After dipping into high-concept self-reflection to ponder filmmaking ethics and colonialism with the more or less narrative-based The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, Ben Rivers has returned to immersive documentary portraiture with What Means Something, a self-effacing study of painter Rose Wylie at her home studio in the U.K.—or so it seems at first. Like Two Years at Sea, the film is defined by its omission of the world outside its subject’s insular and distinctive environment, in this case a leafy abode that suggests a hermit’s lean-to in a woodsy fairy tale, as well as by a malleable montage that alternates between labor and leisure, meditating in sculptural long shot on the former and in detailed intimacy on the latter.
Every bit the gleaner of eccentric bric-a-brac as the prior film’s Jake, Wylie is an artist who evidently needs to live within the atmosphere of disorderly whimsy that her paintings depict. Her home is strewn with the detritus from which she takes inspiration (old newspaper clippings, faded celebrity photos) and the physical evidence of her labor (fragmentary notes scribbled in marker, stacks of used paint buckets). And while Rivers, with his dozens of still-life close-ups of these assorted objects, subscribes to the old truism that material possessions reveal character, it gradually becomes apparent that he’s as interested in coming to terms with his own identity as a filmmaker as he is in piercing the serpentine depths of this soft-spoken woman.
Just as Wylie’s house is a living repository of her working methods, What Means Something lays bare Rivers’s own process. Shooting on full-frame 16mm, he makes no attempt to hide the hum of the mag, the specs of dust pinned to the film gate during shooting, or the red frames and hole punches that emerge from development at the lab. Shots periodically begin with a handclap from Wylie (a DIY variation on the slate), and Rivers is regularly heard behind the camera chatting with his subject—though less often about her work than about the dappled lighting falling across her face, or about a certain gesture she gives that he admits balances his composition. As defined by a restless striving for just the right aesthetic means as Wylie’s large-scale mural Chocolate Halloween (the creation of which, documented roughly from beginning to end in one static master shot apportioned in chunks across the film, provides Rivers his structural backbone), What Means Something is good proof that the filmmaker didn’t need the big canvas of The Sky Trembles. Give him a little house in the forest and he’ll find a world within it.
Similarly preoccupied with reclusiveness but pitched from an inverse angle, Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’s Il Solengo (rural slang for a wild boar purged from its pack) studies not the titular hermit that is its ghostly structuring absence, but rather the peanut gallery of Italian villagers who speculate about his identity and reasons for fleeing from civilization. To hear this colorful cadre of farmers, cheese makers, hunters, and other manual laborers tell it, this outsider, who went by the name of Mario de Marcella, lived a storied life, overcoming the escalating traumas of a domestic homicide, his mother’s subsequent imprisonment, and an inhospitable Italian political climate in the 1930s by separating himself from social life and only surfacing intermittently to incite bar scuffles, go for swims in public waterways, or gather provisions in a cart. Placed center frame amid the distinctive odds and ends of their respective existences (bottles of Grappa, boiling cauldrons of sauce, rusted tools), these folksy storytellers hold court in tones that are alternately matter-of-fact, condemnatory, and humbly unassertive, and the film gracefully strings together their accounts, with one speaker seeming to pass the baton to another, as if to imply a single consciousness partitioned across the community.
What little we’re offered of Mario’s presence, on the other hand, is predicated on far less candid audiovisual information. A taciturn bearded man wearing a red cap is sporadically glimpsed wandering around the dense forest brush outside the town and bringing offerings to the townsfolk that he claims come from Mario, and we’re left to wonder whether he may be some spectral messenger or perhaps doppelganger. Later, in the closing minutes, a gruff, disembodied whisper wafts into the soundtrack to issue its own fragmentary take on events, in this case stressing the perils of the forest and muttering declarations as seemingly telling as they are unpromisingly elusive: “You’ll never know those things,” it insists.
In bombarding the audience with reportage from ostensible regional experts, Righi and Zoppis paradoxically seek to dredge up what’s latent beneath their recollections, and thus to illuminate the gap between lived experience and oral embellishment. Their mission becomes a bit too telegraphed when they start transferring it through the mouths of their Greek chorus; indeed, there are only so many variations on “no one knows the truth” and “there are so many rumors” that can be verbalized before one suspects that cue cards are being held just off screen. But Il Solengo is nonetheless uniquely guided by one of the burning questions posed by the Art of the Real series: How can films interrogate the very forms they inhabit, in turn encouraging their viewers to engage actively with the content they’re being fed?
Art of the Real runs from April 8—21.