Saturday 5 October 2013

At the LFF: "A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness"

The British artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers has become a posterboy for what's been labelled "slow cinema": that arthouse strand, more prevalent at festivals than on the commercial circuit, in which a quasi-documentary authenticity, an adherence to the rhythms of everyday life, are offered up as a reaction or corrective to frenzied Hollywood posethrowing. In Rivers' cinema, patience - the desire to wait and watch - has been reclaimed as a virtue; inaction - and the contemplation that follows from that - is valued as much as action. These are films specifically intended to calm rather than quicken the pulse, and in today's hyper-accelerated, post-capitalist universe, there is something welcome, and possibly even defiant, about that.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness - compiled with the American artist Ben Russell and showing in the London Film Festival's Experimenta strand - doesn't feature demarcated scenes so much as extended spells of hanging out, allowing the camera (and the viewer) to poke round, say, a lake by dawn, or a woodland commune, or a mossy forest, and see what might be happening there for two, five or ten minutes at a time. Clearly, Rivers is clinging onto the back-to-nature line of his previous, theatrically released enterprise Two Years at Sea. The commune's tanned, relaxed and nurturing residents tend orchards by day before slipping out of the sauna to sip a cool beer in the last of the day's sun; from their ranks emerges a beardy black fellow (the musician Robert AA Lowe) who pushes on even further into the woods, in a second act that resembles Into the Wild removed of its narrative impulses.

Throughout, there's a commitment to capturing what it is to be living in the moment: to be the toddler taking great pleasure in running through the garden in the rain, or the grown-up taking a parental pride in watching the kid at play. I know, I know: it sounds impossibly hippy-dippy and head in the clouds, yet set against Terrence Malick's airier fantasias, or the thesis-bound juxtapositions of the Baraka/Samsara school, Rivers and Russell make these feel like graspable utopias: the pair's use of sound is particularly vivid and evocative, and while we're never told where we are exactly, we're lent a sense that we, too, could be there, and be this free, if we weren't all sitting in a cinema in the middle of the city surrounded by people trying to shake a cold and worrying, like us, whether they have enough money on their Travelcard to get back to the house on which the rent is about to be hiked.

One could still accuse the filmmakers of a certain naivety: there's something a little questionable - very Westwoodish, very Tarantinoid - in the film's positioning of a black man as the epitome of Zen cool; the film's underlying idea seems to be that this figure is more primal (given he's eventually seen painting his face, more aboriginal) than anybody else on screen, and thus more likely than anyone to be attuned to the call of the wild. Yet this guy's desire for solitude rings true, and serves as a reminder of something we risk losing at a time of constant virtual messaging and social networking: a recognition that our best creative urges come when we shut ourselves off for a while, and strive to forge our own paths through life.

This leads to the last-reel reconciliation with the world at a Finnish rock gig, where the screen becomes a sea of nodding, moshing faces: out of solitude, connection; out of tranquillity, noise. I suspect the beauty of this final act will depend heavily upon your tolerance for earsplitting death metal - though this, too, is a release of sorts, we understand. The action may have been minimal, but the journey has been epic: you really do feel as though you've been transported somewhere, albeit via the scenic route. Like commune life, or the music of Lordi, it won't be for everyone - one already has visions of sceptical viewers checking their texts, and plotting their own, literal-minded escape from the auditorium - but this eminently experimental, experiential venture may be the closest the cinema has come to matching Thoreau's Walden, outlining not just a retreat but a getaway, a manifesto for a whole other way of living.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness screens at the BFI Southbank on Saturday 12 and Friday 18; further details can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment