqhi, “Interview with James Benning on California Trilogy,” New Filmkritik Für Lange Texte (blog), March 17, 2002 (2:01 p.m.), http://filmkritik.antville.org/stories/24350/.
  2. Alex Park and Julia Lurie, “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!,” Mother Jones, February 24, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/wheres-californias-water-going.
  3. The State Water Project, which redistributes water through the California Aqueduct and other facilities, generates 5.8 billion kilowatt-hours per year through hydroelectric plants, but this is only three-fourths of the electricity used pumping water over the Tehachapis. David Carle, Introduction to Water in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 99.
  4. Billboards are a motif throughout the series. In El Valley Centro, a billboard in Stockton reads, “Where meth goes violence goes,” speaking to the epidemic of methamphetamine abuse that plagues many communities in the Central Valley. A third billboard is seen in Sogobi, a blank slate in the Mojave desert with only the word “Available” and a number to call to advertise to lonesome desert travelers.
  5. Grant Geyer, “‘The’ Freeway in Southern California,” American Speech 76.2 (2001) 221-224.
  6. The quoted phrase appears in the official DVD release of the trilogy, issued by Edition Filmmuseum.

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