Tuesday 27 October 2020

Animal crossing: "Now, At Last!"

Regular readers will be aware that MUBI spotted a gap in the market this uncertain lockdown year, and sought to fill it by finding the most leftfield artefact ever screened in the UK. The film composed of swatches of material may have thought it had the title sewn up; but that was before the Canadian film named after a library classification system, and the one that found a horny woman flirting with a parrot for 70 minutes. Well, stop the press. The second half of this month's Ben Rivers double-bill - following on the heels of the comparatively straightforward Ghost Strata - may well end up taking the biscuit. Hell will freeze over before anything this esoteric ever again appears on the official release schedule. Now, At Last! could almost be a Rivers remake of Michael Snow's Wavelength, that equal parts groundbreaking and exasperating landmark of experimental cinema in which all the action occurs just off-camera. There is action of a sort to behold here, but not much, and what little there is proceeds at a sloth's pace. As in, the speed of an actual sloth. That's right: for just under forty minutes, we're left watching a cuddly example of bradypus variegatus (named, in the closing credits, as one "Cherry") as she ambles up the arm of a tree at the Jaguar Rescue Center in Costa Rica, in what resembles the raw live feed an Attenborough documentary would edit down to one-or-two minutes tops. To give her her due, Cherry sets off at a cracking pace, then - just shy of ten minutes in, with half an hour still to go - she comes to a complete standstill, for no good reason. Don't be scared off: you'll have seen bigger-budgeted studio films that do exactly the same thing.

It allows Rivers, a proven hand at experimenting with onscreen time, to mould and reshape the tension that follows from putting centre-frame a figure who absolutely refuses to budge or proceed in the manner one would expect of a filmed entity. He's like a comedian who lets an awkward pause drag on until the point where it becomes funny again. Such is the absence of visual activity that every barely perceptible camera movement begins to count double. Images are conjured of the director, just off-screen, dancing around and waving his arms in an effort to catch this obstinate critter's eye and coax her into getting a scurry on: move, you fucker! (How many directors have taken similar measures when faced with an underenergised performer?) Still, Cherry holds out, and so Rivers is obliged to cut in crystalline close-ups of an adorable snout or tiny, overworked paws, incredibly precise in what they add to the description of this stretched-out moment, a hanging-on both literal and figurative. If you're watching with a friend or loved one, there will be at least one occasion over the forty minutes where you will turn to one another and ask "Has it died?" But much as Rivers has infinite patience, so too his star has endurance and range: what we're watching, for the most part, is a sloth playing possum. Hang in there yourself, because something funny, unexpected and even rather beautiful comes to pass, marked by one of the year's most apposite soundtrack selections. But you'll have to wait for it. Slow cinema, absolutely, but as playful as slow cinema gets - look closely (you've got time), and you'll spot the conceptual cogs and pistons beneath the film's bonnet going ten to the dozen.

Now, At Last! is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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