One indicator of how much more diverse and interesting the UK release schedule has been in 2020 compared to previous years: the newfound prominence of the free-floating British artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers. Rivers' essayistic feature Krabi, 2562 found its way onto the docket back in May, affording locked-down viewers a welcome glimpse of life in a Thai holiday resort; as that emerges on DVD, MUBI UK now premieres Rivers' 45-minute short Ghost Strata. Where its predecessor was bound up with place, the new film is more clearly about time. Its title refers to those shadows and absences in rockface that help experts determine a more complete picture of geological time, and what we're watching is effectively that which Rivers chiselled out of one twelve-month period, scenes recorded over the course of a single year. A visit to a fortune teller; birds circling a lagoon; a souvenir of a holiday in Greece; a memory of a bamboo forest. His soundtrack is equally variform: what we hear are snippets of audio uncoupled from the image, more often than not spectral stirrings from the past, with the interrupting snaps, crackles and pops to prove it. Put it together, and you get a film-diary or workbook, in the tradition of Jonas Mekas, albeit without any contextualising voiceover to bind its constituent parts together. We're left to interpret the whole as we will - indeed, its success may be largely dependent on your willingness to make those interpretations for yourself.
One advantage is that Rivers' eye has always been drawn to textured, tangible images, representing immediately intriguing ideas. The option is certainly there to tie yourself in knots thinking how all these loose ends connect thematically, but as in the director's best films, you could equally just sit back and enjoy the looking. For there is good looking to be had here: rock formations that resemble lunar landscapes or silent screams; details of paintings illuminated by an art historian; the extraordinary bits and bobs left behind whenever the Thames recedes. What Ghost Strata seems to be getting at is the way elements from the past come to speak through time to us. (One reason the world's now so noisy is that the past won't shut up: we have to make our peace with it just to hear ourselves think.) By the time the film reaches December, reuniting us with the actors who played cavemen in Krabi, 2562, we've been afforded a richer sense of Rivers' workings, how the R&D of Ghost Strata fed into the themes of the feature proper. One dreads to think how empty his 2020 visual diary must be, but Ghost Strata has assumed an extra, unexpected resonance for emerging at the end of a year where radios the world over have been pumping out a daily death count. Observing the film's transient glories, turning them over in the mind like pebbles, we are confronted once again by the realisation that whatever we might leave behind or set down by way of permanence, we are all just passing through, no more at the last than existential tourists. But what a guide and navigator Rivers is proving to be.
Ghost Strata is now streaming via MUBI UK.