Review: James Benning’s “13 Lakes”

James Benning’s 13 Lakes and its companion piece Ten Skies, both made in 2004, employ the same visual strategy: unbroken 10-minute takes shot with a fixed camera. The effect becomes quite hypnotic, almost surreal, as we slowly are drawn into each environment Benning places us into. Both these films can be described as landscape painting in motion. The fixed nature of each shot puts the many variations of scenery, movements of water (in Lakes) and clouds (in Skies), and changes of light in sharp relief, and functions much as the frame around a painting would. Although to my mind 13 Lakes is the more visually impressive and compelling of the two, taken together they form quite a fascinating study of cinematic time and space.

Benning filmed 13 Lakes over the course of one and a half years, traversing the country across both coasts, as well as Alaska. Each lake is filmed in the exact same position: the camera is set up at the shore, although we never see the shoreline; the camera is positioned such that the line of the horizon bisects the image in half. This, along with the fact that the lakes are not identified until the end credits, serves to put the viewer in a sort of disorienting limbo. What we latch onto are the many tiny details and happening that occur within this fixed frame.

Another interesting aspect of many of the lakes featured in the film is the association with Native Americans. Moosehead Lake, Lake Superior, Lake Okeechobee, Lower Red Lake, and Lake Pontchartrain, all have names derived from Native American languages and/or have lands surrounding them mostly inhabited by American Indians.

Each lake has a distinct visual look, having been filmed at different times of year, all seasons being represented. What gives the film its suspense is watching how each scene changes within the time frame we are allowed to watch. I will now briefly describe each lake featured in the film, in the order presented.

1. Jackson Lake, Wyoming

At sunrise, in a clear blue sky, the light gradually changes to reflect the rising sun on the mountains.

2. Moosehead Lake, Maine

On a gray, overcast day, raindrops on the lake gradually become heavier, the sound growing louder and ripples caused by the rain becoming deeper and more pronounced.

3. Salton Sea, California

The serenity of the previous two shots is broken, as we see motorboats racing back and forth across the water’s surface, white spray trailing behind them.Their sound becomes louder as they come closer to the camera.This scene is much more unsettled and active, jarring us out of our previous contemplative mood.

4. Lake Superior, Wisconsin

Chunks of ice are on the lake.A ship comes into view, moving toward the camera.There is a low sound of wind and a loud rumbling.

5. Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin

We hear the high-pitched sound of birds calling.

6. Lake Okeechobee, Florida

There are reeds and rocks on the water.The sound of a train is heard offscreen, apparently somewhere behind the camera.We hear it, but never see it, creating a similar unsettled feeling as in the third shot.It is quite interesting that in both cases the source of this unsettling are modes of transportation, evidence of a human presence (besides Benning, of course) that disturbs the stillness of the scene.

7. Lower Red Lake, Minnesota

The sky is clear blue, but there are clouds and sharp cracks of thunder.We can see a thin sliver of land at screen right, and we hear a rumble, possibly an airplane.

8. Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana

Cars move across a bridge in the far distance, as rain falls from a grey sky.

9. Great Salt Lake, Utah

Birds and mountains in the distance are reflected on the lake’s surface.

10. Lake Iliamna, Alaska

Snow-covered mountains are under dark clouds, and it is very windy, as water sprays across the lake’s surface.Fog rolls over the water, growing thicker until it completely obscures our view.

11.Lake Powell, Utah/Arizona

A ship slowly moves across the screen from right to left, making the water ripple toward us.

12.Crater Lake, Oregon (the above still is of this lake)

The most stunning shot in the film, in which the sky, clouds, and mountains are perfectly mirrored on the lake’s surface, a sort of Rorschach print on its side.We can hear hunting rifles firing in the distance.

13.Oneida Lake, New York

The water is gray, and there is a loud sound of surf.

13 Lakes is one of Benning’s finest films, and nothing short of a masterpiece. Along with Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Nathaniel Dorsky, and Lewis Klahr, Benning is one of the greatest living poets of avant-garde cinema.