Compelling, if not quite addictive, James Benning’s latest, “Twenty Cigarettes,” unspools a pack’s worth of portraits of people lighting and smoking death sticks, in static single takes, evoking Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests.” More intimate but less mesmerizing than Benning’s similarly austere landscape films (“Ruhr,” “Los,”), “Cigarettes” will blow through avant-garde-friendly fests and rep houses.
The 20 subjects seen, an equal mix of men and women, range broadly in age and ethnicity. Although some have a degree of renown already (helmer Thom Andersen, cultural studies professor Dick Hebdige), and others are just ordinary folk (bartender Tanya Barber), all are framed the same way, showing just their heads and shoulders. Sadly, this means that their hands — arguably the most expressive part of a smoker’s body — are usually out of the shot, but just watching them sitting as thoughts flit through their heads is interesting in itself. Pic would make the perfect companion to Richard Klein’s essay “Cigarettes Are Sublime,” in which he writes about how smoking is a “form of meditation … as well as a sacrament consumed.” Per the helmer, sound is slightly manipulated to vary the background noises.