The love affair of the open road merges ideally with filmmaker James Benning’s vision of time, sound and landscape in “Small Roads.” Composed of 47 fixed shots, with characteristic majesty and attention to earth and sky, the pic makes a trip from California east to Louisiana and back again on routes ignored by interstate highway maps. A beautiful paean to mobility, the grace of engineering and U.S. landscapes, it’s also a caustic look at our dependency on automobiles. Subject matter could expand Benning’s audience, with art-oriented fest stops a certainty.
The project, two years in the making, represents a case of both grand ambition and discreet humility. There’s something here of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” with its saga of vagabonding across vast swaths of America, the further from civilization the better. At the same time, as indicated by the title, the places selected by Benning’s digital videocamera are quiet rural backwaters on two-lane blacktops that sometime feel out of another era.
In this way, the pic is linked to Benning’s recent three-screen installation, “Tulare Road,” which captured passages on the similar rural roads in California’s Central Valley, and to his grand view of railroad culture, “RR,” while also recalling several passages of his magnum opus, “The California Trilogy.”
The first 12 shots, set in the Golden State (where Benning lives and teaches, at CalArts), shift almost imperceptibly from the Pacific coast to the parched environs of Trona. A shot with saguaro trees immediately signals a shift to Arizona, underlined by two speeding border-patrol vehicles that suddenly rush past the camera. A view of New Mexico’s White Sands offers a startling contrast of white horizon and azure sky, while a subsequent string of shots through the South and Midwest (including Texas, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Illinois and Wisconsin) allow Benning to explore the textures and moods of lush forests, the contrasts between hills and flatlands on either sides of certain roads and the volatile changeability of weather.
Benning is, at the end of the day, a man of the West, and the return trip marks this region’s extraordinary range, from the iconic Grand Tetons of northwest Wyoming to the blood-red soil of southern Utah, with detours to consider the movement of a grove of quaking aspen not far from the Rocky Mountains. The final 14 shots, back in California, precisely reverse the early section’s course, now from dry desert to wintry Sierra forest, en route to a consideration of the world’s oldest living things — the redwoods in Giant Sequoia National Forest.
Unlike “RR,” “Small Roads” doesn’t use much in the way of outside music or subtle sonic commentaries, and instead allows natural sounds (whether or not captured in that specific location) to dominate. Auds will notice the sounds of vehicles approaching and arriving from outside the frame, and shot duration is usually determined by the point when the last automobile vanishes from view. During the course of this action, one begins to appreciate the varying shapes and contours of the roads, how their lines help define the shape of the land itself.
Radically non-narrative though it may be, Benning’s work elicits profound states of meditation and involvement; “Small Roads” can perhaps be seen as the product of what happens when a motorcycling filmmaker, which Benning is, gets out on the remote blacktop. Less clear is how the helmer, in the course of shifting from 16mm to digital, manipulates his shots, increasing or decreasing colors, contrasts and even the speed of movements; pic’s masterful control of tech elements is the result of a thoroughgoing embrace of digital’s visual and audio capabilities.