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Ben Rivers (#110 of 9)

Art of the Real 2016 What Means Something and Il Solengo

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Art of the Real 2016: What Means Something and Il Solengo

Ben Rivers

Art of the Real 2016: What Means Something and Il Solengo

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.

Toronto International Film Festival 2015 The Sky Trembles and Chevalier

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Toronto International Film Festival 2015: The Sky Trembles and Chevalier

Ben Rivers

Toronto International Film Festival 2015: The Sky Trembles and Chevalier

Titled as if in homage to Fiona Apple, Ben Rivers’s The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is the latest in the filmmaker’s unpredictable efforts to not simply fuse documentary and fiction, but set them against each other. For a time, it chronicles a film shoot out in the Moroccan mountains, where a director (Oliver Laxe) orders around a cast and crew of locals to present a realistic glimpse of life in the region. Yet the dailies taken from this production give away the charade, surrounding moments of folk singing and custom with calls of “action” and “cut.” In one shot, a man breaks the spell of his singing when he flashes a thumbs-up to the camera, foregrounding that his performance was just that.

Parting Shots Rotterdam 2015

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Parting Shots: Rotterdam 2015
Parting Shots: Rotterdam 2015

“I wanted to build a bridge, a link, between a forgotten fight for Marxist ideals born a few years after Morocco’s decolonization and new political horizons recently widened there,” filmmaker Safia Benhaim says. “But my evocation of this passageway had to be very fragmented, like a dream, in keeping with my particularly split link to my parents’ country. For my film A Spell of Fever, I invented a kind of political ghost story to evoke the tale of an exiled woman whose possessed mental state I entered and whose need to make words and thoughts appear I shared. Around her runs music as a feverish flow, making images appear little by little like visions extracted from oblivion.”

The France-born Benhaim’s 40-minute film—an evocative mood piece in which a young girl wanders through present-day Morocco surrounded by ghostly voices—was one of three works given the shorts competition’s top prize at this year’s edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR). It shared its honor with the British filmmaker Ben Rivers’s sweet and gentle chronicling of a home’s items, Things, and American Ben Russell’s propulsive movement and music-based record of religious rites practiced by a community living in between Swaziland and South Africa, Greetings to the Ancestors. All three films helped set the pace of an unusually dispersed and energetic festival.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: I Wish, My Back Page & More

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Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: I Wish, My Back Page & More
Vancouver International Film Festival 2011: I Wish, My Back Page & More

[Editor’s Note: Our coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival is cross-posted at Parallax View.]

Apologies for the tardiness of my third dispatch. I had to duck out of festival mode and jump back into the home video mode of my day job for a couple of days. Now I’m back at the festival and back on the fest blog beat, catching up with notes of films I saw earlier in the week.

Belated update: the DCP issues at Granville 7 that I mentioned earlier this week have been resolved and the screenings are back in all their 4K glory. Ann Hui’s A Simple Life looked fine and my return visit with the South Korean war drama The Front Line looked even better (more on those later).

Is it churlish to say that I miss the inventive promos that used to play in front of each screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival? Every year they would roll out a collection of three or four comic pieces spoofing movie conventions, film culture and, my favorite, the unique community of obsessives, eccentrics and cinephiliacs that populate film festival culture. My favorite because even as I immediately recognized the “type” being simultaneously celebrated and satirized, I also recognized a little of myself.

But I can hardly complain. In place of the usual compendium of festival IDs, sponsor plugs and other promo pieces, VIFF presents a single short piece that identifies the festival, the organization and the sponsors and gets all the preliminaries out of the way in under a minute. That’s not just efficiency, it’s a gift to us festival junkies working our way through multiple screenings every day. So while I do miss those perfectly pitched promo skits of years past, I thank you, VIFF, for your 30th Anniversary gift to us all.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have their first festival reports up at their indispensable blog, including notes on a couple of experimental documentaries, contemplations on film structure and “Reasons for Cinephile Optimism.” Fellow Seattlite Jim Emerson is posting his dispatches at his Scanners blog.

And now, some film notes:

New York Film Festival 2011: Two Years at Sea

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New York Film Festival 2011: <em>Two Years at Sea</em>
New York Film Festival 2011: <em>Two Years at Sea</em>

Two Years at Sea lives up to its title in at least one respect. Narratively and visually, it feels shapeless and adrift across its 86 minutes—as unmoored as the lifestyle of the film’s one lone character, who carves out a deliberately solitary existence in a forest and is apparently named Jake according to filmmaker Ben Rivers, but whose name isn’t explicitly mentioned in the film.

Why does Jake (played by Rivers himself) choose to live his life this way, cutting himself off from human contact altogether? Rivers, a British experimental filmmaker who makes his feature-film debut with Two Years at Sea, drops some clues here and there. Every once in a while, he shows us snapshots from what one can infer is Jake’s previous life: photographs of the man with his family, standing in front of the house in which he’s now living, and so on. But as far as context goes, that’s about all a viewer has to go on—at least, other than Jake’s own behavior and habits as he carries out this lifestyle. And that, it seems, is what Rivers is more interested in anyway.

Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Wavelengths 1: Analogue Arcadia and Keyhole

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Wavelengths 1: Analogue Arcadia</em> and <em>Keyhole</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Wavelengths 1: Analogue Arcadia</em> and <em>Keyhole</em>

Wavelengths 1: Analogue Arcadia: It’s only the second day and it already seems unlikely that this year’s Toronto International Film Festival will offer a more moving film than Tacita Dean’s Edwin Parker, a portrait of Cy Twombly in his Lexington, Virginia home during the last autumn of his life. Dean approaches the problem of filming the notoriously reticent Twombly by finding the most cramped, hidden spaces to stick her camera; the feeling isn’t voyeuristic, but more like Dean’s camera has itself become a part of the environment, and filming Twombly as he goes about his dull daily routines (the first words we hear from him are asking an assistant if a package has arrived, and later he takes a gallery representative to a local diner, where he orders a sliced turkey sandwich with lettuce and mustard, and apple sauce) is the most natural thing in the world. The compositions that Dean gets from these ferreted camera placements are, like Twombly’s art, a conflation of the ordinary and the astonishing. From the opening, a zoomed in shot of bushes through blinds, that collapses space to explode it when a car suddenly enters the frame, to its final image of Twombly’s sculptures in twilight, Dean’s film, with its decentered, eschatological beauty, is the rare example of a documentary that does justice to its subject on the level of form.

The first Wavelengths installment offered a uniformly strong slate beyond Dean’s marvel, with Ben Rivers’s Sack Barrow, a micro-scale inversion of Peter Hutton’s thesis in At Sea (the decay of industry as a necessary condition of global capitalism viewed from inside the decay itself, as small artisan labor dies in the face of mass production), and Sophie Michael’s 99 Clerkenwell Road, a revival of the Fischinger-McClaren tradition that breaths new life into their exquisite formalism by discovering it in the material world.