Documentary of the week – Small Roads

James Benning 2011

Shown as a UK premiere at the Bradford Film Festival in 2012, Small Roads, by renowned, austere American documentarist James Benning continues his love affair with the American landscape and the man-made systems that bisect it. If RR, his 2007 work on railways was, as he says, a collaboration with the trains themselves, here it’s the the roads themselves who are the still centre of the film, the traffic passing along  no more than a blip in their secret lives. Forty seven minor roads from across the nation are shown for around 2 minutes each, filmed on static tripod camera. From a cactus-edged highway across a desert, through deep woods and along pleasant byways that could be in deepest England, through badlands, alongside spoiled industrial sites, past the surprising magnificence of telegraph poles, and, in one case, a marvellous juxtaposition of modern bright yellow road signs with a horizon of impossibly romantic mountains that could have been painted by one of the early American landscape artists .Sometimes there’s frequent traffic, others only one car may pass, and the roads stay with us just long enough to be scrutinised and speculated upon, from their gritty edges to the often spectacular horizons, as man’s mark upon the landscape relentlessly persists. The only sound is bird, or insect, song, wind, and the tearing screech of cars, unknown lives within. This is the American scarcely ever thought of, yet seen by so many without being noticed as they pass. What Benning gives us is the chance to sit back at a remove and observe the unconsidered. Almost the final scene is a tree-lined road so completely covered by falling snow it’s impossible to distinguish from the surrounding nature. After all the tearing cars with their noise it’s peace, and a feeling that the landscape that is always there has at last triumphed. But soon along comes the snowplough… As soon as it has passed, the snow continues imperturbably to fall, and the cycle of man v nature continues.

Seen at Bradford International Film Festival, 2012

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