Slow Action

10/02/2011

U.K. / 2010 / English

Directed by Ben Rivers

Still from 'Slow Action'Like journal entries about Earth written and left behind by visiting lifeforms, British filmmaker Ben Rivers’ film Slow Action summons the shapes and atmospheres of foreign worlds, but from existing places that we never hear about. Out of these pictures he builds unique, obtuse, and revisionist views of both nature and social change, concocting strange fictions that seem applicable to no place, and still could play like parables of any place, at any point in time, so strikingly indistinct are they. He brings in vintage imaginings of utopias, from Erewhon to Lost Horizon, while examining the presumed objectivity of visual anthropology and political documentary storytelling (neither of which he firmly belongs to, but both of which he incorporates in his work), and comparing them to the debunked ‘wisdom’ of their predecessors from past centuries.

Rivers takes his camera to four obscure islands in various corners of the globe (‘corners’ of the globe?), shooting in anamorphic 16mm, adding some subtle (manipulating the colors and film grain) and not so subtle (strange laser impositions floating above the land) variations on the documentary footage he provides, the still landscapes and occasional specters of human habitation characterizing these ghost-town outposts on the high seas seemingly sought out for their otherworldly loneliness. The use of ‘scope to create an extra-wide picture not only informs the filmmaker’s approach to landscape (allowing him to rein in a high gradient of variance and detail without bunching them together) but also suggests a conscious pretension toward the epic sensibility that one finds in Robert Flaherty films like White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) or Cooper and Schoedsack’s Grass (1925). The small-format intimacy of 16mm, which dominated documentary and anthropological filmmaking for so long, keeps the feel of classic nature films. Actively fictionalizing real places that he is documenting, Rivers charms and horrifies us, sometimes evoking the pity we may feel for an anthropologist who is obviously and hopelessly disconnected from the people he’s watching. Rivers is so disconnected that he barely films people at all, favoring instead our vestiges, our inimitable and intrusive presence that marks much of the planet.

At first the narrators, seemingly meant to be describing these locations, make it seem as though Rivers, upon ‘listening’ to the places he has visited, responds with his own invented words of possible or speculative accounts of the environs. However it turns out that Rivers received the written text for the film from cult writer Mark von Schlegell, who was given no prior input nor allowed to see any of the film (or even know to where Rivers was traveling to shoot it). So the result is a text that, on the one hand, seems hilariously unrelated to the imagery, but on the other, fits well enough so that one would not necessarily guess as to the disconnected process, the double-blind nature of the director/writer collaboration behind it, solely upon seeing the film. The writing draws on travel literature and colonizers’ narratives, mingled under the guise of entries in a great ‘encyclopedia’, ostensibly pertaining to existing examples of utopias throughout the world, and presided over by a mysterious ‘curator.’

The first island that he visits is referred to as “Eleven,” its name lending it an an appropriately encyclopedic anonymity or exchangeability. The narration outlines a people driven to underground pools by the searing heat of the day, and a culture that comes alive at night, the darkness of which gives way to all manner of permissiveness. He plays with the conception of island societies as tidal pools, or experimental petri dishes where things can be observed in isolation. Of course the observation taints itself, and focusing on the uninhabited outer reaches of the planet speaks of a wish for objectivity in the commentator that is consequently as wonky as an island adrift, as a plowed land that was never meant for humans. He stalks throughout the barren and windswept place, which becomes, variously, Mars, a savannah, or a city erased by an H-bomb.

In addition to showing modernist homes standing silent against the desert sky, or megalithic mobile sculptures that seem to be artifacts of ancient astronomers, Rivers seeks out geometries within the landscape that appear man-made but which couldn’t be more defined by nature: the conical mountains, pill-shaped mesas and fractal ridges of a horizon on the island (which, evidently, is Lanzarote). At the same time the evidence littering the island bearing man’s artificial imprint tends toward the vegetal – three curious and carrot-like banners span the mouth of an underground lake; terraced farmland stretches in a stepped, Fibonacci expanse – as though it were trying to evade the elements by becoming one with them or camouflaging into the surroundings.

Still from 'Slow Action'With the next chapter, the narration goes from sterile and prosaic, to subjectively descriptive, referring to the ground of the Society Islands as “like the dilapidated skin of an impossibly ancient body.” Using the name of an actual island chain (Tahiti is its main port) for this part, von Schlegell mixes English names of individual places with ones that are presumably native-sounding, introducing a place refracted and garbled by colonization. Of any of the four chapters of the film, this one has the greatest feel of a series of vacation pictures, with awkward pans over the shoreline, waving locals going about their business or leisure activities, and shots of incidental wildlife. This creates the hilarious effect of underlining the disparity between Rivers’ images and von Schlegell’s writing, the tone of the latter increasing in its bewildered-alien feel with the heightened reality of the former. Not only are the words so way-off from what we see, but they are strangely related as well. While the narrator describes the green-plumed bird of the island, we see a plain duck in an enclosure; hearing of the heroic lifestyles of the people, we see a group of kids and an adult traversing the waves on a giant piece of Styrofoam. They have correspondence in reality but seem misinterpreted. Rivers is not after a thoroughly disconnected experience for the viewer but rather, one of anticipated strangeness, adjusted reference points, new norms in documentation and information-gathering that range from puerile to poignant, oblique to incisive.

Even in such a mundanely civilized space, Rivers resists including actual people in many of his shots, either because it would detract from von Schlegell’s writing, which has hit a hyperdrive of wackiness, or because he wants to highlight the process of fictionalizing the land as much as making up stories about societies. One memorable panning shot goes from an idyllic-looking tropical glade to an enormous garbage dump adjoining it. No frame in the film is constricted, nor is it allowed to go without fissure – just as no apparent paradise can be seen without evidence of its waste.

There is a pervasive instinct in describing cultures of so-called “developing nations” (are they all developing on an equal time line, with equal resources? Is there a due-date?) towards cold reductionism that tries to appear like objective paralleling with what the author knows, i.e. focusing on the theatricality of their violence (like ceremonial battles of pacified Papuans) or the senseless complexity of their rituals (like the yam bartering of the Trobriand Islanders), the venality of their politicians (as in almost anywhere “else”). The epic storytelling of the Society Islands natives is described, along with the assertion that recounting their own lives in exaggerated detail is all people do all day – “life on the Society Islands is very novelistic.” When a person decides the story of her or his own life has reached its conclusion, she or he commits suicide. Everything in Rivers’ world seems to arise mysteriously and end spectacularly.

The account of the island in the third chapter is said to have been written by a researcher for the utopia encyclopedia itself, cast out to sea and discovered four hundred years later. So the images are meant to be a document of the man’s own imagination, his shattered, inner dreamworld that he fashioned and lived in all by himself. Once again, something that has post-apocalyptic connotations is actually eerily close to the onscreen reality. Shot on an island belonging to Japan that was once densely populated (and remains crammed with buildings) but was abruptly abandoned altogether, this portion of the film has the most poignant atmosphere of decay and forlornness that connects it powerfully to the themes running through Rivers’ other films.

Still from 'Slow Action'The sense of tragedy overwhelms the space, as well as a coming-apart that could either have been sudden bluster, an explosion, or the slow patter of years spent in neglect. The text comes directly from the man who created the place (“we are all our own ghosts and visitors” he says) and the emptiness of the place suggests a sort of self-destruction inherent in his isolation. On a literal level, the imagery shows the intensiveness of modern habitation, how it is itself on par with a natural disaster. But unlike the actual people who lived on and left the island, the mysterious journalist writing about it had no place to go when it turned inhospitable, and, leaving behind his ranting words on existence, dissolved into the sea…

…which brings us to Somerset, a place of masks, of an utterly chimeric outward appearance that is structureless due to constant overhaul. Up to this point Rivers has followed a sensitively composed progression from a plateau world, seemingly devoid of humanity, and too sterile and delicate to sustain it; to one whose small and shrinking boundaries are fortified by growing hills of trash, ringed by hard chemical foam on its lapping shores; to a place that was developed and inhabited to the point where it could be no longer. Here he may easily be filming the woods near his house, while actors mime inscrutable rituals of everyday life while wearing cumbersome clay masks. These are people for whom ceremony has consumed every aspect of daily life, to the point where they never take off their ritual garb.

In this chapter, as in the one before it, the human subject(s) almost seem to “hi-jack” the narration, the last few minutes accelerating to a barrage of ideas, piling up to an apocalyptic fervor and questioning who, precisely, has been providing the narration all along. They speak of revolution and the need for perpetually shifting social values, a dystopian ideology that equates survival with upheaval. The various tribes of the island are isolated from each other and only meet in combat, forever trying to reach a central social order but can never cohere because of an addiction to change. Nothing permanent is constructed, so there is no destruction. Everything is nascent, teetering at the edge of starting to exist.

How does this final place constitute a paradise? It is Somerset’s continual renewal, unlike the seemingly frozen, sculptural Eleven, or the suffocated Society Islands, or the mouldering Kannzenashima, that makes it the most perfected, and at the same time the most doomed to never really coming into focus or becoming concrete. The title of the film holds a direct Darwinian connection, and the approach itself, that defies time as an observable or interconnected continuum, suggests an impossibly protracted scale against which to discern gradual alteration. In the world of the film change comes primarily from within, and yet the graffiti of colonization is sprayed all over it, the alteration, deterioration, and dissection that successive waves of humanity scratch into the ground and that haunt the surface of the Earth. They never really leave, as mortal and mercurial as we ourselves are.

Still from 'Slow Action'Slow Action is an imitation of an ethnographic film about a post-humanity world, depicting the present time as the bleak future it embodies or denotes, a hyperreality that has its roots in fiction – which is itself an outgrowth of observation. Rivers imposes details of cultural study to his nearly depopulated pictures, amplifying the role of a disinterested anthropologist. In an age of permanence, in which our monoliths only calcify in the landscape, our material culture only sublimates to its irreducible, toxic molecules, we want to look outward to an ideal that is perfect and stable. But the external is imaginary, because we’ve swallowed everything up in our inverted vortex of development, the outer edges of which are the refuse, the inner point an ivory tower. The places he and von Schlegell describe are like monkey’s paws of utopian dreaming, a wish for perfection whose actual fruition is utterly horrible – where greatness means self-destruction, where egalitarianism means no civilization, where sustainability means no people whatsoever – all undesirable but all inherent in our faulty and limited notions of perfection.

Some of the work of Ben Russell (a kindred spirit and sometimes-collaborator of Rivers’) conjures similar sorts of parallels within documentary, but also imposing what might be termed crypto-narratives against the backdrop of the imagery. A compelling example of this practice can be seen in Russell’s Terra Incognita (2002), which, on one level, resembles eccentric vacation snaps – images of the statues of Easter Island and the motionless, volcanic landscape around them, recorded with a pinhole camera. But in collecting the images not through a modern lens but by way of an old and obscure, pre-cinematic method, Russell engages with the inscrutable ancientness of what he sees, from a comparably archaic vantage point. The film takes on a present-to-past interface that rubs off time, or omits its existence entirely, at the same time impersonating a time capsule, one that ponders colonialism, exploration, exploitation, revision.

The narration, culled from historical accounts, fantasizes about places unknown, even when they are right there, living and breathing. Parts of Slow Action can be very reminiscent of this common thread between Rivers’ and Russell’s films; there is a heavy involvement in narrative in one form or another (this is arguably the most text-dependent of Rivers’ films, and Russell tends to use spoken narration a great deal more than his British counterpart). The suggestions of stories epic, fantastical, and science-ficitonal character sprout intriguingly beneath the surface of the academic-sounding voiceovers. The stories that are partly or not at all there speak of destruction (almost universally), as well as madness and isolation, and all of those things assimilated into social change. One might be put in mind of the real story of Clipperton, an island paradise that became cut off from the outside world and taken over by a power-crazed man, whose murderous excesses led the surviving people to destroy him.

Rivers is never content merely satirizing ethnographic cinema such as that of Jean Rouch or even passages of Jacques Cousteau movies – both of which have the potential to be rather profound even at the times when they are off-base – and rarely keeps a steady visual style that would seat them comfortably in documentary territory. His images are infected by light-leaks, rich with variations in film stock, overwhelmed or radically flattened by ancient hand-processing tricks. It isn’t simply the subjectivity that pervades this work, but the overall intent that distinguishes it from a travelogue or diary. While there are elements of both recurring throughout the images and the process, they never take hold of the work, rarely imparting to it much beyond beguiling complexity, and fall away completely in the stagey fourth quarter. One can read much of his work as remarking on the levels of manipulation that must occur for a documentary to make a point, but his scope is larger and in some ways more indefinite than a self-reflexive commentary on cinema. Take another recent film of Rivers’, Sack Barrow (2011), which can more legitimately be called a documentary, in which he stealthily and prosaically catalogs the last month of a decrepit factory. His sense for the geological, the mycological details of a human space, microscoped by a patient visual sensibility, brings the film almost into science fiction territory, while at the same time being a poignant document of labor and real life. Here too, but by way of explicit contrivances, he methodically unplugs the pictures from reality, in such a way that they retain its electric charge but carry messages that are at once distorted and more truthful than they would be without any intervention.

Rivers delights in creating, through manipulation of his own footage – and in this particular case, an interplay with text generated by someone else – a gray-area take on ethnography, travel documentaries, and personal narratives, immersing the viewer in an effectively unreal time and geography slipstream that at once harkens back to ancient and virginal paradises, and also fasts forward at a nauseating, H.G. Wells rate, to a future that is unrecognizable but bears awful evidence of present excess. Time, after all, being a force peculiar to humanity’s conception of things (and not all of humanity, for that matter), Rivers runs displacement and entropy down to their barest frameworks of cause-and-effect, change, setting the sailors adrift and crumbling statues in an instant, supplanting them with popsicle-stick effigies. If there is no time then there is no travel, no speed or duration. Certainly no history to keep things in order.

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