Thursday 11 September 2014

Paradise regained: "A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness"

The British artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers has become one of the poster boys for what's been labelled "slow cinema": that arthouse strand, more prevalent these days at festivals than on the commercial release circuit, in which a quasi-documentary authenticity, an adherence to the rhythms of everyday life, are offered up as a reaction or corrective to the frenzied posethrowing of contemporary Hollywood. 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 designed to calm rather than quicken the pulse, and in today's hyperaccelerated post-capitalist multimedia universe, there is something welcome and more than likely defiant about that.

Rivers' latest work A Spell to Ward off the Darkness - compiled with the American artist Ben Russell - doesn't feature demarcated scenes or sequences so much as extended spells of hanging out, allowing the camera (and the viewer) to poke round, say, a lake at dawn, or a woodland commune, or a mossy forest, and see what happens there for two, five or ten minutes at a time. Clearly, Rivers is clinging to the back-to-nature dialectic of his previous Two Years at Sea. The residents of the commune, tanned, relaxed and nurturing, tend the orchards by day before slipping out of the sauna to sip a cool beer in the last of the evening's sunshine; from their ranks there emerges a beardy black fellow (the musician Robert AA Lowe) who pushes even further into the woods, in a leafy second act that resembles 2007's 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 kid taking enormous pleasure in running through the garden in the rain, or the grown-up taking a parental pride in watching the kid. I know, I know: it sounds hippy-dippy and head in the clouds, but set against Terrence Malick's airier utopias or the thesis-bound juxtapositions of the Baraka/Samsara school, Rivers and Russell make these feel like graspable utopias. Their use of sound, to consider but one element, is particularly vivid, and while we're never told where in the world we are exactly, we're imbued with a sense that we, too, could get there, and get this free, if we weren't all sitting in a cinema in the middle of the city surrounded by people trying to shake off a cold and worrying, like us, whether they have money enough on their Oyster card to get back to the house on which the rent is about to be hiked once more.

One could still accuse the filmmakers of a certain naivety. There's something possibly problematic - very Westwoodish, very Tarantinoid - in the film's positioning of a black man as the epitome of Zen cool; the underlying editorial idea would appear to be that the figure embodied by Lowe is more primal (given that he's shown painting his face late on, more aboriginal) than anybody else on screen, and thus more likely to heed the call of the wild. Yet this figure's desire for solitude rings true, as something we risk losing at a time of constant virtual messaging and social networking: somewhere in this wilderness, there's a recognition that some of our better creative urges follow whenever we shut ourselves off for a while, and strive to forge our own path through the world. This takes us to the film's final section, a reconnection with others at a rock gig, wherein the screen suddenly becomes a sea of nodding, moshing, intense faces. Out of solitude, communion; out of tranquility, sounds. 

I suspect the beauty of this final act will depend upon your tolerance for Finnish death metal - I should thank my brother, and his eclectic record collection, for building mine up so - although even this outpouring of noise is itself a release of sorts, we come to understand. The action throughout may have been minimal, but the journey has been epic: you really do emerge from these 98 minutes feeling as though you've been transported somewhere, albeit via a decidedly scenic and unfamiliar route. Naturally, like commune life or Lordi B-sides, it won't be for everyone - one already has visions of sceptical audience members checking their texts and plotting their own, most literal-minded of escapes - but this eminently experimental, experiential venture may be the closest the cinema has yet come to matching Thoreau's Walden: not just a retreat but a getaway, and a manifesto for a whole other way of living.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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