Review: ‘Twenty Cigarettes’

"Cigarettes" will blow through avant-garde-friendly fests and rep houses.

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.

Twenty Cigarettes

Production

A James Benning production. (International sales: James Benning, Valencia.) Produced, directed, edited by Benning.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Benning. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Forum), Feb. 16, 2011. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Sompot Chidgasornpongse, Francesca Sloane, Tedi Gentry, Thom Andersen, Stephan Pascher, Blake Derrington, Norma Turner, Fabian Vazquez Euresti, Sharon Lockhart, Dick Hebdige, Hye Sung Moon, Dave Crane, Janet Jenkins, Tanya Barber, Kelman Duran, Suzan Pitt, Jahcobie Coscom, Margaret Haines, Suzanne Dungan, Alan Reed.

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