It was Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse who may have said it best: “‘Film director’ is one of the last dictatorial posts left.” And in A Matter of Life and Death, or, The Filmmaker’s Nightmare—a repertory series at the Harvard Film Archive guided by filmmaker and Radcliffe fellow Ben Rivers, in which Hearts of Darkness will play (Oct 16, 7pm)—we watch with ecstasy as dictatorships come crumbling down.
“We decided to make the program ‘films about films which turn bad,’” Rivers explains to us from a table at Harvard Square’s Tealuxe, while taking a brief break from another night’s work on—you guessed right—an upcoming film. “In this season, reality is hazy, whether they’re fiction, or documentaries, or something in between. Lies are being told in service of a film’s greater needs. That’s what cinema does: it tells lies. And things go wrong, often ending in death.”
Rivers is a 42-year-old artist, based in London, whose shorts and features—among them Two Years at Sea and A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness—have consistently played in theaters and galleries for more than 10 years. But since we’re profiling him as a programmer, it may be better to say that he’s a man who can explain to you why the pseudo-pornographic films of Jean Rollin can no longer be exhibited theatrically. He’s a man who’ll screen a shimmering Hollywood self-critique like Sunset Boulevard next to a film as ruthlessly shimmerless as Peeping Tom. He can explain to you why he prefers Super 16 to 35mm, and why he prefers to see digital transfers of films in 2K rather than 4K. In short, he’s a man who loves movies—with great passion, and without prejudice.
Rivers’ movies wear that passion on their sleeve, like a badge of honor. Actually—to put it more accurately—they wear it on the front of their own film prints, like a glorious scar. He often films his portraits in 16mm, with dirt and scratches sharing screen space alongside his chosen subjects. That print damage is his signature. But the movies have other names next to his own. Both of those aforementioned features were the product of long-term collaborations. As he speaks softly, often deferring his own credit away, we see that this man is not wearing the cap of a directorial dictator. “I avoid that by trying to spend time with people,” he tells us, in regards to authoritarian urges. “Not just turning up, shooting for six weeks, and disappearing. I like to be a bit more immersed. But I also think that [my new] film was a way of looking at that, addressing that, thinking about it. Without offering any answers.”
That new film would be The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, (Oct. 9, 7pm) wherein Rivers considers his directorial throne from afar. A plot description can be dispensed rather quickly: filmmaker Oliver Laxe features in the sun-kissed, Moroccan-set picture, as a director working under methods that are notably similar to Rivers’ own. He directs local actors and residents from behind a camera he operates himself, and Sky Trembles stares dispassionately—in the manner of a fly-on-the-wall featurette you might find on a DVD’s extra features section—as he crafts his creation. Then Laxe abandons the set. Then he goes for a drive, into the darkness. Then he’s kidnapped into slavery by local bandits—at which point we realize the film has shifted, rather imperceptibly, into the realm of fiction. Only once we see Laxe dressed in a suit of tin cans, dancing for his captors, we can interpret the shift more directly: Sky Trembles becomes a loose adaptation of Paul Bowles’ short story “A Distant Episode.” The director, trying to control that which he does not comprehend, has become the directed. The frame of his movie expands so wide that it swallows him whole.
Rivers tells us about the Moroccan image that helped to fuel his film’s oneiric and bittersweet perspective: “You’d find these film sets that were built for big budget movies—they look like villages dropped into the middle of nowhere—and then you’d go up close and realize that they’re fake.” That image is a contradiction in its own right. And the rest of the films in the series play against each other—in the same way that The Sky Trembles plays with itself—by collectively subverting and contradicting every ideological theory of filmmaking that gets raised. Some of the films treat the filming of foreign lands as exploration, while others identify the act as exploitation. Some see filmmaking as the pursuit of knowledge, while others take it as the indulgence of fetish. Rivers’ own film shifts from nonfiction to fiction, while a few others seem to move in the opposite direction. In fact, The Sky Trembles works to erase the line between “staged” and “captured” as completely as possible.
“To me, it’s all multilayered: The fiction elements are not quite fiction, and the supposedly documentary parts are fiction in places … there are things in the ‘documentary’ section of The Sky Trembles that are entirely [staged], and there are things in the ‘fiction’ part that are improvised and observational.”
The remaining films in the Filmmaker’s Nightmare series cross lines like that: between genres, nations, and any other classifications you can think of—including and especially “fiction or nonfiction.” What connects them are their surface interest in the nature of filmmaking, and in the effect that it has on the body and mind: As Rivers writes in the program notes accompanying the series, “There is something perversely compelling about seeing someone who is a mirror version of yourself being taken down a road of obsession and disaster, finding what at the end?” Many of the American films in the program—particularly Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (Oct 24, 8:30pm)—are emblematic of that push-pull between intensely crazed artistic passion and the internal faults and flaws that such a passion inevitably reveals. They deconstruct the sociopolitical horrors wrought by the industry, but they dance to opulent scores while they do it.
“Along with Cuadecuc Vampir, The Last Movie is the one that had the biggest influence on my new film. What [Hopper] does to try and understand what it means for an American filmmaker to go to another country … that is very key and important to my film. And that’s what Bowles is all about, in a way, too. Not quite ‘stranger in a strange place,’ but more specifically, ‘The rich westerner goes somewhere and feels like they have the world at their feet and that they have control of the situation, but then they realize that’s not the case, and the people around them are very intelligent, and they’re the ones who’re in control, and it’s too late to do anything about it.’”
We’ve kept Mr. Rivers from the editing bay long enough. But we do offer one last inquiry. It’s a cheap trick to throw an old quote at someone, but Rivers once said something that conflicts with this series’ thematic thesis, in a manner that’s far too direct to ignore. He said that “the utopia of the present is cinema.”
“I think it still can be,” he offers, after a pause longer than most. “In my film, there is a doom that’s found, but there’s also a transformation. [Oliver] reaches some sort of freedom. There’s a weird sort of hope that remains…”
Then Rivers stops, continuing to roll this last contradiction of filmmaking philosophy around—in his head, from his throne—before volunteering that he had no resolution to offer us. Or, at least, he doesn’t have one yet. Maybe by the end of the last movie—if not by the end of The Last Movie—we’ll have figured it out.
Ben Rivers on Peeping Tom (director Michael Powell, 1960): “That’s a supremely upsetting film. I first saw it on TV, probably by accident, and certainly too young. And I found it more disturbing than all the horror films I was watching. Those horror films had a ridiculousness to them. They had humor. And Peeping Tom doesn’t have a sense of humor. It’s profoundly creepy—its almost sticky.”
On Beware of a Holy Whore (director RW Fassbinder, 1971): “I watched it again just two weeks ago, and thought, ‘Shit, we really need to put this film in [the program].’ I don’t know if Fassbinder was as bad as the director depicted in this movie, but it really is hilarious, and incredible. For ages they’re all languid, not doing anything. Then there’s explosions of anger and emotion and crying. And there’s this shot in it: They’re all outside on the veranda, and Hanna Schygulla is dancing, then the director gets punched in the gut, but she keeps dancing, and everyone else is doing other stuff—it’s amazing.” Oct 30, 7pm.
On Cuadecuc, Vampir (director Pere Portabella, 1971): “A key film for this series. In a way, it’s also a starting point for my own films as well. Because it’s filming a real movie being made (Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula) but there’s no exposition. There’s no explaining what’s happening. And there’s no dialogue until the very end. It’s filming the [production of] Dracula, but you don’t see the apparatus: Portabella is shooting what Franco is shooting, but from a different angle. So you’re seeing the edges of the artifice. And it’s shot with this beautiful high-contrast black-and-white. Again: this idea of fiction and reality merging, inseparable. It’s the last film in the schedule, but Cuadecuc is the center of the program.” A Distant Episode, a new short film by Rivers, will precede the screening. Oct 31, 9pm.
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, OR, A FILMMAKER’S NIGHTMARE. FILMS SCREENING AT THE HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE THROUGH THE END OF OCTOBER. SEE HCL.HARVARD.EDU/HFA FOR ADDITIONAL SHOWTIMES AND OTHER DETAILS.