Essays (book reviews)

TEN SKIES by Erika Balsom
(Decadent Editions, Fireflies Press, 2021)


The Decadent Editions initiative spearheaded by Fireflies Press comprises ten books, each one devoted to a cinematic masterpiece of the 21st century’s first decade. That doesn’t mean Amélie (2001) or Inglourious Basterds (2009), but rather those artists who sometimes only just manage to grab a place at even our artiest film festivals – people like South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo or Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel.


By the close of 2022, four in the series had appeared: Nick Pinkerton on Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003); Erika Balsom on TEN SKIES (2004); Melissa Anderson’s rather narrow and weak effort on Inland Empire (2006); and Dennis Lim on A Tale of Cinema (2005), which offers a fairly convincing take on Hong’s cinema as a whole (I am not among this director’s rabid fans). Soon to appear is Rebecca Harkins-Cross on Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) – eagerly awaited by me.


The Australian connection signalled by that last-listed tome is worth insisting on, as a matter of national pride. The film-culture brains behind this welcome Decadence are fittingly cosmopolitan: Annabel Brady-Brown (who comes from an illustrious cinema-involved family), based in Australia; and Giovanni Marchini Camia, based in Berlin. Their forays into publishing began with the print magazine Fireflies in 2014; they have most recently produced books on Apichatpong’s disappointing Memoria (2021); and Writing on Burning Paper, a celebration of Pier Paolo Pasolini in the centenary year of his birth.


TEN SKIES (2004) – that’s how it’s typographically represented on screen, all in capitals – by American avant-gardist James Benning (born 1942) is easily described: ten views of the sky, each photographed from a static camera angle. As Balsom asks at the beginning of her superb book: “How many films can be described so succinctly?”


Is there really anything to see in it, let alone say about it? Is it a droll reductio ad absurdum of cinema, without plot, without people, without artifice? As it turns out, there is much to observe, hear and contemplate, and Balsom unpacks it all, eloquently and wittily.


Benning is famous for his teaching method: he takes his filmmaking students out of the classroom and plonks them in some spot – near a river, along a railroad, inside an industrial zone – where they must spend extended time looking at and listening to the environment. They must also think about how to frame it, how to record it, how best to capture its atmosphere and significance.


Although Balsom is uncomfortable with the notion of (masculine) mastery in art, Benning is indeed a master of sorts – but one who values what is ephemeral and unpredictable in the pared-down audiovisual documents he collects and assembles. There’s much unexpected humour in his work, some of it subversive of what might at first seem his hyper-serious intentions.


On the one hand, TEN SKIES seems an extreme expression of modernist minimalism, abstraction and up-front structure: the ultimate painterly movie, just watching clouds go by.


On the other hand – and both the soundtrack as well as Balsom’s background research offer many clues here – the film is well attuned to the baleful processes of industrialisation that stir just beyond the frame lines, creating some of the air forms and textures we are beholding.


Balsom writes in a similar way: she presents her book as a structured meditation (a chapter for each of the ten skies), mimicking the experience of watching the film and letting one’s mind wander. Simultaneously, she pulls us back to questions of culture and context, history and theory. It is a critical tour de force, delivered with a welcome personal touch.


In her final chapter, Balsom lets on that, apart from a less-than-magnificent version on YouTube, TEN SKIES is not easy to see these days in its proper, 16 millimetre, projected form. (There is currently no edition of it on DVD or Blu-ray.)


If you’ve never managed to catch a real, old-fashioned cinema screening, you may only be able to imagine it – and this book will be your ideal companion in that reverie.


© Adrian Martin May 2021 / January 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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