Ben Rivers will screen his work in person this Sunday, March 22, 7:00 pm, at Los Angeles Filmforum at the Egyptian Theater. 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90028.
Ben Rivers' film This Is My Land begins abruptly: a portrait of a cat, a few seconds of a tattered flag and then an older man, his visage partly obscured by absurdly large flora. The sound that plays over these images is fragmentary--whistling, someone humming the beginnings of songs, snippets of conversation--and at first it is impossible to guess the relationship between the sounds and the images. Like a rock skipping across water, the sound is separate from the image, moving above it, propelled forward by its brief moments of contact.
Rivers' best films all have this velocity. Velocity is perhaps a strange word to use to describe a body of work singularly obsessed with rural Northern Europe and the men that inhabit its most remote quarters, but there it is. The films proceed with force--they are fired from the projector--with the rhythm of brisk walking that anyone who does their thinking with their feet will recognize. But there is more than the peripatetic to this pace: Rivers' films also have something of an urban junk aesthetic to them. The framing is reminiscent of either Ken Jacobs or Charles Burnett, seemingly containing too much information to achieve the graceful balance each frame conveys. The cutting is also reminiscent of Ken Jacobs or else Leslie Thornton, which is telling: Rivers' countryside is not pre-industrial, it's post-apocalyptic.
Even so, if there is the slightest tinge of science-fiction to these films, it is of the older, utopian variety. The subjects of the documentaries are as unique as the documentaries themselves, living off the land in a sort of paradise of detritus.
Rivers' films don't unfold along conventional lines but instead grow, something like a Darwinian process rather than a linear one. One shot doesn't necessarily lead to the next (although there is the occasional, dazzling rhyme); instead, all of the shots lean on one another, resembling the clustered-junk dreamshacks Rivers' illustrates. There is something dreamy about these films; they are not didactic in the least. We don't even really see any of the subjects' labor or understand how they continue to live at all. They are the selves we sometimes daydream about while on a walk in the woods, carving a life out of sunlight and leisure.