Chicago, Friday, April 6, 2012. Yesterday afternoon, me, a non smoker, found myself sitting in the over-sized screening room of the Gene Siskel Film Center watching "Twenty Cigarettes", the James Benning full-length video ( 2011, James Benning, USA, 99 min.) featuring twenty people--each smoking a cigarette, one at a time.
As the first smoker, a young Asian male, appeared larger-than-life on the screen slowly inhaling and exhaling, looking rather self-conscious and not saying a word I stared back at him. Thoughts raced through my mind--although there was no reason for them to race as he was taking forever to finish his cigarette. I looked at my watch, thinking this is about as exciting as watching grass grow--wondering how I could possibly sit there through 19 more of these smokers without losing my mind.
Trapped, with no where to go, I honed in on the man, trying to read his mind, wondering who he was, what kind of a life he lived, looking for clues. Did he wear a wedding ring? Where did he work? Was he a student? He tried to smile but looked a little uncomfortable. I started to like him and feel a little sorry for him, then the screen went to black.
He was gone and up popped an attractive young woman. Hmmm, I wondered, what's her story. I watched her breathe, studied her facial expressions, checked out the background behind her trying to figure out where she was, where she lived. I listened to the sounds in the background trying to put together clues. Just as I felt I was getting closer to figuring her out, the screen went blank.
Up popped a middle-aged black women. I liked her style, the way she held her cigarette. She didn't seem to take as many puffs on her cigarette as the others, she held it down out of sight from the screen. I waited and watched for her to bring it back to her mouth. I know it is rude to stare but she couldn't see me so brazenly, I watched.
All of a sudden I got it. I realized what Benning wanted me to get. Of course, Twenty Cigarettes had nothing to do with smoking. Benning used the cigarettes as a device to get viewers to focus on the person. Benning constructed the video solely of portraits posed in front of plain two-dimensional backgrounds so that viewers could focus on each subject.
I was hooked. I had become a stalker, a voyeur--eavesdropping on people. Never in my life had I focused so closely on anyone--not even my husband. I studied every wrinkle, every hair on their head, their facial hair, their hands, their fingernails--I watched their expressions. The more I honed in on them the quicker the time went. By the time the 99 minutes was up I felt like I knew them.
Since yesterday, I've thought about them--trying to remember their faces--still trying to sort them out, after our intimate encounter.
Although, Benning's video is not for everyone, if you think it may be for you, you can see it April 19 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of their "Conversations at the Edge," series with James Benning who will appear live for a q& a session following the screening. If you do go, make sure to stay for the credits at the end of the video that lists all of names and the locations of the subjects--which includes one Chicagoan, shot inside a Chicago high-rise.
For more information about the Film Center, call 312-846-2800 (24-hour movie hotline) or 312-846-2600 (general information, 9:00 am-5:00 p.m., Monday-Friday), or visit Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.