Perceptual Rift
Students Experience a Cinematic Landscape Moment

307 Students at the Lucin Cutoff, waiting on a train with filmmaker James Benning. CLUI photo

WHILE ON A REGIONAL ORIENTATION tour loop around the Great Salt Lake, a group of students from the Curatorial Practice Program at the California College of the Arts were subjected to conditions that led to a perceptual event that the CLUI identifies as a Cinematic Landscape Moment. This experience occurs when layers of perception are compounded to create a sensation of full fluidity between them, a sort of melting of modes into a singular experiential event that forms a momentary but profound sense of a new point of view. These events can be of startling and even transformative clarity and resonance.

The phenomena is similar to a perceptual rift, which the artist Vik Muniz has described as what occurs when two “seemingly contentious media,” such as photography and drawing, are blended in such a way that the perceiver feels vision itself. In a Cinematic Landscape Moment (CLM) these media are the physical place—and the perceiver’s moment in that place —and cinema. The rift that is created is actually a new space, opened up, a crack in our hardened, accustomed ways of seeing, into which the new experience flows.

This particular CLM incident, experienced by the curatorial students in Utah, occurred at a place called Lakeside, a remote place on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, where the end of the road meets the railway. Lakeside is where the Lucin Cutoff, a railroad causeway that divides the lake in two, connects to the shore. A large rock quarry has consumed half a mountain here, digging out gravel ballast and fill for the railway roadbed. Across the lake from the Golden Spike, where the first transcontinental railroad was connected, it is a place made for and by the railroad, in the middle of the kind of nowhere that railroad spaces can be.

Present with the group was the filmmaker James Benning, who had with him a 16-millimeter print of his film RR. The group was on the way to Wendover, where we would watch the film that evening in the room above the airport firehouse. RR is film about railroads, and is made up of a few dozen shots of trains, entering and leaving the fixed camera frame, at different places all over the USA. One of those places is Lakeside.

After examining the point where the Lucin Cutoff causeway comes to the shore, it was suggested that the group break up and wander around independently for a while, each student on their own, without talking to each other. This is something Benning has done with his students at CalArts, as part of a class called Looking and Listening.

As the group’s constituents dissipated into this landscape, following trails of their own inquiry, they could feel a personal experience and intimacy with the place grow in ways that their lives in a socialized urban environment does not usually permit. Like a walk in the park, but this was not a park, this was an iconic and dramatic western American place, not wilderness, but an engineered west, built by the railroad, the railroad that developed the West.

The story of the railroad’s infusion and transformation of America is profoundly told in Leo Marx’s seminal book, The Machine in the Garden. This book has had a great influence on many. Alternative cinema historian Scott MacDonald’s book about landscape film, which includes a discussion about Benning’s work, is called Garden in the Machine, an acknowledgement of the influence of Marx’s work.

In referencing the book in this way, MacDonald seems to be suggesting that if the railroad was the machine that came into Edenic America, changing nature 100 years ago, then landscape cinema could be a contemporary antipodal analog, an interpretive machine, brought into this transformed and populated country, changing its appearance through the perceptual media of film.

With these things in mind, as people wandered, alone, along the tracks, a sense of change was felt, a low rumbling. In the distance, at first beyond the limits of sight, eastward down the Cutoff in the lake, a train seemed to be materializing in the haze. It took a while. People noticed the growing sound at different times. Eventually someone yelled “train!” to warn others away from the tracks. Then, all attention turned towards it taking minutes to come, each looking, fixed from their scattered points of view. Out of the inert quiet came anticipation, uncertainty, excitement, and even fear.

The sound escalated and the train grew inevitably then roared through us, blasting its horn, shaking the ground, ripping the space in half. You were on one side, or the other, of the thundering wall. The train filled the landscape, and all of our senses. There was no room to perceive or contemplate anything else. Even a scream could not be heard. The strip of cars and the flickering space of the gap between them were like movie frames on a widescreen cinemascape sensaround omnimax. Eyes darted, reading individual cars like shots, taking in the whole expanse like a scene.

Then it passed, the clamour following it west, away from us, the sound diminishing, like a wake. The splatter of the film flapping its trailing edge from its spool, turning to a stop.

In that moment, the gamut of landscape and cinema was run. From the silence of the vast panorama, to the machine in the garden; from Lumier, Melies, Porter and the audience scared out of their seats by the first cinematic train, to the neo/post structuralist realism whatever of Benning’s RR. A physicalization of film, and a resounding Cinematic Landscape Moment.