The feature film Ten Skies (2004) by American avant-garde artist James Benning is easily summarised: 10 views of the sky, each photographed from a static camera angle. As Erika Balsom asks at the beginning of her superb book, “How many films can be described so succinctly?” Is there really anything to see? Is it a droll reductio ad absurdum of cinema, without plot or people? As it turns out, there is much to observe, hear and contemplate, and Balsom unpacks it all, eloquently and wittily.
Benning is famous for his teaching method: taking filmmaking students out of the classroom and depositing them in some spot – near a river, along a railroad, inside an industrial zone – where they must spend extended time looking at and listening to the environment. They must also think about how to frame and record it, how best to capture its atmosphere and significance.
On the one hand, Ten Skies seems an extreme expression of Modernist minimalism and abstraction: the ultimate “painterly” movie, just watching clouds go by. On the other hand – and both the soundtrack as well as Balsom’s background research offer many clues here – the film is well attuned to the baleful processes of industrialisation that stir just beyond the frame lines, creating some of the air forms and textures we are beholding.
Balsom presents her book as a structured meditation (a chapter for each sky), mimicking the experience of watching the film and letting one’s mind wander. Simultaneously, she pulls us back to questions of culture and context, history and theory. It is a critical tour de force.
She ultimately admits that, apart from a less-than-magnificent version on YouTube, Ten Skies is not easy to see these days in its proper 16-millimetre projected form. If you don’t happen to catch it when it screens at Melbourne’s ACMI, you may only be able to imagine it – and this book will be your ideal companion in that reverie.
This is a triumph for the Decadent Editions initiative spearheaded by local Fireflies Press: 10 books, each one devoted to a cinematic masterpiece of the 2000s. That doesn’t mean Amélie or Inglourious Basterds, but rather those artists who sometimes only just manage to grab a place at even our artiest film festivals: South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo or Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel, for instance.
It’s good to see Australia connecting to global film culture in this radically broad-minded way.
Fireflies Press, 166 pages, $20.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 12, 2021 as "Ten Skies, Erika Balsom".
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