TEN SKIES (James Benning; USA; 2004)
Ten Skies was made in the same year that Benning also made 13 Lakes, forever marking these two films as twinned companions to each other. Certainly these films have the same minimalist meditative resonance – 13 long shots of lakeside scenes, 10 long shots of the sky. However, 13 Lakes has the terrestrial anchor of a horizon line, providing a gravity-bound framework, while Ten Skies feels weightless and light, lost in the heavens.
Composed of ten ten-minute long shots of different skies in Val Verde, California, this is a celestial film that focuses on the texture and shape of clouds, sky, and occasional earthly intrusions of smoke and fire. More pointedly, the film focuses our attention on the meditative act of sky-gazing, a time to lose yourself in your own thoughts. Looking up to the sky can free the skygazer from their earthbound concerns for a moment, allowing their mind to drift in time with the slow-moving clouds, an act that is somewhat akin to losing yourself inside a film.
The choice and arrangement of each sky is clearly not random. The first sky we see makes us aware of how we use our attention, as there is barely any perceptible movement in the clouds and the viewer is constantly scanning the screen looking for signs of change or movement. There is also the expectation of seeing something other than clouds – perhaps a plane, perhaps a bird flitting across the screen. Yet the first sky is perhaps the most static, with changes happening so slowly it is barely noticeable. By the time a bird flies quickly across the screen during the second sky, we’ve grown accustomed to not expecting anything other than clouds to mark the skyscape.
Often, when applying all of one’s attention on one part of the sky in order to gauge any change, other areas change without the viewer noticing. Hard and focussed attention never ensnares the achingly slow dynamics of each sky scene, and over time it becomes easy to relax into the skies, allowing yourself to let your attention drift inside the clouds.
What is most fascinating about this film is the importance of sound. This is not simply a visual diary of the firmament – these skies are tied to an invisible world filled with highway noise, birdsong, buzzing, helicopter whirrs, human voices, and gunshots. The fact that we only ever see the sky and never see the source of the sounds provides a brilliant sense of dislocation and disorientation to the film, and provides a kind of mystery that surpasses mere visual stimulus.
You can view a segment of the film here.