Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness: Ben Rivers Interview

I'm interested in the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Labs - who made the remarkable feature Leviathan a couple of years ago - so I'm definitely curious about Manakamana, opening this week at the Cinematheque; but I have not seen it yet. Friends with an interest in experimental documentary assure me it's great, and Charles Mudede writes about it here. I have, however, sought out A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness, also opening, and interviewed Ben Rivers, one of the two filmmakers behind it, for The Georgia Straight. What follows are some outtakes from that conversation!
Allan MacInnis: I’m not sure if it was you or Ben Russell, but one of you said in an interview with Cinema-Scope that in a way, an audience that is unfamiliar with your individual works is an ideal one. First off, I am that ideal audience; I haven’t seen any of  your other films as yet. But also I wanted to ask if you could explain that comment?

Ben Rivers: I think what we were getting at was just this idea that - I guess there’s a lot of people who haven’t seen our work, but then there’s a bunch that have, and the ones who have, they often watch it and try to pick apart who did what, who made which decision, who decided to shoot that bit of moss and who decided to shoot the band. They’re trying in a way to break apart the collaboration into constituent parts, and for us, the collaboration the was a way of trying to meld two minds, so it wasn’t so clear. The idea of a collaboration is to try and push each other to do something different. So that’s why - I guess we meant, if somebody came to the film with completely fresh eyes and wasn’t aware of what we’d done before,  then they wouldn’t be [tempted to do that].

AM: I’ve read a little bit about your work - that you usually work with 16mm film and hand-develop it yourself. Are you still using your usually methodology for this?

BR: Um… I mean, I always shoot on 16, and I’ve made 25 films and I always use 16. I like it. But the black and white films I hand-process, and I still do that - I’ve got a bunch of film in my kitchen ready to process - but the colour films I get done at the lab. Spell was obviously done at the lab - the black and white films have physical remnants of the hand processing, so…

AM: That makes sense. Anyhow, it’s a beautiful looking film. But you were still shooting on 16?

BR: Yeah. Both of us - we believe in film as a medium. As a material, there’s something about it which is a bit more alchemical. I guess we’re both sort of invested in this idea of a kind of magic that happens with the camera. You point it at the world, and the world responds with light, and this is caught chemically on a physical piece of material, and eventually you shine light through that material and you get the image back. That’s a very different thing from digital, which is recording things in a very different kind of way. I don’t know - there’s something in the grain, the movement of each frame, is kind of important, I think. I think for me, one of the reasons that I use film is, I also like the way it kind of forces you to look differently at the world. You have to really think about what you’re filming. You’re kind of forced into it, partly because of the economics - you’re forced to make some heavy decisions about the necessity of what you’re filming, unlike digital where you can just film for hours and hours. It’s a different mindset.
AM: How scripted is what we’re seeing, how much of this was planned before you began shooting?

BR: It’s a kind of mix. It’s pretty planned - thinking about the different representations of time in each section, and how we were going to deal with that formally with the camera, the decisions for the camerawork and the editing. But then within that there was still a lot of unknown factors. [For example,] we set up a scene where we follow a woman to her house to lie down with her husband and baby, but we don’t know what their interaction was going to be. We leave that open, so that there’s surprises.

AM: I wanted to ask about exactly that shot, actually. I thought that was a very exciting shot. There’s such tenderness between the father and the sleeping baby. Was that set up?

BR: We knew that he was in there with the baby, but we actually didn’t know that it was going to be that beautiful! (Laughs). Yeah. It’s really great - and I can’t remember whether it was me or Ben who shot that shot. That’s one of the nice things, we often took it in turns to shoot stuff. But with those walking shots, when he went into the house… I think he was shooting it, so I didn’t actually see that until we got the film back from the lab, which was a month later. That’s the other thing with film, you have to wait, so you get these really great surprises when you see the footage. But it’s a good example of setting something up and not being really directorial about it, setting up every tiny thing. There’s no script, we never wrote any kind of script. There was kind of a fairly long treatment, but that’s as far as we went in terms of writing down things.
AM: Have you, or the other Ben, tried living communally?

BR: No, but I guess that part of the film came out of us talking about that and thinking about it as a possibility, and we’ve talked about it since, as well - thinking that maybe it’s something we’d like to try. It’s an ongoing conversation, but one of the things we were kind of clear about, was that all the people in the segment, they’re all people who have either lived or still live in some kind of communal living arrangement, and have had pretty positive experiences. We felt like it would be much easier to make a negative film about living communally, I think - because you hear a lot of stories. We both know friends who had grown up in communes and never want to do it again. But this film, even though there’s darkness in it, we didn’t want it to be that straightforward, that either it’s really really great, or it’s really terrible. We kind of wanted to talk about real possibilities that were positive.

AM: I wanted to ask about the dome that they’re building. I associate that kind of structure with Buckminster Fuller, and that’s exactly all I know about these things.

BR: Well, yeah - it’s a Buckminster Fuller dome. It’s a piece of architecture that was taken up by a lot of communities because it was very quick and easy to build. And cheap, and you can make it with all kinds of different materials. In that way, it’s a symbol of that time in the 60’s and 70’s when there was a big kind of commune movement, which we’re kind of aware didn’t really work out. It kind of failed. And so we were interested in showing these people who decided to live communally, building this structure that shows they’re clearly aware of the history of the commune movement. They know what it means, they know what this piece of architecture symbolizes - so they’re aware of the failures of the past generations, but they still think it’s worthwhile trying again.
AM: How did you get in contact with Robert A. A. Lowe?

BR: We chose him pretty early, because he’s actually an old friend of the other Ben’s. They both lived in Chicago and Ben was heavily involved in the music scene there, which is what Rob comes from. We were looking at possible people to be in the film and Ben showed me a Youtube clip of Rob performing and I really loved it. I could see why he thought Rob would be a good person, because he gets into a kind of trance when he’s performing onstage. He’s very embodied.

AM: Was he performing as Lichens before the film was shot? Because there are those images of actual lichens in there.

BR: Yeah, no, he’s been performing as Lichens for ages. So even though we wanted shots of Lichens, it’s also a little nod to his fans.

AM: He seems like he feels the wonder of what they’re doing at the commune. But he leaves. It’s tempting to read that as sort of figuring the failure of the communal movement, or at least the impossibility of him finding a place there. I mean, he doesn’t just stay at the commune. So that seems like a critical commentary - am I reading too much into that?

BR: No, I think that is definitely one possible reading. We don’t want to be… that’s kind of how I see it. One of the things that Ben and I talked about all the way along is that these three things could happen in any order, they’re not necessarily happening in the order that you see them. But the problem is, when you have a piece of cinema, you have to choose the order. And so you can’t get away from narrative consequence. [But he does return to a sort of communal model at the end:] Being in that kind of situation of a live show is kind of a mix of the commune of the first part and the solitude of the second part. Because when you’re in a show, you’re surrounded by society, but you’re having a very individual experience.
AM: For me - I’m a punk, I’m a music fan, I’ve been embroiled in the music scene in Vancouver for quite awhile and what I always feel is that there’s something remarkable and utopian and positive going on while you’re in the gig, and then afterwards you’re outside in an alienated urban environment in the same old shit you were in before you went into the gig. There’s that in the film, right?

BR: Yeah. I think that is in the film. You’ve kind of hit the nail on the head, in a way, because the film is in a sense about Utopia, but realizing that Utopia is not a permanent thing. It’s something kind of transitory that you pass through.

AM: There’s a Hakim Bey reference in there - a Temporary Autonomous Zone reference.

BR: Exactly. I really like the idea.

AM: I’d wanted to ask about geography. The film gives the impression, maybe by accident, that these three areas are geographically congruent. Are they?

BR: It’s all Scandinavia. A lot of our talking came out of thinking about that particular kind of place, the North. Originally it was all going to be shot in Norway, because we were thinking about this kind of sublime landscape, as well, and how that effects the humans surrounded by this crazy enormous scary beauty. But for various reasons we ended up shooting in Norway, Finland, and Estonia. The commune is in Estonia.
AM: The burning building brought to mind burning churches. I know Norwegians don’t like that association, but that was intentional…? (Note: see more of Rivers' answer to this question online only at the Straight website; I believe the print edition, out Wednesday, will not have this section).

BR: Sure, there is obviously a relationship to the church burnings. The black metal movement in Norway - that’s why we had to film the black metal segment in Norway, because that’s the birthplace of that particular subgenre...

AM: In terms of relationship to landscapes, some of the stuff in the solitude sequence, I’m wondering if there’s any particular film practice or other films that inspired some of the images of nature? Coming from the Pacific Northwest, looking at some of the images, I was surprised to find myself thinking of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, say in the close ups of ants crawling. But I don’t know your influences…

BR: I’ve seen Old Joy and really like it, and I watch a lot of cinema, but… in many ways, we talked about paintings quite a bit before going to Finland. And we looked around and found stuff that seemed right, instinctively. It’s hard to pin down. We weren’t really talking about other films when we were filming it.
AM: What paintings?

BR: We talked a bit about the Hudson school of painting, and the romantics, like Friedrich - Friedrich definitely came up a few times. But that was less about the close ups, it was more to do with Rob in the landscape and thinking about his figure in the landscape, trying to place him in such a way that his character sort of recedes and he becomes part of the landscape, if that makes sense.

AM: Is his only line of dialogue in the film, the only word he speaks, “pancakes?” Am I right about that?

BR: I think you are right about that. (Laughs).

AM: Trivially, I just want to tell you something. I don’t play music myself, but as part of my participation in the music scene in Vancouver, I sometimes participate in pancake noise events, where people get together and eat pancakes and listen to harsh noise, often in underground venues. I’ve flipped pancakes at three of them now.

BR: So you really related to that!

AM: Yeah! Pancakes! (Laughter). Two other quick things. That mirror that he looks in after he walks away from the performance, where was that? Was it actually backstage at a venue?

BR: Yeah, it was backstage at a venue. We filmed it at a normal Oslo venue that has metal shows, and every other kind of show as well, and that’s just the normal dressing room at the back.

AM: One last tiny thing. The triangle that you cut to, between or before each segment. What is that triangle? Can you explain?

BR: The triangle itself is, when you have film processed, and then tele-cined, they put a punch hole at the beginning and the end of the role, so that gets logged. That basically logs the material so you know what frame you’re on in the rest of footage. Usually it’s a hole - usually it’s a circle. But the lab that we used had a triangular puncher, so that’s why it’s a triangle. But that was like a gift to us, because there are other triangles in the movie, and we were always talking about the triangle - the equal three sides, because that’s what we thought the film was. All three parts are meant to be of equal importance, there’s no hierarchy among them. That’s why there’s a triangle, and if you watch carefully, there’s other triangles in the film.

AM: The one I’m talking about that flickers briefly, is it scratched into the film?

BR: I don’t know if they scratch it. You know when you have a hole punch to put a piece of paper in a binder, they use something a little bit like that.

AM: Is that the actual lab mark we’re seeing, then?

BR: Yeah, that’s their doing.

AM: Hm! It’s not perfect, it looks kind of hand-done.

BR: Yeah, it’s imperfect. It’s got kind of hairs on it and stuff!  
A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness opens today (Wednesday June 25th) at the Cinematheque.

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