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By Robert Koehler
When we first found fire, we had our first movie. Once the flames began to curl around the wood, building up heat and its own thermal momentum, the fire took hold, and began to capture the imagination of those staring into the constantly flickering light, with stories and images emerging. For millennia, this was the prime entertainment and escape for humankind after hours of drudgery and survival, and also a haven for contemplation. No moment, staring into the fire then and now, is quite the same, with the flame pulling the mind back to barely perceived cosmic origins and forward to dreams that could possibly be reimagined by hand.
It’s no accident that characters in two of Ben Rivers’ three films currently in circulation, the mid-length masterpiece Slow Action and his first full-length work Two Years at Sea, sit at campfires, transfixed by the light and the heat. The final eight-minute shot of Two Years at Sea trains on the face of its only character, Jake Williams (previously filmed by Rivers in This Is My Land ) as he stares with nearly uninterrupted focus on his campfire—off-screen, perceived by the sound of crackling embers and the steadily dimming light the steadily diminishing fire casts on Jake’s face. In Slow Action, one of the strange and sinister masked tribal groups living on the island of Somerset (the fourth of the film’s quartet of fictional island utopias), turn from posing for the camera and gather together around a campfire, a picture of both community and (given the sequence’s mood of barely concealed group savagery and warfare) possibly conspiracy. Both scenes are ambiguously positioned between a sense of life and death: Jake—a real person, but placed in the film in a series of fictitious episodes and incidents, and thus a progressively more fictional character—may be bringing his day to a close with the same kind of ritual around the campfire as Misael, the woodcutter in Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad (2001), in an uncannily similar closing shot (Rivers says he’s never seen the film), or, with his aging features heightened by the flame’s light, he may be facing his fading out, which we literally see as the light dies and the image fades to black. The Somerset tribe may be grouped around the fire for a communal ritual or a storytelling session, or they may be in a strategy meeting for the next war, which the film’s third-person narrator informs us is a constant of life on Somerset, “the largest island in the western region of the island chain that arose after the 4th Great Flood Epoch, (located) 51 min. 26 sec. to 55 min. 21 sec. west by Quinnian’s Compass” with “a civilisation existing in constant state of imminent, present or just-occurring revolution.”
The fire as locus of story, light, and existential questioning is also a locus for Rivers, whose cinema has emerged in recent years as one of the most constantly evolving, mysterious, elemental, and resonant bodies of work by any active filmmaker. Although the films have grown longer (from 2003’s four-minute Old Dark House to the 86-minute Two Years at Sea) and have steadily crept toward more and more fictional elements—and even, in the case of Slow Action, science fiction—they have also maintained and deepened certain artistic commitments to which, at this point, Rivers is more firmly attached than ever. Among these are a dogged exploration of the possibilities of in-between cinema, where the expressive possibilities of non-fiction and fiction meet and intertwine to the degree that the end of one and the beginning of the other is no longer distinguishable. Just as crucial is a fascination for the tenets and practice of the handmade film, through which Rivers applies this dogged exploration quite literally. Although he’s confronted by today’s usual theatrical exhibition challenges of having to often project his work digitally, the films themselves are shot generally in Super 16mm, more often than not in black and white, and then processed by hand in his kitchen. (His director’s statement for Two Years at Sea says that he bought as much of his favourite Kodak Plus-X stock as he could manage when the company announced that it was ceasing its production.) To a degree greater than with most work, watching a hand-processed Rivers film via film projection or via digital projection represents starkly different viewing experiences, due to the ways in which his handmade intervention into his basic materials creates an intensely plastic medium. Unlike Brakhage’s aggressive hand-processing, Rivers’ is gentler, subtler, and more selective, with the liquid-like imperfections of the image, like drops of rain hitting a surface, creating the impact (especially in black and white) of a commentary on the medium itself when used to photograph the real world, as a living and breathing thing: film as a plant, film as an animal.
Continuing a tradition of fellow experimental-minded British visual artists like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman, he also remains able to move between the cinema and the gallery space, although he’ll readily say that his heart is with cinema for its capacity to create the kind of ideally immersive viewing and listening environment, some of which Rivers, who formerly ran a rep cinema in Brighton, actually has built, by hand naturally, as micro-micro cinemas inside galleries. Slow Action, constructed in four sequences set on four distinct islands, began as an exhibition work in 2010 with each sequence projected on four separate screens, spatially and sculpturally emphasizing the islanded nature of the subject, and then gained a new life in 2011 as a 45-minute film that debuted in Rotterdam, and has moved back and forth between the cinema and various gallery incarnations since. (At the TIFF Future Projections installation it was shown as a single-channel 16mm projection, as Rivers wasn’t happy with the image quality in the earlier digital four-screen installation.)
Perhaps the most distinctive quality, though, that audiences derive from an encounter with Rivers’ films is his interest in solitude. In this sense, his latest short, Sack Barrow (which screened at TIFF in Wavelengths), shot in 16mm colour in the heavily polluted 79-year-old manufacturing plant of Servix Inc. just before it was closed down in 2010, is somewhat of an outlier, since its human subject is the group of Servix workers, dressed in special garb to protect against the plant’s myriad heavily toxic chemicals; though, even here, where a group of workers is contrasted against a setting of astounding grime and decades’ worth of build-up of stalactite-seeming crud, the workers are usually framed singly, each isolated in the factory’s ancient setting, a vision of the lonely, alienated labourer at the end of a chemicalized era. (These pictures also harken back, for viewers familiar with Rivers’ work, to the filmmaker himself working with toxic chemicals in the process of making his images.) This also links, in different ways, to the occasional groups seen in Slow Action, which are sometimes seen collectively (such as the Somerset tribe around the campfire) but framed in such a way as to emphasize their loneliness, or at least separateness.
Slow Action is actually a collaboration between Rivers and speculative fiction writer Mark von Schlegell, whose ironic attitudes toward utopia were formed when he lived in Los Angeles, before moving to Cologne. This is the first time that Rivers has worked with an author, and the result is something new and important for cinema. Von Schlegell contributes an epic fiction based on the chronicling of island utopias by an unnamed curator of the “Great Encyclopedia,” created after what appears to be at least a fourth global flooding in what may be a variation of the setting of Waterworld (1995). Two unidentified narrators, one male speaking in a clear, North American-inflected voice and one female, speaking in a heavy accent that deliberately muddies comprehension, alternate delivery of the four encyclopedic entries, written with the kind of maniacal attention to detail that recalls the hilarious third-person, BBC-mocking narrations that ran through (among others) Greenaway’s Windows (1975), Vertical Features Remake (1978), and The Falls (1980), as well as Herzog’s Fata Morgana (1971), films that also deployed the grammar of documentary to spin wild fictions. (The four great floods share a common disaster-culture bond with Greenaway’s avian “Violent Unknown Event” in The Falls.)
Sir Thomas More launched the British obsession with utopias and alternative societies—the more geographically remote, the better—but whereas More intended Utopia to offer a critique of the present, Slow Action (taken from a phrase by Darwin, one of Rivers’ heroes and whose centenary was the project’s genesis) is a mysterious elegy of a future not yet here which also feels and looks already decayed and collapsed. The island of Eleven (occupied by the Elevenians, and filmed on Lanzarote) looks like the moon, where the typically naked inhabitants are only briefly viewed through a reflective pool of water, the ruins of their civilization standing as a stark reminder of the temporality of all human habitation, and the ways in which traces of past civilizations are eventually buried by geologic time—a theme proposed with authority by geologist Jan Zalsiewicz in Rivers’ quasi-travelogue, I Know Where I’m Going (2009).
Hiva Island, part of the Society Islands chain in what appears to be the South Pacific (Rivers filmed this, under what looks like extremely difficult conditions, on Tuvalu), is described visually and aurally in quite paradoxical terms. On one hand, Rivers’ pictures, marinated in the visual grammar of anthropological cinema, portray a poverty-infested place festooned with mountains of garbage amidst a paradisal ecology, and people (mostly in family groups) living in extreme isolation. The Great Encyclopedia narration, on the other hand, describes a culture embracing storytelling (“society life is particularly novelistic”) and ruled by “an imperial government with a High Chief and High Council,” in which “war and foreign invasion are rare” but which is also marbled with a clubby bureaucracy embracing “debauchery” and governing an archipelago featuring everything from feudal lords to communist social enclaves, where suicide is the preferred mode of death.
The most melancholic and perhaps unforgettable section is the third, set on Kanzennashima Island (filmed on land and in a boat off of an artificially created islet, Gunkanamija, adjacent to Nagasaki), a strange, Alcatraz-like hulk, rimmed with a high concrete wall and clearly meant to recall a decayed Tower of Babel—itself an image associated with More’s Utopia. The place is crammed like a micro Manhattan with abandoned multi-story buildings, looking blasted out and yet still standing as if they’d weathered a neutron bomb attack rather than Nagasaki’s devastated, atom-bombed WWII landscapes, debris spread everywhere as if a giant child had run the place for hours. What could this island possibly be, what purpose could it have served? The tension between the viewer’s instinct for searching out the facts behind the images on view and the fiction provided on the soundtrack is especially dramatic, as the text goes to great lengths to describe the making of a chronicle (found “floating for 400 years”) about Kanzennashima by its only inhabitant, one Tadashi Harai, alternately described by the curator as having washed ashore as a castaway in one of the floods, as being a self-described madman, and also as a figure who may never have existed. This forms the basis for Slow Action’s consideration of what utopia may be, with the narrator quoting Harai, in a Borgesian literary loop in which a fiction is citing another fiction: “Utopia can only be approached, never reached. Utopia can’t be known in the future, nor in the present. Utopia is in the past, not a past as a golden age, but a past as ruins of its own ruins,” marking out a territory where “entropy is moving against itself” and where “we are our own visitors and ghosts” and “we survive among the elements of our own demise.”
Finally, at Somerset (filmed on an unidentified British island that looks, at points, curiously tropical), Rivers reaches an actually living social entity, with bodies—albeit ones hidden behind sackcloths and sinister-looking wooden masks whose fierce opacity suggests a crude warrior society built on survival of the fittest, a dark side of the Darwinian world. While Rivers films the previous three utopias in long and medium shots with an eye he has developed over the past eight years for landscapes and natural features, his camera approaches the Somerset tribe in closer portrait shots, sometimes recalling the visual language of TV war correspondents who’ve reached the encampments of guerilla armies and gained their trust. In this world, the one where Slow Action ends, a Trotskyist state of permanent revolution is maintained with tribal cohesion.
Jake Williams, however, will have no tribe. Whistling while he works around his home in the Scottish woods in Two Years at Sea—a title referring to his sea-faring career, when he worked long enough to earn the money to create his ideal, low-tech lifestyle in the woods—Jake picks up pretty much where Rivers left him after This Is My Land. But two matters have crucially changed, and they probably point in directions that I think we can expect this fascinating filmmaker to venture in the future.
First, Rivers’ editing approach (superbly explained in Michael Sicinski’s interview with Rivers in Cinema Scope 43) as an assemblage takes on a different character here than in the earlier film. The colour, flat aspect ratio shots in This Is My Land are generally held briefly, each providing a discrete portrait rather than edited together as the accumulation of details telling a story; the black-and-white, widescreen shots in Two Years at Sea are held far longer, such as that closing campfire scene, or an extraordinary, seven-minute-plus plan-sequence shot of Jake launching and floating his handmade boat in a lake. Many others relate miniature stories within the shot or deploy clever variations on the Kuleshov Effect, as when Jake either dreams or actually realizes his ambition to hoist a small camper with a block-and-tackle set-up to create a giant treehouse, depending on how one reads a particular edit. Unlike in This Is My Land, Jake is never heard (though Jake’s eccentric choice in LP vinyl music certainly and amusingly is); rather, his activities—many of them staged and arranged, since Jake doesn’t exactly live the life depicted on screen—are viewed with patient observation. The furtive strategy of staging a fiction is part of Rivers’ new turn in filmmaking, and it may become clear in a few years that, looking back, Slow Action and Two Years at Sea marked the start of a new phase in a brilliant film artist’s life.