The up-and-coming British experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers knows how to draw audiences in with the familiar, then set the hook deeper with elusive enigmas of a particular loveliness. He cultivates an air of intrigue and mystery in his films, with no intention of providing answers or resolution. You can't accuse Rivers of being calculating or clever, coy or cruel. Not when he's providing so much droll, delicious pleasure.
The prolific artist visits the Bay Area for the first time this week with two distinctly different shows at venues connected by the 14 Mission bus. The Poetic Horror of Ben Rivers, Saturday night's program at Other Cinema, consists (as its title suggests) of his elegant riffs on haunted spaces, dangerous places and startled gazes. (Rivers is trawling in the fine English wake of Hammer and Hitchcock, in other words, with tongue planted just as firmly in cheek.)
The one-minute We The People, the most prosaic of these works, is comprised of shots of stolid, deserted streets and buildings underlain with a soundtrack of people intermittently running and yelling -- fleeing some monster, perhaps, or army, or virus. This piece, as well as The Hyrcynium Wood, a rural reverie of leafless branches and unseen atrocities, is black and white and gray all over, evoking the aged, ghostly, weather-beaten texture we associate with, say, the Shackelford Expedition footage taken nearly a century ago.
Rivers loves that aesthetic -- and who can blame him -- and employs it in three of the films in This Is My Land: Ben Rivers' Portraits and Landscapes, screening Sunday night at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts under the auspices of the S.F. Cinematheque. The title piece in this collection of nonfiction studies is a glancing profile of Jake Williams, an isolated, self-contained Scotsman who lives with his cat in a house in the Aberdeenshire woods. (The last section of the film, shot in the snowy middle of winter, is as beautiful as it is poignant.) In The Coming Race, hundreds of people climb a rocky, steep hill in some unidentified but clearly bizarre ritual. Both films make eccentric use of ambient sound, imbuing everyday noises with a touch of the surreal.
The moviegoer who sees both programs is likely to conclude that, in Rivers' dreamy world, real people act just as oddly as fictional characters. One possible explanation is that Rivers has a heightened appreciation for British eccentricity; another is that he's an eccentric himself. (He lives in Brighton, not London, which tells us something.) If so, he is a most genial and generous eccentric, inviting us into the beautiful, amusing and mysterious world he sees.
The Poetic Horror of Ben Rivers screens Saturday, March 28, 2009 at 8:30pm at Other Cinema in San Francisco. For information visit www.othercinema.com. This Is My Land: Ben Rivers' Portraits and Landscapes screens Sunday, March 29, 2009 at 7:30pm at Yerba Buena Center For the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.ybca.org.