A Spellbinding Approach to Film Criticism

No matter the intensity of our celestial passions, attempts to capture the sky always result in the indirect or metaphorical — hence its recurrent pursuit by artists, writers, and scientists. Renaissance painters depicted the heavens in fantastic blues dappled with angels; 19th century meteorologists tried to classify the infinite varieties of clouds. Watching films is not unlike watching the skies: scenes of transient motion parade across our field of vision and provisionally alter our orientation in time until — eventually — it’s all floated by.

Ten Skies, the recent book by film critic and scholar Erika Balsom, likewise makes this comparison, suggesting the film critic also creates their own “fictions.” Writing about an audiovisual medium involves ceaselessly clutching at an elusive, untranslatable real thing; a selective chopping and framing of a whole by the critic to evoke the essence of an “absent film” (hence the rise in videographic criticism — namely the popularity of video essays — that Balsom laments). Still, Balsom advocates for the dehiscent possibilities of written description in splitting open countless pathways through a film that reveal and deepen but never exhaust it.

Ten Skies by Erika Balsom (Fireflies Press, 2021; image courtesy the publisher)

It’s fitting that the film which cleaves open these profound musings is the one Balsom has tasked herself to write a book about: the American experimental filmmaker James Benning’s Ten Skies (2004) — a deceptively simple film in which ten stationary frames each hold ten minutes of a different sky. Ten Skies is a film that reveals its complexities by pulling viewers into a space of deep attentiveness; the slowness and duration of its majestic imagery commands close looking and close listening. Despite this “close attention to detail,” Balsom claims the film equally “sanctions wayward drift” and she attempts to mirror these fluctuations in the structure of her book: “what I want to mirror is not the film itself, which can never be made present, but something of this double movement, writing now closer, now farther, from its images.”

The ten fragments of Balsom’s book follow the order of Benning’s film, each beginning with a thick description of a corresponding onscreen sky. These descriptions — spellbinding in their own right — serve another purpose in opening up a cavernous discussion that interrogates the form, subject matter, and extradiegetic implications of the work. Balsom’s analysis rotates its lenses around Ten Skies, focusing on its ecological and industrial references; the gender dynamics and cowboy masculinities embedded in Benning’s work; and the film’s unintentional relationship to vertical warfare, which has been amplified by recent curatorial interventions. Balsom’s close reading is informed by a tenacious level of research (including artist interviews) and the book even promises to fill a gap in coverage of Benning’s oeuvre, by suggesting that Ten Skies has lacked the same critical or academic attention as his other films.

Just as exciting an offering are the cadences of Balsom’s sentences that drift towards lines of inquiry less immediately related to Benning’s filmmaking. While Balsom inevitably lauds the way that Ten Skies challenges narrative pleasure and anthropocentrism by “invert[ing] the hierarchy of representation that typically governs cinema,” she avoids the coronation of experimental film as the intellectually superior antidote to story; a reductive dichotomy that arises too easily and often in appraisals of non-narrative film. Instead, Balsom frequently returns to the vital relationship between cinema and imagination, noting how Ten Skies is an example of a film that pushes at the imagination from unexercised angles; opening up a tenacious and possibly transformative cinephilic curiosity.

Balsom’s Ten Skies demonstrates that rigorous criticism isn’t necessarily diluted by warmth, humility, and wonder. In this way, the book lives up to the name of the series to which it belongs: Decadent Editions, ten books from Fireflies Press (an imprint born out of the film magazine of the same name) that pair individual film critics with a film from each year of the 2000s. Balsom’s contribution has a particularly impactful landing during a moment when film criticism seems to be twisting towards something other than what it was before the impositions of the pandemic. There’s something hopeful in Balsom’s invitation to follow her “fall into [the] depths” of a film — a tumble towards a more creative, imaginative relationship with cinema that resists the luster of newness that drives the machine of criticism.

Ten Skies by Erika Balsom (2021) is now available from Fireflies Press.

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