We screened James Benning's One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later last night at the Film Studies Center, the first show of the spring for the "Experimental Film Club" (coming up: the new print of Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic and Jonas Mekas's documentary Birth of a Nation). Made in 1977, One Way Boogie Woogie is comprised of 60 one-minute shots of Benning's hometown of Milwaukee - some staged, some captured on the fly, all meticulously and cleverly composed. 27 Years Later is designed to be screened on the same program (without intermission - one flows into the other with only a very brief pause between the two). It's a sort of attempt at a shot-for-shot remake of the original from 2004, but of course the city has changed considerably since the seventies. Benning plants the camera as close to its original position as he can and points it in roughly the same direction. When possible, the original people (actors?) are used again to perform the same simple actions, with frames seemingly remaining unpopulated instead of using any sort of substitution. The original soundtrack plays over the new images, sometimes matching up, sometimes not.
The effect of the two films is markedly different. Both are "structuralist," of course, with their dedication to formal guidelines, and both are nicely playful about and around their constraints. The original strikes me as the more satisfying experience, not least because the constraints of 27 Years Later mean that the camera positions of the original aren't adjusted to achieve the same careful composition and balance. The play with structure in Boogie Woogie has a lot to do with the limits of the frame: the viewer can't help but try to figure out what's just off screen (with Benning encouraging our speculation by occasionally throwing sudden intrusions into the mix, with people or objects suddenly entering the frame, objects being hurled in front of the camera, etc); and, similarly, the viewer reflexively attempts to decode the meaning of the soundtrack and the relationship of these sounds (which sometimes are diegetic in the sense that they can be assigned to something happening on screen, even if its far in the distance in the very corner of the screen, and sometimes are not: music, radio broadcasts, etc) to the image. The other major source of conflict and play has to do with the carefulness and abstraction of the images on screen, the disruption of these lines and shapes by people (and trees, the other non-symmetrical figures that constantly reappear). 27 Years Later is equally witty and playful, but most of the play has to do with the differences and changes from the viewer's partial recollections of OWBW. The second film does help to illuminate the delicacy of the original compositions, and the dependence on a unique perspective for their creation (i.e. the images are in a sense created, and not just "found"). 27 Years Later is an aesthetic game, not a social one, and it's about general change rather than decay or gentrification or neglect. The original wittily questioned the basic assumptions of the medium about form, and although the "remake" retains the wit, the stakes are lower. That doesn't change the fact, however, that the general consensus in the cinema was that 27 Years Later seemed to move faster than Boogie Woogie - I guess some games are more fun than others. The first time around, anyway - I have the feeling that the next time I see the film the original will still have plenty of surprises to impart while its follow-up, though not necessarily less enjoyable, will be considerably less mysterious.