By Jeffrey M. Anderson Scots sculptor Andy Goldsworthy was born of nature and has spent his life attempting to return to nature. The first time we see him, he's building a sculpture outdoors in the freezing cold -- a kind of snaking zig-zag made from icicles that weaves in and out of the sides of a rock.
We laymen, we poor city-bound folk, think to ourselves, "why would he do that when it's just going to melt?"
The melting, it turns out, is part of the sculpture. It's one of the first questions German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer asks in his extraordinary new documentary Rivers and Tides, which took home the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival and now opens at the Roxie for a two-week run.
Goldsworthy explains that he doesn't see it as "destruction," but rather as a part of the passage of time, the movement of energy from one place to another -- the mysterious workings of nature.
More than once, we watch as Goldsworthy's sculptures reach a breaking point and tumble down due to excess wind or gravity. These are heartbreaking moments, but Goldsworthy doesn't get mad. He tries to understand the fall and incorporate it into his next work.
Though Goldsworthy makes artistic statements with unlimited odds and ends, from blackened sticks to moss and mud to a red-pigmented stone found in a river bed, he seems most obsessed with one form -- a twisty, snaky, looping line -- like a river winding through its natural course.
At least half his sculptures consist of this line. He builds a strange, green wiry grass that passes through leaves and trees near the side of a stream, as well as a huge stone fence that weaves around trees and ducks under the water near his house.
The film never asks how Goldsworthy chooses where these lines begin and where they end, but I presume that's one of the mysteries that Goldsworthy himself is constantly struggling to discover. After all, nature has a gigantic canvas with which to stretch out its lines, and Goldsworthy is stuck with only a human-sized space.
Though the film spends a good deal of time showing the sculptor at work, Rivers and Tides does leave some of Goldsworthy's sculptures as mysteries. The camera simply lingers over them with no explanation or narration; these were my favorite moments in the movie. While Goldsworthy is certainly a charismatic character, with his polite voice, perpetually mussed hair and half-grown beard, his explanations sometimes force poetry onto his images that might be better left unspoken.
Indeed, Rivers and Tides might have made a powerful silent film, accompanied only by Fred Frith's excellent score.
But the existing film is far from ruined. Rather, it's a beautiful, meditative piece that allows the viewer his or her own time to think and discover. While pop-culture items like Juwanna Mann and TV's "American Idol" slowly suck away at our souls, Rivers and Tides goes a long way towards restoring them.
Docurama Films has released a gorgeous 10th anniversary Blu-Ray edition for 2011, and it's the best I've seen it since it was new on the big screen. Extras include several short films about Goldsworthy (including one about giant snowballs in summer), a lengthy interview with the director, and a photo gallery.