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Art of the fleeting moment
A region 0 DVD review of RIVERS AND TIDES by Slarek
 
"I don't think the earth needs me at all. But I do need it."
Andy Goldsworthy

 

If you are seriously interested in art, you'll already be familiar with the work of Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist who works exclusively with found objects, creating his pieces in nature and from nature. Very few achieve any sort of permanence, often being reclaimed by the landscape and the elements in a fraction of the time it took to create them, the only record of their existence being photographs that Goldsworthy himself takes. A man who usually works alone in often isolated conditions, Goldsworthy is by his own admission not a people person, and perhaps the most remarkable achievement of Thomas Riedelsheimer's wonderful documentary is how intimate a bond the director appears to form with him, and how close we, as an audience, are subsequently drawn into his world and his approach to his art.

Subtitled Andy Goldsworthy: Working With Time, it is this aspect that the film successfully explores in a way that Goldsworthy's own photographs cannot, with both the time spent on the creation of a work and its sometimes fleeting existence vividly captured here. Despite the semi-abstract nature of his works, the effort Goldsworthy invests into them is probably easier for an audience to connect with than that of a more studio-based artist. Often involving long hours of physical labour and repetative toil, his anguish when a wind change destroys a complex and delicate construction provokes an empathathic response that few would feel for a painter rubbing his head in dismay because that particular shade of red just isn't working for him. The physicality of Goldsworthy's effort is seen particularly in his fingers, which are constantly blackened from bruises and adorned with Elastoplast. He doesn't like to wear gloves, he tells us when working for hours with ice, as he needs to feel the texture of his materials.

Andy Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy is remarkable in part for being able to look at a leaf, a rock or a piece of wood and not only visualise it transformed into something abstractly beautiful, but also for having the know-how required to effect that transformation. A lovely example of this comes early on in the film, when he travels to Nova Scotia to work on a new commission (for whom we are never told, and I for one was curious about this, given the very temporary nature of his pieces). He starts by using icicles – broken off from their original location and joined by warming the ends in water and freezing them to the next piece of the sculpture – to create the snake-like shape that has become a familiar icon in his work. That it is constructed to appear as if it is passing through a rock is interesting, but there is still a sense that this is a minor piece, that is until the sun rises the following morning and illuminates the ice sculpture like a twisted strip of neon. The effect is breathtaking, and its beauty catches even Goldsworthy by surprise. A short while later the piece is melting away, lost to the surroundings that gave birth to its component parts. Similarly the spiral wooden 'whirlpool' he creates in the same location that is so admired by a passing local has only a few hours to live before being washed away by the tide, a process that Riedelsheimer's camera observes with loving detail.

It is extraordinary how closely we connect with Goldsworthy, his complete and utter dedication to the creation of each piece prompting much more than just admiration for his persistence. Less than 20 minutes in he begins work on building a large cone from nearby slabs of rock on a shoreline that will be under water in a matter of hours. Here he is not so much working with time as against it (indeed, at one point he suggests that Riedelsheimer "stop filming and collect stones instead – do something useful"), and is approximately one third of the way through its construction when it suddenly collapses. I was genuinely wound up by this, and when a second one showed signs of doing likewise I was actually chewing my fingernails with tension. This was during my first cinema viewing of the film, but to my surprise I had exactly the same reaction when watching it again on DVD. I wanted Goldsworthy to succeed so much, understood so well the pain of working for so long on something only to have it fail, that I had complete empathy with him. You don't have to be an artist to understand how he feels as he lets let out an anguished "Shit!" as this second (actually, as we discover, the fourth) cone suddenly falters. There is a real sense of triumph when the final one not only stands, but even after being completely submerged by the tide remains intact.

Cone

It helps that Goldsworthy, despite, or in part perhaps because of his total dedication his art, is actually very likable, and a long way from the brashly over-confident Young British Artists targeted by the likes of Private Eye. He talks throughout about his work, sometimes to camera, sometimes in voiceover, and though occasionally may seem to be bordering on pretension he is always sincere, and when he says something like "I feel as if I have touched the heart of the place," you kind of know what he means.

In the first half-hour Riedelsheimer paints a compelling portrait of what could almost be an artistic cliché, of the serious, slightly out-there isolationist, working alone and unapproachable by normal mortals, an image that is most unexpectedly shattered on Goldsworthy's return to his home in Penpont in Scotland. Having watched him break down laughing at an Alpine cow that is disrupting his attempt to explain the artistic appeal of a particular plant, we are then introduced to the noisy, semi-chaotic nature of his home-life. Far from the isolated loner, Goldsworthy is a dedicated family man who jokes with his wife about his work and plays enthusiastically with his kids. He is also very much part of the local community, with which he openly interacts. That said, he later confirms that he enjoys being on his own, and can find interaction with people "draining."

Riedelsheimer – who as well as directing also shot and edited the movie – creates moving images that do justice to Goldsworthy's work, exploring them them in very cinematic detail, drifting over them in floating SteadiCam shots and elegantly executed pans, cranes and tracks. When works are framed motionlessly, Riedelsheimer still adds a cinematic element, as on the field-located stone cone that, through a series of dissolves, we see slowly obscured by plant life. Fred Frith's music score, which moves from celtic themes to an almost avante-garde use of single notes and percussion, effectively emphasises the beauty and simple purity of the artwork, as well as providing the key scenes with an almost other-worldly atmosphere. The music also most effectively underscores the tension in the aforementioned cone creation sequence.

The motivation and dedication that drives individual artists has been a subject for a fair number of Hollywood and independent films, but despite some notable near misses – Ed Harris's Pollock would certainly qualify here – they have never completely nailed it because of the need to conform to the perceived expectations of a largely mainstream audience. Thomas Riedelsheimer's beautifully executed documentary gets as close to understanding the artist and his art as any film I've seen. Inevitably, it is not as overwhelmingly effective on DVD as it was sitting in the front row of a cinema, where the imagery fills your field of vision, but it still makes for compelling, inspirational viewing, and helps immeasurably to appreciate the dedication, patience and effort that can go into a work that, for just a few hours, minutes, or even seconds, really will take your breath away.

sound and vision

This is the German region 0 disk from Absolut Median, at the time of writing the only DVD available of the film.

Ice Sculpture

Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic video, this is a reasonable but less than perfect transfer. A single layer disk, there are sometimes quite evident compression artefacts in large areas of single colour, usually grays. The contrast is variable – sometimes it is very pleasing, but there are a fair few scenes where the solid blacks we expect from DVD are not really there. Colours are generally good without being outstanding. Some of these issues are down to the restrictions of filming Goldsworthy in a rain-soaked Scottish field, where contrast levels are going to be low anyway, but having only recently viewed the film on a cinema screen I feel sure a better job could have been done. It's a serviceable presentation, but Goldsworthy's (and Riedelsheimer's) work deserves the best possible transfer – the sharpest picture, the finest contrast, the most beautifully rendered colours.

There are two soundtracks available, both of them Dolby 2.0, one the original English, the other a German dub. A 5.1 mix would really have added to the experience, with the sounds of nature and Fred Frith's music so key to the atmosphere of the piece. Once again, a serviceable rather than outstanding job.

extra features

There a a very small number of extras here, but the arrangement of the menus and sub-menus initially fools you into thinking there are a few more.

The Gallery option offers two further features, Gallery Register and Photo Gallery. Both are actually useful to a limited degree. Gallery Register lists all of the artworks created by Goldsworthy in the film (in German, of course) and provides links to the chapters in which they appear. The Photo Gallery consists of just 16 photographs, half screen size, a mixture of publicity shots and behind-the-scenes pictures of Riedelsheimer at work. Though small, these are actually rather good, as they do show how the director achieved some of his drifting camera shots (a Pro Jib mounted on a tripod is both flexible and rather portable).

The Production Notes give brief background information on the making of the film, but are in German, so you will need to know the lingo to make use of them. The same goes for the Biographies of Goldsworthy, Riedelsheimer and Frith, and the brief extracts from Reviews.

Soundtrack is a simple promo for the soundtrack CD, accompanied by one of the Celtic themes from the film, and provides a web site URL for you to visit (and possibly buy from). Links lists some further URLS of sites that contain information on the film. Finally Credits DVD lists, well, the DVD credits.

summary

Rivers and Tides is a spellbinding portrait of a unique and dedicated artist and absolutely should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in the possibilities of an alternative approach to art. Despite the indoor construction of one extraordinary piece – a huge clay wall whose intricate construction is impossible to appreciate until it starts to dry – Goldsworthy's work challenges the idea that art has to be put on public display to have value, and indeed suggests that it need exist for no more than a few seconds to achieve importance and beauty. Riedelsheimer clearly recognises that, and his film does not merely observe the artist at work, it both understands and celebrates him through its own, particular beauty.

At the time of writing, Absolut Median's German region 0 disk is the only DVD available of the film, so it's something of a one-horse race at present. Rivers and Tides is no Hollywood blockbuster nor indie sleeper, and it would take a determined distributor to strike a new transfer and remix the sound. But I would hope that somewhere out there, someone feels it would be worthwhile – the quality of the film alone may just inspire someone in the right position in a sympathetic DVD distribution company to want to do the film justice. In the meantime, this is an adequate if uninspiring disk, and is still preferable to not having the film. If by some fluke you can catch it on the big screen, then do so, as that's where it belongs, but otherwise this DVD will have to do, and you could still do a lot worse.

Rivers and Tides

Germany / UK / Finland 2000
91 mins
director
Thomas Riedelscheimer
starring
Andy Goldsworthy

DVD details
region 0 (Germany)
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Stereo 2.0
languages
English
German
subtitles
German
French
extras
Gallery
Production notes
Soundtrack info
distributor
Absolut Median
review posted
9 March 2004

Related review
Rivers and Tides – US, UK and German comparison review

See all of Slarek's reviews