I’ve been making 16mm durational urban landscape voiceover films, slowly but surely, since the late ‘90s. My short film Blue Diary premiered at the Berlinale in 1998. My two features, The Joy of Life (2005) and The Royal Road (2015) both premiered in the prestigious New Frontiers section at the Sundance Film Festival and have been as wildly successful as experimental films can be. Which is to say, they remain fairly obscure. My small but enthusiastic fan-base frequently asks me for recommendations of films that are similar to my own in terms of incorporating durational landscapes and voiceover and a meditative pace. While it is certainly one of the smallest subgenres in the realm of filmmaking, here are a handful of excellent landscape cinema examples by the practitioners I know best. I confess that my expertise here is limited and hope that the learned MUBI community will chime in with additions in the comments field below. You can find my modest MUBI list here and a much more thorough list by MUBI user Ariel_ right here. I’m also very grateful to landscape cinema scholar Patrick Brian Smith for his passionate dedication to the field and for sharing his selective filmography of “filmmakers whose works engage with space, place and landscape for either poetic or political ends (and oftentimes both)”—please see below.
1. Massillon (1991)
2. Finished (1997)
"I lived in Massillon for 18 years of my life. I returned for a while to find beauty in this place, but also to rid myself of its influence."
—William E. Jones, Massillon
If you can’t go home again, you can at least make a movie about it. In his 1991 debut experimental feature, William E. Jones cast his Ohio hometown in the starring role. Challenging some of the most firmly entrenched conventions of filmmaking, Massillon has no human actors and consists almost entirely of long, static landscape shots. Wind blows, birds chirp, cars pass by, cows stand in a field—it’s remarkably sensual; you are there. The film’s gentle editing is complemented by the reassuring intonation of Jones’s voiceover, as he describes his childhood, his research into state sodomy laws, the etymology of the language of sexuality. Jones’s prose is literary, his images painterly, his timing ponderous, his humor dry. Divided into three parts (Ohio, the Law, California), Massillon ranges through the personal to the political and back again. Truly a must-see masterpiece, this was the film that inspired me to realize I wanted to make landscape films myself.
In Finished, the 1997 follow-up to Massillon, Jones turns his camera on Los Angeles and Montreal to ponder the suicide of gay adult film star Alan Lambert in a similar stream-of-consciousness pairing of voiceover and meditative 16mm landscapes. Released on VHS in 2000. Good luck getting your hands on this one, but well worth it if you can.
3. News From Home (1977)
Chantal Akerman’s News From Home is simultaneously an elegy to New York City and a unique portrait of the mother-daughter relationship via Akerman’s poignant reading of the letters she received from her mother when she moved to NYC from Belgium. A haunting, beautiful, brilliantly layered depiction of filial affection and late-‘70s Manhattan.
4. London (1994)
5. Robinson in Space (1997)
6. Robinson in Ruins (2010)
“Robinson had once said he believed that if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events.”
—Patrick Keiller, Robinson in Ruins
The early ‘90s landscape features, London and Robinson in Space, from British filmmaker Patrick Keiller were released on DVD in the US by Facets Video in 2006. Both films (as well as the subsequent 2010 film Robinson in Ruins—not yet released in the US) follow the fictional explorations of an anonymous never seen wandering subject and his friend Robinson. All three films take us on an ambitious tour of the British landscape accompanied by an incredibly dense voiceover analysis of UK politics, economics, the built environment and infrastructure with a rigorous, yet often wryly humorous, decidedly anti-capitalist bent. There is so much to love in these films, Keiller’s dry humor and intellectual rigor come through even more on repeat viewings as does the curious, very subdued, gay thread in the characterization of Robinson. The voiceover of the first two films is mellifluously done by Paul Scofield, while the latter film is voiced by Vanessa Redgrave.
7. Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
"Of course I know movies aren't about places. They're about stories. If we notice the location, we're not really watching the movie."
—Thom Anderson, Los Angeles Plays Itself
An epic showcase of the landscapes of Los Angeles as seen in Hollywood cinema, Thom Anderson’s amazing three-hour masterpiece also incorporates his own urban landscape footage of the city as he offers up his profound, edifying, whirlwind voiceover packed with digressive reflections and endlessly entertaining insights about the movies of Hollywood and the place itself.
8. El Valley Centro (2000)
Shamefully I’ve only seen this one film by James Benning who is pretty much the king of landscape filmmaking. Since I mainly circulate in the LGBT film world, the most frequent comment I get when I mention his name is, “Oh, is he related to Sadie Benning?” Who is indeed his daughter, and whose video work from the early ‘90s is also a must-see. In El Valley Centro Benning wordlessly explores the landscape of California’s Central Valley via a sequence of 35 two-and-a-half-minute statically composed shots—each shot the length of a standard 100-foot roll of film. Benning’s sad cinematic tale of commercial encroachment achieves meaningfulness beyond thousands of words. It’s worth noting that Benning and Thom Anderson both teach film at CalArts—where William E. Jones studied with both of them.
9. Toponimia (2015)
Jonathan Perel offers a quiet, and dark, historical investigation in this structural, rhythmic portrayal of four planned “towns” of the 1970s where Argentina’s military dictatorship systematically relocated anti-government rebels for surveillance and control. Perel methodically unspools a quartet of hypnotic sequences — the four chapters consist of 68 15-second shots of the town landscapes as they appear today, prefaced by static 15-second shots of the official documents that spell out the ominous urban planning process. A haunting wordless indictment.
10. Rules of the Road (1993)
Su Friedrich is one of my favorite filmmakers. This cleverly wistful short about lost love utilizes the brilliant device of an ex-girlfriend’s station wagon spotted on the streets of New York City as a vehicle for intimate personal reflection that is at once sad, humorous and deeply poetic. A small masterpiece.
Jenni Olson's feature-length essay film, The Royal Road—reflecting on an array of topics from the Spanish colonization of California to Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo—has earned numerous awards including Best LGBTQ Film from the prestigious Ann Arbor Film Festival. The Royal Road is freshly available on DVD and digital.
Supplemental Landscape Cinema Filmography from Patrick Brian Smith
This list of works is both broad and by no means exhaustive; however, it does draw together a range of filmmakers whose works engage with space, place and landscape for either poetic or political ends (and oftentimes both). Patrick Brian Smith is a PhD Student in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University, Montreal. His thesis is entitled "The Politics of Spatiality in Experimental Non-fiction Cinema" and it aims to examine how a transnational group of filmmakers (Masao Adachi, James Benning, Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet, Jonathan Perel and Patrick Keiller) have taken up a similar spatio-political aesthetic to variously critique authoritarian state governance in Argentina, Thatcherite neoliberalism in the UK and multinational private land ownership, urbanism and resource extraction in North America."
Masao Adachi (AKA Serial Killer, 1969)
Masao Adachi, Kôji Wakamatsu (The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War, 1971)
Chantal Akerman (News from Home, 1977, D'Est, 1995)
Ayreen Anastas (Pasolini Pa* Palestine, 2005)
Rosa Barba (Somnium, 2011)
Eric Baudelaire (The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years without Images, 2011)
James Benning (Landscape Suicide, 1987, Deseret, 1995, casting a glance, 2007, Stemple Pass, 2012, BNSF, 2014)
Wang Bing (West of the Tracks, 2002)
Diane Bonder (If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home by Now, 2001)
Stephen Broomer (Landform 1, 2015)
Olivia Ciummo (Victoria, 2012)
Mary Helena Clark (The Plant, 2012)
Jem Cohen (Le Bled [Buildings in a Field], 2009)
Alexandra Cuesta (Piensa en Mi, 2009)
Tacita Dean (Green Ray, 2001)
Marguerite Duras (Cesaree, 1979)
Ellie Epp (ob pier 5, 3 movements, 2015)
Hollis Frampton (Zorns Lemma, 1970)
John Gianvito (Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, 2007)
Neil Gray (Palimpsest, 2010)
Barbara Hammer (Multiple Orgasm, 1976)
Peter Hutton (Three Landscapes, 2013)
Sarah Kanouse (Around Crab Orchard, 2012)
Patrick Keiller (Stonebridge Park, 1981, Norwood, 1983, The End, 1986, Valtos, 1987, The Clouds, 1989, London, 1994, Robinson in Space, 1997, Robinson in Ruins, 2010)
Chris Kennedy (Tamalpais, 2009)
Thomas Kneubühler (Forward Looking Statements, 2014, Relocation, 2014)
Eva Kolcze (Dust Cycles, 2016)
Alexandre Larose (BROUILLARD - passage #1, 2009)
Toby Lee and Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga (Royal, Nebraska, 2007)
Laida Lerxtundi (The Room Called Heaven, 2012)
Rose Lowder (Bouquets 1-10, 1994-1995)
Marianna Milhorat (L'Internationale, 2010)
Matthias Mueller (Vacancy, 1998)
Julie Murray (Orchard, 2003)
Tomonari Nishikawa (Market Street, 2005)
Jenni Olson (The Road Royal, 2015)
Jonathan Perel (Toponymy, 2015)
Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair (London Orbital, 2002)
William Raban (A13, 1994, MM, 2002)
Yvonne Rainer (Journeys From Berlin/1971, 1980)
John Smith (Blight, 1996)
Deborah Stratman (The Magician's House, 2007)
Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet (Too Early, Too Late, 1982)
Gina Telaroli (Traveling Light, 2011)
Ana Vaz (A Idade da Pedra, 2013)
Lucía Vilela (Toxos e flores, 2016)
Clemens von Wedemeyer (Silberhöhe, 2003)
Travis Wilkerson (Machine Gun or Typewriter, 2015, An Injury to One, 2002)