Patience is a requirement in approaching vet nonfiction helmer James Benning, a cinematic one-man-band whose films exude a near-Zen minimalism. Dull and inscrutable to the casual viewer, they reward concentration with subtle visual beauties and tacit but profound insights. “El Valley Centro” examines California’s central agricultural region in long, stock still shots sans narration, titles or any other commentary. Result is a hypnotic portrait of landscapes relentlessly taxed by human need. Too abstract for any but the most avant-garde educational outlets, feature should travel well on fest and experimental circuits.
Challengingly lengthy but often stunning takes (running at least a minute each) encompass the gamut of nature’s subjugation — and resistance — to commerce in the Great Central Valley. Produce fields, oil fires, marshland, in-progress housing developments and so forth suggest there’s little earth left here that hasn’t been paved, scraped, flooded or harvested to the max. Beyond workers’ toil, there are few glimpses of human activity — a massive prison complex, an ominous anti-drug billboard (“Where meth goes, violence goes”). Locations are identified in terse final credits. Despite implied, downbeat ecological message, Benning’s exquisite compositions lend pic a quiet poetic lilt.