Fireflies and Ten Skies

James Benning’s Ten Skies (2004)

Tomorrow, June 16, Acropolis Cinema in Los Angeles will project a 16 mm print of James Benning’s Ten Skies (2004), a series of ten ten-minute static shots of the sky. Benning will be in attendance, and the event will be the first of three evenings launching Erika Balsom’s Ten Skies, a book on the film that both Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum call a “tour de force.” On Friday, the book’s publisher, Fireflies Press, and Melbourne’s ACMI (formally known as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image) will open a series of Benning’s films with a screening of Ten Skies, and Light Industry will present the film in New York on July 1.

Many of the films that Benning has made in the past twenty-plus years, such as 13 Lakes (2004) and RR (2007)—a series of shots that begin with a train entering the frame and end when the train leaves it—invite the mind not only to contemplate his subjects’ subtle transformations but also, given the duration of each shot, to wander. Over the course of the ten chapters in Ten Skies, one for each sky, Balsom offers a possible—and richly rewarding—path. The first sky has her thinking about a sequence in Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982), and the second has her revisiting Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Storyteller.”

It’s also in the second chapter that Balsom places Ten Skies within the context of Benning’s oeuvre. “From his earliest works in the 1970s, Benning has explored histories of settlement, the problem of political community, and the various ways that human actions mark the land in the United States,” she writes. “Probe his entirely sui generis filmography and you will find personal chronicles, travelogues, clever jokes, accounts of murder, indictments of whiteness, and an attention to the particularities of the Midwest. We are, in other words, a very long way from formalism. The films Benning made in the decade leading up to Ten Skies show a growing interest in duration and partake of an increasingly pared-down vocabulary, but alongside this formal perspicacity is an enduring commitment to political content.”

When the Berlinale Forum screened Ten Skies in 2005, Benning said that he was thinking of “my landscape works now as anti-war artworks—they’re about the antithesis of war, the kind of beauty we’re destroying. The Ten Skies works came about because I’m thinking about what the opposite of war is.” From Balsom, we learn that Benning put quite a lot of work into the film, more, he tells her, than went into RR. Nine months were spent finding the right swath of sky at the right moment and at the right angle that would capture the full dramatic range of each sky. Many will be surprised to learn that, for his soundtrack, Benning constructed “an elaborate audio fiction” drawn from the ambient soundscapes of different environments, and sometimes, even from the soundtracks of his own previous films.

In the third chapter, which you can read in full at the Notebook, Balsom considers what writing—as opposed to, for example, an audiovisual essay—can reveal and illuminate about a film. Ten Skies is the second book in a series that Fireflies is calling Decadent Editions, which was launched earlier this year with Goodbye, Dragon Inn, Nick Pinkerton’s book on Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film. There will be ten books in all, each one addressing a film from each year of the 2000s.

From 2014 through 2018, Fireflies published a magazine with each smartly designed issue—six in all—gathering essays, artwork, poetry, and assorted notes on the work of two filmmakers. The first issue paired Pier Paolo Pasolini with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a filmmaker with whom Giovanni Marchini Camia, who cofounded Fireflies with Annabel Brady-Brown, has only become more engaged. Marchini Camia spent about two months late in 2019 on the set of Memoria, the first feature Apichatpong has shot outside of his native Thailand. Set in Bogotá, Colombia, Memoria stars Tilda Swinton as a Scottish woman who meets a French archaeologist overseeing a construction project. At night, loud banging noises keep her from getting any sleep.

Marchini Camia kept a diary, and Film Comment ran a few brief excerpts early last year. Now the full diary, along with Apichatpong’s own notes, photos, correspondence, and storyboards as well as pages from the shooting script and an interview with Swinton are gathered in Fireflies’ most ambitious project yet, a cloth-bound, hardcover volume entitled simply Memoria. The book is due in September but those who preorder it now can receive it next month, just after Apichatpong’s Memoria premieres in competition in Cannes.

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