Movies: Rivers and Tides (2001)

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by Tom Johnson

I have been mulling over how to properly review a film like Rivers and Tides, a documentary that follows sculptor Andy Goldsworthy as he creates his mind-boggling artwork. It almost seems cruel to attempt to judge a film like this, so beautiful, so gentle, and so mesmerizing, yet so far from what most movie goers will ever want to pay good money to see in a theater, or even as a rental. How do I put into positive words a film that may very well bore to tears the majority of people out there? Luckily, it’s likely that the only people who will see Rivers and Tides are those who could handle the graceful pace of this film. If you want action, this is precisely not the film for you.

Goldsworthy crafts his sculptures from natural elements culled from the immediate environment he is in. He surveys the land carefully, then begins gathering the components to complete whatever vision has arrived in his head. Generally working alone, Goldsworthy will construct unsupported structures of rock, leaves, or even ice, spending entire days building his pieces. Very often, by the end of the day, his works disappear. What he finds in nature to build with, nature takes back, and Goldsworthy is left only with a photograph to prove his work ever existed. He’s fine with that – in fact, that’s what he wants.

The majority of the film simply watches him work as he carefully places stone upon stone, or weaves leaves together in a river, accompanied only by the natural sounds around him. Occasionally the score of avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith interrupts, but only when it supports the scene, and never to detract or distract. All this serves the purpose of portraying not just Andy Goldsworthy, but Andy Goldsworthy’s world. Even though much of the film is nearly silent, each scene is filled with a thought-provoking silence as we watch Andy ponder what to do next to complete his day’s work.

Goldsworthy works swiftly and not only carefully but respectfully. When confronted with a setback, such as watching as the wind tears apart an entire nearly complete wall of intricately woven sticks cascading from a tree, Andy does not respond with anger or frustration — just a simple sigh. He knows that sometimes his work is simply not to be, and while nature is content to let him plunder its goods for his work, it imposes strict and varying time limits on him. With a moment of silence, Goldsworthy gathers the scattered remains of his work and begins again.

Goldsworthy’s art is pure. Watching him work, you know that he would engage in this type of activity with or without success and stature in the art world. For him, art is not the product but the act; his sense of accomplishment comes only from the very action of building his creations. Faced with the knowledge that his graceful compositions will eventually — and sometimes immediately — decay and disappear leaving no trace that anything he did ever existed, Goldsworthy simply has to enjoy his art in the moment.

While many artists struggle to make a permanent impact on the world and leave a legacy, Goldsworthy is content in knowing what he has done, and what he will do tomorrow, the next day, and every day of his life until he can no longer function. In leaving no trace, his work, and, in fact, Goldsworthy himself, leaves a far bigger impression than their humble creator would likely imagine. Like good art, this film takes on greater meaning long after it’s been viewed that it immediately seemed it would.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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