Who is Ben Rivers? In the most immediate sense, he is the director of THE SKY TREMBLES AND THE EARTH IS AFRAID AND THE TWO EYES ARE NOT BROTHERS (2015), but he doesn’t seem to be comfortable with the category of director. Rivers splits his time between the gallery and the cinema, and The Sky Trembles was screened in conjunction with the Renaissance Society’s presentation of his first U.S. exhibition, Urth. The unwieldy title is taken from the 1947 Paul Bowles short story “A Distant Episode,” of which much of the film is an adaptation. In short, Rivers makes art film, and in that respect, he has certainly succeeded here. Unfortunately, it seems that he was so concerned with making true art that he forgot to check if he was making good art.
Before addressing the film’s issues, credit should be given where it is due. This film has some truly innovative sound design and breathtakingly beautiful wide landscape shots. The use of camera-microphone separation creates an effect that can be truly uncanny. In fact, if Rivers limited his goal to making a collection of pleasant sights and sounds, the film would be a resounding success.
Unfortunately, his repeated insistence on tackling big topics undermines the film and leaves the audience dissatisfied. Take, for instance, the question of the line between documentary and fiction. This is certainly a subject about which there is much to be said. It’s disappointing then that this film refuses to say anything at all.
It is true that the beginning of the film is documentary footage of real director Oliver Laxe making a real film, Mimosas, and it is also true that the end of the film is not documentary footage according to Rivers. But within the sphere of the movie itself, there is nothing to suggest that the austere beginning is not just as staged as the more outlandish final act. To truly elicit a meaningful response from the audience, he would have to establish a verisimilitude early on that could then be broken for some effect, be it alienation or simply interest.
The story the film is based on is often read as an early example of literature addressing postcolonial themes. Clearly, Rivers thought that the use of Bowles’s story would be sufficient to carry this theme into his film.
Here we see the difference between difficult filmmaking and lazy filmmaking. Difficult filmmaking buries the value and meaning in the film in such a way that accessing it requires cognitive work on the part of the viewer. Lazy filmmaking merely suggests the issue and relies on the viewer to fill in the trenchant commentary themselves. The postcolonial theme of this film never progresses beyond the rather facile role reversal of the white man who was controlling natives now being controlled by them. Rivers fails to use the substantive tools at his disposal to address the postcolonial problem.
The second half clearly aims for a tone somewhere along the lines of harrowing, but it hits closer to tedious. Perhaps this is because we’ve become used to Rivers’s bag of tricks at this point, but it is hard not to view the abuses heaped on Laxe as a sort of art-house “torture porn,” perfect for the 25- to 50-year-old intelligentsia to gasp over and relay in hushed tones to their 25- to 50-year-old intelligentsia friends. The beautiful landscapes of the opening section are abandoned for claustrophobic desert villages, but the novelty doesn’t seem to go further than the visual.
Ultimately, this film is a lesson in proper expectation-setting; Rivers has used the trappings of a great movie for one that is simply cute.
Ben River’s film-based exhibit, Urth, will be at the Renaissance Society through November 6.