The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers Dir. Ben Rivers

[Artangel; 2016]

Styles: documentary, psychedelic, drama
Others: A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness, El Topo, The Passenger

Ben Rivers is a filmmaker content with taking the slow roll. Like Akerman and Antonioni before him, his stories often unfold as if there is no story at all, replacing conventional narrative with a pervasive mood that hangs in the air like smoke in a hash bar. It’s an approach ill-suited to some tastes — at the Portland International Film Festival, I watched at least two dozen people walk out on the film currently in question, and had one confounded older woman warn me before seeing it that “it seems to have a story to tell, it just doesn’t ever get to it” — but it has its adherents, this writer included.

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers started life as a multichannel installation inside an abandoned BBC set-building warehouse, where various parts of the film were incorporated into deconstructed and/or half-built set pieces. The public were guided through the space by vague sound and image cues, moving as if inside someone else’s dream. Edited together as a feature film, its pace is languid as fuck, and the boundaries between fiction and documentary are tangled and taffy-stretched beyond anything Rivers has done prior. It’s fitting that about a third of the film is given over to an adaptation of the Paul Bowles short story “A Distant Episode”: like Rivers, Bowles was a willfully unreliable documentarian, given to flights of fancy that documented perception and “feel” more than fact, and prone to passing between planes of reality. The Morocco where The Sky Trembles takes places is, more or less, the Morocco inhabited by Bowles; even the film’s title is a reference to another Bowles story, “He of the Assembly”, itself an inscrutable psychedelic journey (and I’m talking real-psychedelic, not 19th-generation-garage-band-that-bought-a-tape-echo-on-Ebay-psychedelic).

Still, if The Sky Trembles swims in a pool dug by Bowles, it dips its toes in slowly. The film starts as a deliberately paced “making of” documentary for Oliver Laxe’s film Las Mimosas, lulling viewers with long scenic shots and the inherent repetition of the filmmaking process. By the time the film cascades from documentary into literary adaptation, with Laxe as the hapless colonialist of the Bowles story, Rivers has given fresh cinematic meaning to that hoary old saw about it being about the journey rather than the destination. Said journey earns the designation of “dreamlike” without relying on any of the established tropes of dreamy cinema, instead using pace and the shifting sands of reality to make something like a long shot of Laxe driving through the desert blasting sludge metal seem positively otherworldly. When the sun-scorched violence of the film’s final act begins, the haze remains so thick that one’s surprise at the shift in tone is as muted as the colors of Rivers’s 16mm film stock.

Rivers has already proved himself an expert at bending documentary conventions to his will, blurring lines and drawing attention to the intrinsic artifice of his medium, but he’s really outdone himself here, taking the question of what is “real” and answering it with a few questions of his own. The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers will not make Rivers a household name; hell, with a title like that, it could be fucking Pulp Fiction and still not find the audience it deserves. If you lay prone long enough, though, this movie will cut open your brainpan with a tin can lid and crawl in deep. It may be too slow for some, but every careful move is a sure-footed step forward through a sandstorm, slow but steady, monstrous and unstoppable without having to prove it.

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