Watching READERS

…for centuries we have been overly interested in the author
and insufficiently in the reader. —Roland Barthes

I am face to face with a young woman sitting cross-legged on a couch. She has a book in her lap; I have a notebook in mine. She is in a sunlit room; I am in a darkened theater. And yet somehow I feel as though I might disturb her. The couch and wall behind her divide up the background into thick horizontal bands: a nearly flat and abstract field were it not for the woman and her tote bag, which break and complicate the symmetry of the frame. She is reading her book; and I am reading her, or rather, an image of her. Together, and not, we sit quietly, studying.

I write in my notebook that I see so much as she looks away. This feeling will recur throughout the rest of the film—James Benning’s READERS (2017), which comprises just four shots of four figures: Clara McHale-Ribot, Rachel Kushner, Richard Hedbige, and Simone Forti reading quietly to themselves. Time and again, I find it is when a subject momentarily looks up from their book, that we are able, compelled really, to read them. 

Later, in another room, I am reading Barthes’s essay “Writing Reading,” and I think again of these moments. “Has it never happened, as you were reading a book,” he begins, “that you kept stopping as you read, not because you weren’t interested, but because you were: because of a flow of ideas, stimuli, associations? In a word, haven’t you ever happened to read while looking up from your book? 1 

Still from READERS, 2017, courtesy of the artist and neugerriemschneider, (pictured Clara McHale-Ribot)

For the viewer, READERS happens precisely at those moments that you look up from the film.Except that when you look up from a film, unlike looking up from a book, you are still looking at it. And so your attention may drift even as your gaze is fixed. This quality of attention, drifting to and from something as a way of being with it, may be familiar to viewers already attuned to the pleasures of James Benning’s body of work, a cinematic discipline whose rigor has only intensified since his shift to digital video in 2009 with Ruhr. But READERS takes this even further; it represents a limit case. And as such I am forced to abandon this notion of reading: the stillness is parallel, but not the act; instead we watch, as in keep watch. We are observers, on the lookout, maintaining a kind of vigil over the readers.

Later, I learn through an intertitle that McHale-Ribot is reading D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. I say learn—it is actually an induction, the proximity of the title to the preceding shot suggests a connection between the two texts. Eisenstein might have called this a collision productive of thought, but the language of collision seems out of place here, in so still and peaceful a setting. Instead, in retrospect, I think of Barthes’s notion of the intertext: there is the “text” of the film and the “texts” that overlap and intersect with it: Lawrence, George Bernanos, the neighbor’s Carole King record drifting in through the open window…. What is ostensibly flat and austere—four uninterrupted shots of people reading, the apotheosis of modernist documentary realism—becomes more dimensional, expansive, diffuse. The texts accumulate and color the way I view them.

The passage from Women in Love quoted in the intertitle describes a terrifying look, a hidden watcher whose presence is perilous—a man staring at a woman, suddenly noticed, and the fear this induces. I think of the presence of the filmmaker, of course, as well as the camera, its insistent unblinking gaze and the gendered violence inscribed therein; but I also think of my own presence in the theater, watching. Whatever I may have taken for granted while sitting with the preceding shot is suddenly foregrounded.

Most film writing acts as though the body is not present in the theater, in fact that the theater is not there at all. But watching READERS, I cannot write this way, cannot think this way. I am not only passively receiving this film; I am part of the movie as I watch it. My eyes, my posture, my position toward the screen: they are all part of the act. I am not watching a film about reading; I am learning what watching a film is.

Next, watching Rachel Kushner read, I begin to think of a certain tradition in postwar cinema that utilizes non-actors in its pursuit of realism. Because non-actors cannot (or do not) successfully reproduce the signs that professional actors use to code their performance as realist, this creates a paradox. The non-actor codes a film “real” by coding their performance as false—or failing to code their performance as realist, which amounts to the same thing. That these codes are in and of themselves mutable is beside the point; the non-actor is almost instantly recognizable as such no matter what period the film is from.

One way filmmakers have facilitated the use of non-actors is to engage them in a task they are intimately familiar with. This produces an image at an interesting intersection, something between convincing performance and candid portrait. This type of image, a portrait achieved through performing a task, a performance that is not acting, is just what I am watching. 

This passing thought is reinforced by the intertitle following Kushner’s image that quotes Mouchette, the Bernanos novel Robert Bresson so completely transformed in his filmic adaptation. Bresson arrives at an excess of pathos by completely eliminating anything pathetic from the performance. There is no acting, only a succession of incidents forming a narrative and the sounds, for as Bazin points out, Bresson devotes as much attention to the ambient sound as he does the dialogue.

Like Bresson, Benning has chosen non-actors and a flat affect as his cinematic strategies; although unlike Bresson, Benning’s readers are far from non-entities. McHale-Ribot (daughter of composer-performer Marc Ribot), Kushner, Hebdige, and Forti are not empty vessels unaccustomed to the public’s gaze, but accomplished artists, authors, and scholars in their own right. Here again, I find the idea of the intertext illuminating: Kushner the author intersects and overlaps with Benning the auteur. If, at times when looking up from the film, we allow ourselves to consider (and why would we not?) the fact that Kushner has created Benning-like characters in her novels—characters he has playfully responded to by executing the fictitious film descriptions she writes for this alter-ego—we arrive at a further overlap and interleaving.

And how can I not think of Forti’s work while watching her read? At one point, she moves her fingers with great purpose along the table top, as though measuring something in her mind, giving the faintest echo of her decades-long performance practice pursuing movement, music, sound, and sculpture to the point that they fill, overflow, and commingle, dissolving walls between disciplines as well as audience and performer. 

In so much stillness, even subtle changes begin to take on enormous import. The familiar din of cars, buses, and people I hear in Forti’s home is remarkable compared to the low hum of Hebdige’s. Likewise, next to Hebdige, almost totally still except when turning the pages of his book, Forti’s slight tremor is dramatic. And when, in that fourth and final shot of the film, she briefly reads aloud, it is incidental and unremarkable, just another point in a vast field, and at the same time, feels like a tectonic shift in the possibilities of the image. A voice! Who knew they could speak?

And so I become keenly aware that there are rules to this game being played by the readers (not just the game of reading), just as there are rules to my watch as well. Once more I think of these as portraits and performances. Who writes the rules of the film we watch so carefully? Who is the author of this image, these sounds? How many authors? How many readers? The point is not whatever conclusions we arrive at, but rather what we learn in the process: we learn what it is like to watch a movie, to sit together in stillness and quiet, our bodies at rest and in action, observing. Again, I think, this is not a movie about readers or reading; it is about us.


[1] Roland Barthes, “Writing Reading,” The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 29.

James Benning’s READERS (2017) will premiere at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles on Thursday, October 12, 2017. The screening will be introduced with a reading by Rachel Kushner. www.moca.org