Buying Cigarettes
I came - I saw - I bought

Smoking a Cigarette, Making a Film

"Don't be fooled by the smoke," James Benning told a sold-out audience at the Toronto International Film Festival screening of his latest film "Twenty Cigarettes." A collection of living portraits, in which 20 smokers, all friends of his, face the camera for the time it takes to consume a cigarette, it is both an homage to Andy Warhol's fabled screen tests and a quintessential film for Mr. Benning, 68, a giant of American experimental cinema whose conceptually minimalist works tend to open up vast spaces for reflection.

Observation and duration are central to his method. The 2004 landscape films "Thirteen Lakes" and "Ten Skies," with their stark, self-explanatory titles, are composed entirely of 10-minute static shots, each the length of a 16-millimeter film reel. In his 2007 film "RR," a monumental study of railroads in America, each shot lasts as long as it takes for a passing train to cross the frame.

"Twenty Cigarettes" introduces a human dimension to Mr. Benning's temporal investigations. All 20 of his subjects were left alone with the camera after Mr. Benning had framed the shot, and asked simply to smoke a cigarette. Some go from lighting up to stubbing out in under three minutes; others take two or three times as long. And all of them, Mr. Benning said in an interview on Sunday, "release a feel of who they are" amid the drags and puffs of smoke. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

Q.I understand you're a non-smoker.

A.The first time I tried smoking I was 11 or 12. I tried to light a cigarette when nobody was home and burned my eyebrows on the stove. I don't know if that deterred me from smoking. I never was opposed to it. I never really thought about it being a health hazard because at the time the ads would say things like "4 out of 5 doctors smoke Camels." But my mother really didn't want me to smoke and offered me $200 if I wouldn't smoke until I was 18 and I took her up on it. I think it was a good investment. I've never smoked even one full cigarette.

Q.What was the genesis of "Twenty Cigarettes"? Did you start our wanting to make a portrait film or a film about smoking?

A.I wanted to do a portrait film with extended takes. Smoking came into it later, as the ploy to get people to stand still and not be totally conscious of being filmed, although a big part of "Twenty Cigarettes" is that very self-consciousness of a person in front of a camera and how that changes over time. Cigarettes also have this built-in duration and people will smoke at a different rate, and they'll smoke the whole cigarette or part of the cigarette. Smoking has such a stigma now, especially in the U.S., so I thought it would be interesting to make a film where I won't have any value judgment at all on smoking.

Q.Could you say a bit about how you framed and positioned your subjects?

A.It's kind of a funny set-up - they're not sitting at a table having a cup of coffee or reading a book or talking on the phone. People don't smoke like that, standing up and just staring forward - the only exception might be workers on a smoke break standing outside a building. I had them up against a wall, or a flat background, and the camera was maybe eight feet away from them, so it's defining a triangular space towards that wall. They know they can only move that much and they're very aware of the camera. I really wanted to record the relationship of camera to subject, and how the audience becomes a camera when they watch and you feel that self-consciousness closer because the audience becomes eight feet away from the person.

Q.Do you agree that portraiture is ultimately an attempt to capture an essence of a person?

A.When you know somebody well, you can't really describe them in words but you have a whole feel for who that person is. Because I know all the people in the film, for me there are moments where that feeling really comes out, and I think that's when they've really let go of acting or being nervous all of a sudden. It's kind of a romantic notion to think that one can capture somebody's essence. But maybe I am a romantic in that sense.

Q.Even though it avoids overt commentary "RR" alludes to the economic and political history of railroads. Do you think there are equivalent layers, connected to the act of smoking, in "Twenty Cigarettes"?

A.As with the railroads, there's a connection to business corruption: how can you make profits without any consideration for morality? Both of them of course are connected to cinema: the history of trains is connected to the history of cinema from the very beginning, and smoking has been used earlier, especially in the '40s, as a symbol of sophistication or for the evil character who smokes a particular way using a cigarette holder. Both films somewhat recall film history, although I don't make those kinds of films - it was just inherent in the subject.

Q.Of your 20 subjects, half are women and half are men. They also vary in age and race and come from all over the world. Were you consciously striving for diversity?

A.Not when I began but once I got halfway through I realized it was a diverse group, and so it became more selective and I thought about trying to map the world into a pack of cigarettes. I grew up in a highly prejudiced place [Milwaukee in the 1940s and '50s], where we had no contact with anybody but our own kind. And so many years later now I'm the antithesis of what I grew up with and have ended up with a diverse group of friends. The film is kind of a tribute, I think, to myself and to what's possible, that I was able to become a person that's a bit better than where I started from.

Q.So you could say "Twenty Cigarettes" ends up being a kind of self-portrait.

A.Yes, even though that wasn't the point at all. But I like projects that help define my place in the world and how I move through it.

Published: Monday, September 12, 2011

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