Rivers runs through it: SF Cinematheque screens Ben Rivers' "Ah, Liberty!" Sun/29 at YBCA. (Photo courtesy SF Cinematheque)

Back to Nature with Ben Rivers

Dennis Harvey March 27, 2009

It’s not so easy to get much attention for experimental filmmaking these days, but during just a decade of work to date England’s Ben Rivers has stirred interest on both sides of the Atlantic. He makes his Bay Area debut this week presenting in person two programs—"The Poetic Horror of Ben Rivers" at Artists’ Television Access Saturday the 28th, then "This Is My Land: Ben Rivers’ Portraits and Landscapes" via SF Cinematheque at the YBCA Screening Room Sunday night—and you can prepare yourself for a slightly dislocative experience at once tranquil and sinister.

Born in Somerset, the 37-year-old Londoner studied fine arts with an emphasis on sculpture, but found the added dimensions of movement and passing time that film could provide were sorely lacking. Starting with 8mm, he soon moved on to 16mm, hewing usually to B&W, further resisting our digital era by using a wind-up Bolex and hand-processing his works in the kitchen sink. He says he likes to "shoot footage and use it almost as if it were found footage," which it might often easily be mistaken for. There’s a timelessness to his works perhaps reflecting an interest of the medium’s entire history, which in turn is frequently spanned at the Brighton Cinematheque which he co-founded in 1996 and still helps program.

There’s a mystery, dreamlike haziness and fascination with "hermetic worlds created by other people or myself" to his films that transfigures their documentary material. The SF Cinematheque bill offers combined landscape and character portraits in which those two elements blur. You don’t have to know that This Is My Land is about Jake Williams, a classic hermit-looking type who lives with his cat in rural Scottish isolation, to soak in the detailed, admiring, yet slightly spooky disconnect from modern human society.

Similarly, the 20-minute Ah, Liberty! from last year—shot in beautiful B&W CinemaScope—regards a small family’s determinedly off-grid existence amongst hard-scrabble countryside and deteriorating creature comforts as something spectral, solitary, despite the celebratory title. It’s no surprise that Rivers professes great love for Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian writer (Hunger, Pan) whose fiction often portrayed individuals in both ecstatic and destructive resistance to the collective will. The extreme closeups (in color this time) illustrating another loner’s connection to his debris-littered property in Astika suggest a kind of oneness-with-nature bordering on personal entropy.

The "Poetic Horror" program, co-presented by Other Cinema and the SF Cinematheque, takes these ambiances of decay closer toward suspense and threat. 2005’s The Hyrcynium Wood is a pastiche of lyrical and ghostly images reminiscent of Guy Maddin; 2007’s silent House creepily investigates by flashlight an abandoned building’s decrepit interiors, its sheer suggestiveness ruptured by the sight of a lit candle floating supernaturally across a hallway.

Then there’s the 24-minute Terror!, a contextualizing detour into actual "found" footage: Excerpts from ’70s/‘80s horror films, including some famous ones by Lucio Fulci, John Carpenter, Dario Argento and others. Rivers cuts between those moments of incidental atmosphere and "Is anyone there" dread that invariably precede the awful (yet curiously relieving) "something" finally happening. Women hear strange noises, walk down dark corridors, flee through the woods in inappropriate clothing, etc. Finally, there’s a climactic compilation orgy of over-the-top violence—but with his emphasis on the loooooooooong buildup, Rivers signals his knowledge that what’s really creepy about these movies (as well as his own) are those disquieting moments when "nothing" is "happening," when shadowy interiors, hesitant movements and new distrust of a familiar environment suggest ominous secrets ready to be revealed.

If that description whets your appetite for more avant creepfests, you might also want to check out locally based Microcinema International’s new release Experiments in Terror 3. This latest in a series of DVD shorts collections "pounding a stake through the heart of genre convention" includes not just Rivers’ Terror!, but also works by Guy Maddin, Mike Kuchar, "J.X. Williams," Carey Burtt, Jason Bognacki and Clifton Childree.

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