Cracking the Frame - The Sky Trembles

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Ben River's The Sky Trembles, the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers programmed in Cracking the Frame. An introduction to this hauntingly beautiful film can be found below. Cracking the Frame is a platform for Art Documentaries and Artist Films. See Cracking the Frame's website.

Circling around the Sky Trembles

Introducing a film is always a delicate matter. Words may color the experience of the images and sounds that will follow. Introducing a film like The Sky Trembles, the Earth is Afraid and the Eyes are not Two Bothers is particularly challenging because no words can replace the beauty of the images that you are about to see, the sounds you are about to hear. 

Images and Sounds

The deep pink-orange-yellow colors of the sunlight blending into in the earthy dusts of the desert, the glistering reflections of the light fall on rippling river water, the framing and compositions of the people in the sandy rocks, caves or empty shadowy alleys, trees that look like green cotton mist, the magic beauty of the horses who always seem to know more; these are all ‘nearby-descriptions’ of the visual aesthetics of Ben River’s film.

The beauty of the images is rendered more mysterious, sublime even,  because of the mixture with the sensibilities of sonic worlds, moving in and out of synch with the images: a barking dog, clacking bells, footsteps on the rocks, chirping birds, a baby crying, scraping noises, the hoarsely bellowing of a donkey, the threatening duration of a metal song, the rhythm of hands clapping, drums beating, the sounds of silence. These are ‘nearby descriptions’ of the soundtrack that opens up the images into other dimensions, transporting the materiality of the earth into an other-worldly, spiritual dimension. In this way the film “salutes all parts of the sky and the earth” – an explicit acknowledgment at the opening of the film that may count as the films poetic mission.

Within these visual and sonic worlds much is hidden, never directly expressed but one can sense a thousand ghostly presences. Instead of analyzing the film in a precise way, I will simply try to unfold some of these haunting presences buried in the depths of the images and sounds, so that they may reveal themselves perhaps at various moments during or after the screening, without precise location or moment. I will “circle around” the film so to speak by addressing  the two interlinked themes that The Sky Trembles, The Earth if Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers  addresses. 

As River’s has explained in several interviews The Sky Trembles emerged from two desires: on the one hand a desire to make a film about the process of filmmaking; and on the other hand to grasp a short story that had been haunting him for over ten years, Paul Bowles’ A Distant Episode.  A Distant Episode is about a Western professor of linguistics who travels to the South of Morocco to study local dialects and who has to face the loss of his confident and a rather arrogant self. When two of River’s friends and fellow filmmakers (Oliver Laxe and Shezad Dawood) were simultaneously shooting a film in Morocco, these two ideas merged into what became The Sky Trembles where a “film-about-film” transforms into a more surreal film about the hubris of western “travelers”.

Film about Film

So let me first “circle around” the idea of the film-about-film. Rivers himself has discussed this in interviews about The Sky Trembles. There are many films about the process of filmmaking, and usually these films can be divided into two categories: films that show the actual process of the “making of” in an observational mode – such as Hearts of Darkness about the filming of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now  or the Burden of Dreams about the shooting of Herzog’s Fitzgeraldo. Or fiction films that self-reflexively address the theme of filmmaking such as Godard’s Le Mepris, Trauffaut’s Day for Night, Fellini’s 8 ½, Altman’s The Player or more recently Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars.

Rivers was looking for a “third way” and his source of inspiration was Pere Portabella’s film from 1970, entitled  Vampire Cuadecuc. The word cuadecuc is the Catalan word for “worm's tail.” The term also refers to the unexposed footage at the end of a roll of film. Portabella’s film is a film that combines footage of the shooting of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula with behind the scenes footage (usually unexposed footage, certainly in the 1970s), shot in a way that it also creates a distance from the original film. So beyond observation, Vampire Cuadecuc creates its own universe, appropriating the other film, blending fiction and reality, giving everything a hybrid status. This film came closer to what Rivers had in mind for his own approach, and you will see how in the first half of the film elements of documentary and fiction are hard to untangle. We never know which scene belongs to Rivers’ film or to Laxe’s film – exactly in an ambiguity that makes The Sky Trembles neither a making of, nor a fictional film about film.

In The Sky Trembles Rivers follows French/Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxe during the actual shooting of his film Las Mimosas, which in itself seems like a Herzogian Fitzgeraldo-like adventure that is not without madness or other dangers. The other filmmaker that Rivers followed in Morocco is Shezad Dawood during the shooting of his science-fiction film Towards the Possible Film, which became another film called A Distant Episode, evoking in the title Paul Bowles’ essay; this is a second film by Rivers related to this dual inspirational desire of making a film about film and appropriating Paul Bowles’s universe. For now, let’s return to The Sky Trembles and look at a few other implicit references to the filmmaking process that resonate within the images without ever becoming explicit, but nevertheless have their effect.

Laxe’s film is set in the Atlas mountains and in the regions around Ourarzazat, the place in Morocco that has given its landscape and surroundings to hundreds of Hollywood and European films and series all familiar to us, ranging from Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia to The Sheltering Sky, Gladiator, Babel and Game of Thrones. And so the locations we see in both parts of  The Sky Trembles feel strangely familiar, like abandoned film sets – which in fact they sometimes are. So there is this implicit reference to the history of film that we can feel.

Another way in which we implicitly notice the presence of the camera (and hence is an implicit reference to the process of filmmaking) is in the durations of the shots. Because the film gives us the time and space to closely observe, attentively follow and patiently endure, the smallest details become noticeable: the breathing of a sleeping dog becomes an event. Moreover, one becomes more aware of the position of the camera. So without seeing literally a camera in the image (which only rarely we get a glimpse of), we do become aware of the camera, the editing and changing of the angle and place of filming, simply because we get time to notice the construction of the images – which adds all the more to the sensibility of this world where we can feel the camera.

Besides following an actual  film in the making, the familiarity of the mise-en-scene of the locations, and the noticeability of the camera,  there is a final element related to this “film about film” aspect in The Sky Trembles, which is a more general concern and approach of Ben Rivers as a filmmaker/artist. And this is the element of appropriation, the ways in which filmmaking is the construction of worlds that re-use elements from other film worlds, whether it is straightforward found footage, or simply the conscious re-use of small excerpts of sounds. Filmmaker Agnes Varda in her film The gleaners and I has described the art of filmmaking as “gleaning,” as a form of collecting left-overs to put them in a new perspective, re-value what had been lost, or has been thrown away, either found by accident, mined from the depths of the archives or up for grabs online. Described as piracy or stealing this is an unethical act, seen as gleaning and revaluing re-use becomes something else, an act of remembering and reviving.

It is possible to say that Ben Rivers is, in part, a gleaner. Besides his own footage, he plays with a lot of elements of other works. Of course this has always happened in art and film; nevertheless it seems to become a more prominent feature in contemporary audio-visual practices (both in artistic and non-artistic forms). Rivers gleans especially for sounds. His earlier film Slow Action (2011) for instance, sonically consists entirely out of excerpts of sound tracks of other films. Slow Action is a sort of post-apocalyptic science-fiction film (when sea levels have risen so high that only isolated islands remain) and questions the possibility of new civilizations to emerge on four different isolated islands, shot by Rivers himself on Lanzarotte Gunkajima, Tuvaku and Sommerset (where Rivers was born, not an island - yet). By returning to the past of film history (via the soundtrack), and to the past in general (via the references to the past in the images of deserted islands), and by recomposing it, he does not want to nostalgically reconstruct it as a “golden age of lost time”  (this is a line in the film) but rebuild it “out of the ruins of our wounds,” to create the possibility of a future. So reviving and reconstructing becomes an element of survival.

Slow Action itself is furthermore inspired by Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana, which had a voice-over read by film scholar Lotte Eisner; in Slow Action we similarly hear a voice-over from film theorist Ilona Halberstam. So the question of influence, inspiration and appropriation is a continuing one in the artistic filmic practices or world making, perhaps even a haunting question. And here I can make a bridge to the second theme, the second part of the film, related to the work of Paul Bowles, whose work is also haunted by these kinds of questions.

Bowles and “The Times of Tangier”

Let me then briefly circle around the second aspect of the film, related to the work of Paul Bowles. A Distant Episode, the inspirational source text of The Sky Trembles, is a short story written in 1945. In the 1930s Bowles went from New York to Morocco to find musical inspiration for his work as a composer. After the war he settled in Tangier, became a writer and a pivotal figure in the artistic bohemian ex-pat life of Tangier where many writers and artists spend wild times. Bowles also translated quite some of the oral works of Maghrebin story tellers and artists such as Mohammed Choukri and Mohammed Mrabet. While Bowles helped getting these works translated, passed on and made known to a larger audience, it is also known that the Amazigh writers have accused Bowles on occasions of stealing from their work. It’s an ambiguous matter. And in the hands of Bowles, the problem of appropriation becomes a specific colonial and post-colonial  issue. In his own writings, Bowles actually always questions the hubris of the outsider, the Western subject, who wants to enter a different world that he thinks he can approach and appropriate in his own way. In Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky (1949), for instance, famously filmed in 1990 by Bernardo Bertolluci, we see an American couple loosing themselves in the vast desert landscapes of Morocco. And of course, the linguist in A Distant Episode, a sort of alter ego of Bowles transformed into a filmmaker in Rivers’ film, is also confronted with an experience that is as humbling as it is cruel and violent.

While the spatial surrounding are an important element in the process of appropriation and transformation,  it is perhaps in the experience of time that a different relation with the earth and the skies is mostly to be discovered. Post-colonial scholar Homi Bhabha has called this altered form of temporal experience “Time of Tangier.” And here we find another element in the work of Rivers that relates him to Paul Bowles. When asked about the main character of his acclaimed feature film Two Years at Sea (2012), Rivers answered that what attracted him in Jake, the old man who lives like a hermit in the Scottish wilderness, was the fact that he is looking for different relations to time, and that this man living in the wilderness embodied precisely such different temporal experience. Unhindered by the striations of clock time, deadlines and agenda’s, a more open and fluid temporality, and to that what is not comprehensible by logic and western normative behavior alone, emerges.

Related to Morocco, the idea of a different temporality, a different sensibility to the movements of the earth and the skies (the moon that regularly also appears in The Sky Trembles), gets a more post-colonial framing. Homi Bhabha derived the idea of a “Time of Tangier” actually from an experience described by Roland Barthes, the white French semiotician who also liked to spend time in Tangier. It is an experience that taught Barthes how language, and cultural signs in general, are not closed signifiers but that any sign can be opened up in transnational and translational encounters. Paraphrasing Bhabha, Barthes describes his  Tangier experience: “Half-asleep on a banquette in a bar in Tangier, I can hear the stereophony of languages within earshot; music, conversations, chairs, glasses, Arabic, French … when suddenly the sentences are opened with the carnality of the voice and the incomprehensibility of language: I was myself a public space, a souk, words, small syntagma’s, bits of formulations, and no sentence could be formed.”

And so we see here, in the words of Roland Barthes translated by Homi Bhabha how a different temporality, a temporality of Tangiers, stretches out into otherworldly sensibilities. Countless travelers have entered (or wanted to enter) this other world, with more or less hubris, prudence or desire for change. One of my favorite films about this impossible search is Gilles Mckinnon’s Hideous Kinky (1998), Kate Winslet traveling in Morocco with her two young daughters in search of “another dimension” of life. And perhaps also the last images of Marlene Dietrich disappearing in the desert, into the unknown, at the end of Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1931). It is a search not without dangers. The couple in The Sheltering Sky argue that tourists always keep on thinking of home, but that the traveler might never get back home again.

It is this danger that also is tangible in The Sky Trembles, The Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers. As one of the Moroccan character’s tells the filmmaker in the film: “You have been circling around trouble for a long time, now you have found it.”  Now,  I have been circling around The Sky Trembles long enough, and it is time you actually get to experience the film. Wishing you an interesting journey full of encounters and events that will stay with you, enrich you, maybe even haunt you, like Bowles’ A Distant Episode did for Ben Rivers and which now lives again, appropriated, revived, in his mysterious film about film.