Film brilliantly captures artist's connection with nature

March 21, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC@SUBHEDRivers and Tides

Unrated. Sun score:****

In its own quiet, voluptuous way, Rivers and Tides, an unpretentiously brilliant documentary, uses the work of Scottish sculptor Andy Goldsworthy to open up the hidden drama of the natural universe.

Goldsworthy's method is to invade a setting, "shake hands with it," sense its ruling shapes and rhythms, and use the materials at his fingertips - stones, leaves, ice - to create open-air forms that illuminate their environment. Then he watches as the elements either embrace or destroy his work.

At low tide in a pool where a river meets the sea, he creates a vortex-like shape from white driftwood, then observes the waters rising and pulling it out and apart. He takes still photos to record his own bounteous creativity - and these photos become another form of art - but he feels more rooted in the Earth precisely because he can't control when the forces of this planet will enhance his sculptures, split them up, or do both in turn. As you grow to understand it, this push-pull dynamic deepens and enriches Rivers and Tides and makes it more than simply a gorgeous nature film or an enlightening portrait of an individualistic artist.

Goldsworthy doesn't separate the human element from the other elements. At one point, he lines an existing stone wall with downy wool, partly to recall how shepherding has changed the Scottish landscape. At another point, he erects a stone wall for the Storm King Arts Center in Mountainville, N.Y.

This installation permits him to do several things at once. It commemorates the traditions of Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic immigrants. It reflects Goldsworthy's preferred serpentine river-like pattern on dry land and ultimately even intersects with a river, forging the sculptor's favorite form of connection between invented and found forms. And it also makes a statement on how walls that once fenced trees out of farms now provide spaces in which trees can grow.

Moviemaker Thomas Riedelsheimer does such a subtle, uncoercive job of putting the audience in Goldsworthy's boots that you're shocked at how quickly he elicits total identification - you feel the collapse of a stone construction on a barren shore as a stinging defeat. It helps that Goldsworthy is such a direct, no-guff artist, expressing himself as far as he can in words and then letting his art do the rest. His immersion in his immediate experience is so intense that you're happily shocked to discover that he has a happy family.

Rivers and Tides is the rare work about an artist that is enhancing, not parasitic. Riedelsheimer's moving pictures capture better than even a series of stills the concepts of seasons and duration that give Goldsworthy's big rock seed-cones, colored ribbons made of leaves or billowing snow ghosts their primal fierceness, poignancy and poetry. Fred Frith's music has a seductive, understated pluck and twang, but the song I kept thinking of was "Turn, Turn, Turn."

Naqoyqatsi

Rated PG. Sun score: *

Naqoyqatsi takes its name from a Hopi Indian noun meaning "a life of killing each other" or "war as a way of life" and also interpreted, we are told, as "civilized violence." Yet Godfrey Reggio's latest attempt at a feature-length visual abstraction has none of the sinew or stark clarity of Rivers and Tides, and when you hear a male chorus chanting "Naqoyqatsi," the stab at primal power may make you howl or snicker. (In place of narration, the film has one more numbing Philip Glass score.)

I've never been a fan of Reggio's brand of intellectualized impressionism, but at least in his first film, Koyaanisqatsi, he minted some intriguing tropes, like the use of fast motion to make streams of traffic replicate super-sped-up lava flows or clouds resemble chemicals combusting. Naqoyqatsi, in an attempt to explore the digital revolution and globalization, resorts to visualizations of computer grids as old as 1982's Disney fantasy Tron.

The movie may work as a head trip, but Reggio is over his head here in more ways than one. His use of computer-generated imagery has none of the obsessive poetry that the Pixar people bring to their cartoons or that George Lucas brings to Star Wars - it is a mush of visual cliches. And his insinuations of meaning make the counterculture favorites of old seem tough-minded: He goes further than Hearts and Minds did in equating athletic competition with combat, and tries to wring apocalyptic portents out of fast-food come-ons.

The movie tries to move from appropriations of cutting-edge informational tools through an exploration of new, universal languages of action and consumption and then on to an evocation of sheer digital-era speed. But rather than quicken your perceptions, this movie, with its utter lack of poetic rigor, lands you in the aesthetic equivalent of a coma.

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