Films & Schedules


  • James Benning

115 minutes

Production Company:
James Benning/Westdeutscher Rundfunk
James Benning
James Benning
James Benning
James Benning

Sunday September 0706:30PM JACKMAN HALL - AGO Add Film to MyTIFF Filmlist

RR is a film about trains, American trains, trains moving across the American landscape.”
– James Benning

Those are modest words for a film as majestic and breathtaking as RR. Taking its title from an abbreviation for “railroad,” the latest (and possibly last) 16mm work by the great American independent filmmaker James Benning – whose prolific output over the past five years has placed him at the apex of his four-decade career – is indeed about trains traversing the expansive American landscape. Yet its deceivingly simple schema of forty-three trains chugging through the frame sets the stage for a film rich in historical allusion, articulated structure, surprise and photographic beauty.  

Unlike some of Benning’s recent films, including 13 Lakes and Ten Skies in which the duration of the shots is measured by the length of a 16mm cartridge, the near-classically composed shots in RR are determined by the length and speed of the trains that he observes with his mathematician’s eye. This variation on a thematic structure, a hallmark of Benning’s most recent films, enlivens the senses as we eagerly await the next train, each building a successive rhythm, pictorial depth and sense of vibrating illusionism. Filmed in sixteen states – through the sun-soaked, arid fields of Caliente, California, the panoramic salt flats in Utah, the luscious greens of the kudzu in Mississippi, and then over the Hudson River – RR reveals the astonishing diversity of the land. 

The American pastoral tradition contains its own fabled history. Benning peppers his synch-sound recording with excerpts and songs that provide a clever counterpoint to the images, obliquely invoking past events including the Vietnam War. The collaged soundtrack, which includes Karen Carpenter singing for a Coca-Cola commercial, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” Eisenhower’s foreboding farewell speech warning about the military-industrial complex and Gregory Peck reading from Revelations, both digs into and participates in the American psyche. 

RR can be seen as a meditation on nostalgia, the unadulterated joys of waiting, Western over-consumption, and the cinema itself. Train-spotting has never been so rewarding. 

Andréa Picard

James Benning was born in Milwaukee. After completing a degree in mathematics, he returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study film. Benning is currently a professor of film and video at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, California. His most recent films include 13 Lakes (04), Ten Skies (04), One Way Boogie Woogie / 27 Years Later (05), casting a glance (07) and RR (07). He was recently the subject of a seminal monograph published in 2007 by the Austrian Film Museum.

Cadillac People's Choice Award