Allensworth, the latest from American structuralist filmmaker James Benning, is divided into twelve five-minute static shots, each chronicling one month of a calendar year. Benning is an artist who, throughout his long-running career, frames American landscapes within a rigid temporal structure. His schematic approaches prompt inquires into the relationship between landscapes and the social formation built around them. In Allensworth, duration compels us—perhaps even forces us—to study the images closely. Allensworth is a film about surfaces and the truths we can or cannot gleam from their inspection. Spectatorship becomes a way of exploring the complex histories contained within seemingly unpolitical surfaces.
The community of Allensworth was established in the early-20th century as refuge from Jim Crow-era white supremacy. It was the first town in California run by Black people. The town’s namesake was co-founder Colonel Allen Allensworth, an ex-slave and clergyman who died six years after the town’s establishment. He was struck by a motorcyclist; no investigation determined whether it was a deliberate killing. In the time after Allensworth’s death, a deluge of misfortunes assailed the town, including a drought and insufficient water supply. Beyond that, the nearby railroad stopover refused to hire Allensworth residents, and then re-located to a predominantly white area, stranding Allensworth economically and geographically. In the mid-1970s, Allensworth had fallen into ruins with plans for future demolition. However, it was instead memorialized as a state park, with its derelict infrastructure reconstructed. None of this context is relayed in Benning’s movie. There’s no historical exposition whatsoever. Instead, Allensworth lingers on the plain, decontextualized images of modern Allensworth and poses the questions: do surfaces contain their histories? And how does the past imprint upon the present?
Most of the movie’s twelve shots cover landscapes composed with little-to-no staffage: exteriors of Allensworth’s buildings. For the first few shots, the images are so still they’re almost mistakeable for photographs. Sound offers a fuller panorama of the vicinity though, beyond the mono-directionality of the camera’s eye. Occasionally, cars cruise through the background. There’s even a James Benning equivalent of a gotcha! moment when the recurring chug of a locomotive is finally matched by the train’s visual counterpart, reflected faintly in a building’s window. These faint, seemingly insignificant details would pass unnoticed in a non-durational version of Allensworth. Benning’s form highlights the little details which comprise a time and place.
The main outlier shot in Allensworth is a classroom interior where Faith Johnson reads poetry from Lucille Clifton. It’s a jarring addition. It feels constructed, whereas every other composition appears “natural” or, contradictorily enough (considering the entirety of modern-day Allensworth is a reconstruction), “untouched.” In another shot, Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” plays over a landscape. “Cause your mama’s name was lonely/And your daddy’s name was pain,” she sings. This is the movie’s closest tango with catharsis, explicitly pointing towards the aching sadness Allensworth holds. A space of dreams has become a museum of past dreams. Allensworth further this memorialization, bringing us further from the dreams of the past in the hopes of sparking more for the future.