Composed of a series of episodic, stationary long takes, each recording an uninterrupted, ten minute shot length and punctuated by an extended, interstitial black screen, James Benning’s structuralist film, 13 Lakes is a rigorous and demanding, yet hypnotic and transfixing meditation on diurnal rhythms, climatic changes, and the implications of (irreversible) man-made transformation. The opening image, shot in Jackson Lake, seemingly establishes the composition of the images: the deep, russet colors of a land mass bisects the frame, the skies emerge from the contours of the irregular landscape in the upper frame, occupying the golden mean, the tranquil waters ripple across the lower frame, finely perturbating the reflection of the landscape to create impressionistic, angular, virtual depressions in the water. The subsequent shot of Moosehead Lake overturns the placidity of the preceding installment in its grey tones and overcast skies – the reflection of the land mass now nearly imperceptible in the aqueous stipling of raindrops. A third installment at the Salton Sea then redefines the now familiar spatial (and implicitly hierarchical) tripartite bounds of earth framed by water and sky, as the water body is, itself, bisected into a region of foam and still waters: this curious separation produced by the violent churning of speedboat motors that intermittently, but palpably, dart across the frame – the layer of froth, unable to recover completely before the turbulence of a subsequent speedboat, migrating forward towards a stratified layer of foamy suspension. The introduction of (residual) human imprint also serves to subconsciously shift the perspective of the viewer from a terrestrial – and more importantly, implicitly human-centric focus (the demarcation of the land from water as a point of identification to the position of our own natural habitat) – to the image of humans as intruders and disrupters of an overarching natural order. This inferential breakdown in symbiotic relationship between land and water caused by the human interference is perhaps best exemplified in the wintertime image of Lake Superior, as fragments of broken ice floating in the water restlessly shift in relation to each other, creating a figurative plate tectonics – the abstract rhythm of their dynamic, puzzle-like, cause and effect displacement only momentarily disrupted by a passing freight ship. Converging to an internal symmetry of indigenous ecology (the saline, almost alien whiteness of the Salton Sea, the frozen waters of Lake Superior, the sublime, undistorted landscape reflection of Crater Lake), man-made intrusion (the impressive bascule bridge that spans Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, the sound of a long, lumbering freight train in Lake Okeechobee, the sound of intermittent, sequential gunfire in Crater Lake), sublimated landscape (as in the images of Lake Winnebago and Oneida Lake where the land mass is reduced to near slivers of demarcation in the edges of the bisected frame), the film serves an austere, bracing, and indelible image of symbiotic landscape, the encroachment – and imposition – of civilization, and the fragile process of ecological balance.
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