Sunday Editor’s Pick: Twenty Cigarettes (2011)

by on October 2, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Oct 9 at 9:00* at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Benning in-person


The latest duration experiment from James Benning is often the hottest ticket in the NYFF’s magnificent “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar, curated by Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten. With the new facilities open at Lincoln Center, Views is bigger and better this year. Download the brochure here.


Benning discussing the film at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival:


Phil Coldiron for Slant Magazine:

After pushing digital for its durational benefits in the extended shots of Ruhr, James Benning returns in HD to the theoretical ground of RR and modulates it to great effect: Where his examination of trains worked from a triangular relationship between object, time, and camera placement, Twenty Cigarettes shifts the framework by conflating the spatial and temporal elements; it’s no longer a question of length of train versus distance of camera, but of length of cigarette, which, because of the added variable of a human subject, is both a spatial and temporal measure. The effect of this mingling is a setup that, for all the feigned passivity of its production (Benning set the camera up, handed the subject a cigarette, hit record, and walked away), strikes a unique balance of agency between the camera and what’s in front of it, one which brings into questions the limits of control of both.

There’s a palpable sense of transformation in nearly every smoker as they settle into their nicotine groove, but unlike the films of Warhol, which are the most obvious point of comparison here, there’s rarely a sense of self-aware performativity (these aren’t James Benning’s superstars), which makes the subtle, and occasionally not so subtle, ways that they do perform all the more meaningful. It’s perhaps only logical that the two individuals whose time on screen I find the easiest to read are the two whose personalities beyond these few minutes I’m most familiar with, Sharon Lockhart and Thom Andersen. Lockhart, framed from the lowest angle in the film, is the only smoker to turn her back to the camera, a move that, coupled with her continually searching gaze, makes her look like a John Ford hero, a real free women; Andersen distills his best qualities as a writer and filmmaker by obstinately refusing to acknowledge the presence of the camera while smoking at what might generously be called a leisurely pace; it’s the funniest scene that I’ve seen all year.



James Benning, interviewed by Dennis Lim, for the New York Times:

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.



Neil Young for MUBI:

The extent of one’s familiarity with the Benning oeuvre is a crucial element in any approach to Twenty Cigarettes — which at 97 minutes forms a rather more accessible and straightforward introduction to Benning than the forbiddingly challenging and structurally lopsided Ruhr (its sixty-minute second half comprising a single static shot of coke-works chimneys going through a fume-belching cycle that indirectly prefigures the rather more small-scale smoke-exhalations captured here.) To “innocent” eyes, Twenty Cigarettes functions as a coherent and intriguing, playful formal exercise. The film is certainly never (just) a drag, as it’s fascinating to observe how individual personalities emerge from the everyday, innocuous act of smoking a cigarette, the way some smokers linger over each inhalation (a couple of shots run more than seven minutes apiece), whereas others engage in staccato, businesslike puffs (two smokers manage to break the three-minute barrier).
There’s a surprisingly wide range of expressiveness in the way a cigarette can be manipulated — Peter Lorre found it almost impossible to act sans cigarette in hand, as he regarded it as a vital aspect of his ability to physically incarnate a role. Indeed, whole essays could easily be written on Twenty Cigarettes‘ implicit “dialogue” with the enduringly contentious history of big-screen smoking in Hollywood and elsewhere — Bette Davis and Paul Henreid at the climax of Now, Voyager (1942), etc. — and also in the light of cinema’s relatively recent move towards the banning of lighting-up within its enclosed premises.

Twenty Cigarettes may therefore indeed be, as Benning himself reckons, “about duration,” but not just in the shot-length way he means—the film is a testament of how the years alter us and how they change the way we present ourselves for the scrutiny of others. And these others may be some imagined future cinema audience, or a sixty-eight-year old director who has, just seconds before, disappeared from our view—entering The World Beyond The Frame, whose existence the film continually points us towards and reminds us of.



Mark Peranson also talks to Benning, for CinemaScope:

What makes Twenty Cigarettes suitable for a theatrical screening as opposed to as an installation, like Milwaukee/Duisberg, which is also being mounted at this year’s Forum Expanded?

It isn’t, as you can’t smoke in a cinema. But Twenty Cigarettes is about duration, and there is no place like a cinema to pay attention to time.


What would this film look like as a mathematical equation?

(1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1) = 20, both elegant and democratic.


However, the cast wrote this equation:

6:15+ 4:32+ 4.53+ 7:42+ 3:22+ 2:55+ 4:51+ 4:37+ 4.50+ 7:43+ 3:49+ 3:56+ 5.39+ 2:39+ 4:24+ 4:17+ 4:08+ 3:06+ 7:01+ 5:36= 96:15, revealing and precise.


19. What advice would you give the audience coming to see Twenty Cigarettes?

It’s 99 minutes long.


Is filmmaking a kind of addiction for you?



– Compiled by Maxwell Wolkin

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