#54) 13 Lakes (2004)


#54) 13 Lakes (2004)

OR “The Lake Takes”

Directed, Written, Produced, Filmed, & Edited by James Benning

Class of 2014

The Plot: 13 identically framed 10-minute shots of 13 different American lakes. That’s it. That’s the film.

Why It Matters: The NFR compares Benning’s “moving landscape paintings” to the works of Monet! I go back and forth on whether you should read Scott MacDonald’s essay on the film before or after your viewing.

But Does It Really?: At first I thought, “Oh boy, hunker down, this one’s going to be a long one.” But then I got into it and, well it won me over. This film makes you stop and think about the world around you, which is what any good movie should do. The difference is, this film is making you think about the physical world around you. How are lakes the same? How are they different? What do we as people use lakes for? How does one little sound or movement affect its flow? What’s that thing in the background? I found myself being saddened when a shot ended, as I wasn’t ready to leave that place yet. Each shot allows the viewer to just sit and be alone with their thoughts and come to their own conclusions about nature.

Everybody Gets One: James Benning started out going to school on a baseball scholarship, but the political climate of the late ‘60s led to him dropping out and becoming an activist. He started making films around that time and eventually got his MFA from the University of Wisconsin. He has spent the better part of 35 years teaching film at various colleges, and when your film professor has work in the National Film Registry you better take good notes.

Wow, That’s Dated: This one left me hanging, what with nature being timeless and all. Umm…well, it was made on film at a time when most movies were converting to digital. There’s that.

Seriously, Oscars?: I mean, you could try to sneak this film into the Documentary category, but the Oscars would never go for it.

Other notes

  • Did anyone else see the title and just assume this was a horror film?
  • As of this writing, “13 Lakes” is the most recent film to appear on the Registry, and one of only three films from the 21st century to be preserved. “13 Lakes” is also one of the few films to be inducted on the list after the minimum 10-year eligibility period.
  • They forgot Lake Wobegon.


  • Jackson Lake: Left the lake business to become a successful real estate agent.
  • Moosehead Lake: Rode success of “13 Lakes” to Hollywood, currently has three-picture deal with Paramount.
  • Salton Sea: ‘66. Editor, National Lampoon Magazine.
  • Lake Superior: Joined a convent, is now Mother Superior Lake Superior.
  • Lake Winnebago: Married Wendy Peffercorn. They have nine kids!
  • Lake Okeechobee: Future site of Camp Anawanna.
  • Lower Red Lake: Regrets their participation in “13 Lakes” and did not respond to my emails.
  • Lake Pontchartrain: Took the Midnight Pontchartrain to Georgia.
  • Great Salt Lake: Caught in political scandal, demoted to “Just Okay Salt Lake”.
  • Lake Iliamna: Occasionally hosts Turner Classic Movies, and has led several panel discussions on women in film. [Sorry, that’s Illeana Douglas.]
  • Lake Powell: Whereabouts unknown.
  • Crater Lake: Will be back in “You Only Lake Twice”.
  • Lake Oneida: Currently on the faculty of CalArts.

Further Viewing: You can find a lot of James Benning’s work online. I recommend this film’s companion piece, “10 Skies”.

4 thoughts on “#54) 13 Lakes (2004)”

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