video, 99 min.
Subtly echoing Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964–1966), Twenty Cigarettes portrays filmmaker James Benning
’s friends, each smoking a cigarette. Benning uses the duration of a lit cigarette as the framing device. One pack, 20 people, each filmed intimately and alone before the camera as long as it takes to finish smoking. Benning’s film shows smoking as a personal and quiet experience. Smoking, once cited as a social and sociable activity, is here presented as a radical act, yet as something done silently, in solitude, apart from others. Benning, a key figure in the American independent film scene since the early 1970s, while bringing a sense of diversity via the idiosyncratic friends he features, reveals a set of values once inextricably tied to the West: the independence that was at one point associated with the act of smoking and with the American way of life. While this former value judgment might be one we have reasons to question today, the larger story being told is about the trade-off between freedom and control characteristic of the current condition. The act of smoking a cigarette turns against itself, loses its association with the ability to choose one’s own route, and becomes a metaphor for the governmental restriction of personal freedoms.