Two World Premieres

in 42nd Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Hans Christian Leitich

James Benning’s “13 Lakes” and David Fenster’s “Trona”

Everyone is making films in cities, so he prefers to do them in the bushes, remarked young Argentinean director Lisandro Alonso about his moody Viennale-entry Los muertos. Something similar can be said about two small-scale, rather eccentric productions from the United States which had their world premiere at the Vienna Film Festival in 2004.

James Benning, veteran of minimalist experimental filmmaking as well as of the Viennale (with his Los Angeles trilogy), presented 13 Lakes — literally: static ten minute-length panorama shots of different lakes in the USA, which receive their power from the careful framing, the changing of the weather and the sound of nature, giving this extreme type of documentary a unique hypnotic tranquility.

David Fenster attended the film school of the California Institute of the Arts, where Benning was his teacher — as were German documentary filmmaker Hartmut Bitomsky and Thom Andersen, whose extensive city-portrait Los Angeles Plays Itself stunned last year’s festival. Now, in Trona, the first feature film of the 26-year old, the wasteland of the nearby Mojave desert and a derelict former mining town play a distinctive part: panorama shots of the salty desert alternate with series of close-ups of civilization junk which probably will stay there forever.

On the plot level, Trona is a quite ironic look at the fantasy of a clean, inhibited lower middle-class urban employee who reinvents himself as an unshaven drop-out, finding inner piece as an inhabitant of a car graveyard, where he can freely drink beer and live out destructive desires. He is introduced as a stereotypical mustached married man of about thirty, with unfulfilled sexual desires and a tendency to drink too much. After his transformation, he displays a feeble macho-personality similar to Vincent Gallo’s one-man-show in The Brown Bunny , whose retro style and attitude are similar.

The satirical nature of the story is underlined by a few narrative jumps, which deliberately lack logical explanation: The hero gazes through an airplane window onto the desert, and then a film cut suddenly makes him wander the desert highway he was looking at. An absurd incident follows, leaving him naked except for his underwear. Encounters with the locals (all real desert people) are erratic, as is the cameo of a couple of sexually aroused German tourists, and the junkyard becomes a gift. In the end, a muscular seventies-car indicates a state of happiness.

Trona is Fenster’s graduate work from university. This may sometimes show in semi-amateur moments, if one takes the subtlety of Gus van Sant’s desert-tale Gerry as a standard. On the other hand, the absurd comedy successfully preserves a student-type of humor, with looks at the trash food available in desert towns or the contrast of neurotic urban insecurities and the often hostile stoicism of the locals. Presented in a slow rhythm, this static road movie leaves memories of freshness.

Hans Christian Leitich