Cat's cradle

Ben Rivers' short films at Other Cinema and SF Cinematheque seek out overgrown paths
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Peeping into life

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Independent, slyly defiant, and given to zigzags, the cat is the spirit animal for a certain breed of cinematic gleaners. The films of Warren Sonbert and Chris Marker are packed with the feline kind. A kitty or two shows through the lucid abstractions of Nathaniel Dorsky's recent work, and Agnès Varda's La Pointe-Courte (1954) uses the animal as a structural device. Accordingly, Ben Rivers' This is My Land (2006) opens with a lithe creature snapping its head to face the camera. There are several other such mysterious cameos across the 14-minute film, one of several bricolage studies Rivers has composed of off-the-grid settlers who are themselves catlike in both appearance (the whiskers and quick smile) and manner (gentle wildness).

Rivers must appreciate the cat's association with the gothic, given his propensity to label his shorts as either horrors or portraits. The London-based filmmaker and programmer comes to town this week for two rare programs split along these lines, though it isn't as stark a divide as it might first sound. The films are all exquisite documents of overgrown spaces, the kind in which the past is made palimpsest, audible in the creak of floorboards and everywhere apparent in the makeshift and ajar.

There are traces of Murnau, Dreyer, and Herzog in Rivers' work; the films are welcome demonstrations that Expressionism is nothing so much as a feeling for how the physical world relates to the spiritual one, though musical references are equally revealing. The beards, spirits, and foliage evoke the deep English folk of the Incredible String Band and Roy Harper. In addition, the field recording quilt-work done by Lucky Dragons and the Books provides a useful analogue to Rivers non-sync style. Shot with a wind-up Bolex, Rivers processes the film stock himself, leaving grain and light flecks unpolished, with sound and image each representing an autonomous, well-portioned montage. The films open the same rich interstices of avant-garde, documentary, and ethnography as Apichatpong Weerasethakul's work, but with an intense intimacy that makes them seem like home movies of the highest order.

The old dark house imagery of Rivers' gothic curios strike a particularly English chord, but the back-to-the-land portraiture has a special resonance in California. We too know these beards, this tumble of wilderness, this particular migration. If these figures seem to age differently, it's because their living choices represent a decisive approach to both space and time, something Rivers represents with great cinematic adroitness. The specter of global warming and natural disaster thickens these reclusive reliefs. Rivers has admitted his fondness for '70s postapocalypse moves, a ripe genre rearticulated in the lunar landscapes and scrapyard play of Ah, Liberty! (2008). Horror, in this context, is a kind of awe. It is inseparable from nature — it is, in fact, nature reclaiming civilization.

"[There are] all kind of wild animals [here], and it's only because I let it get wild. And that's my point, but nobody will get it," the central figure of Astrika (2006) explains. Rivers, of course, does get it. The homesteaders' scattered debris suggests Rivers' own secondhand materials, improvised objects like a birdfeeder made from a milk container reflect his films construction, and the ethos of self-sufficiency is admired and enacted. The human warmth of his filmmaking emanates from these affinities, which go beyond sympathy to touch the elusive nerve of experience. Rivers' wind-up camera means that no single shot can exceed 30 seconds. But when the pitter-patter of his images settles on something strange and moving, like a distant view of a horse rolling in the snow, it reminds us that beauty is often a humbling drama of the glimpse.

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