In the limited world of true art films -- that is, documentaries about visual artists -- "Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time" is the equivalent of a blockbuster. The movie, a collaboration between British earthworks artist Goldsworthy and German director Thomas Riedelsheimer, has found an unexpectedly large audience even before a wider national release. (The film opened Friday in Los Angeles and other cities.)
"Rivers and Tides" has been playing in the Bay Area since June 26 at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema, after being named best documentary feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Tiny San Francisco-based Roxie Releasing, which owns that theater, also is handling the film's distribution. It has grossed nearly $1 million to date, most of that from Northern California, although the film has also done well in New York and Boston, where it recently opened. By comparison, Artisan Entertainment's far higher-profile "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is considered one of 2002's most commercially successful documentaries, earning about $1.6 million nationally.
"This is the biggest film we've released," says Rick Norris, Roxie's president. "We're amazed at the repeat business. At certain theaters, they've done informal surveys on whether people have seen the movie before. We've found people who have seen it six times." Those surveys show that the film appeals to environmentalists and Eastern-religion enthusiasts as much as contemporary-art followers.
Goldsworthy, 46, is known in the U.S. primarily for his 2,278-foot stone wall that snakes gracefully, seemingly organically, through the forested grounds of the Storm King Art Center sculpture park in Mountainville, N.Y. But "Rivers and Tides" captures him working on a far more intimate scale. He intuitively, with a sense of almost cosmic wonderment, engages in making ephemeral but beautiful art in remote locations. His projects are about creating profound moments as much as enduring objects.
He assembles a chain of bright green leaves and lets it busily swirl and flow down a river. With bare hands in the cold, he creates an icicle sculpture that glistens in the sun -- which starts to melt it. "The very thing that brings my work to life is the thing that will cause its death," he says proudly. Riedelsheimer, who spent a year following Goldsworthy around Nova Scotia and rural Scotland, where Goldsworthy has lived since 1986, eschews formal interviews in the film. He lets his subject work and talk, accompanied by the meditative cinematography and a soothing yet insistently rhythmic score by Fred Frith.
Goldsworthy has been doing this kind of work since the late 1970s, but it has been seen mostly in his photographs and books. Even then, he is hardly a household name. So the film has given people a rare chance to see Goldsworthy at work. Exhibitors, at first caught unaware, now realize that audience potential is exceeding expectations.
A national release
L.A.-based Landmark Theatres -- the nation's largest art-house chain, with theaters in 17 markets, including Los Angeles -- is working with Roxie to give the film a national release. Landmark first played "Rivers and Tides" in Berkeley after noticing the strong business in San Francisco. "Sometimes you tap into something that has extraordinary depth and you don't know why," says Ray Price, Landmark's vice president for marketing. "But eventually this mushroomed into 'My Big Fat Greek Environmental Sculpture.'
"Traditionally, a documentary about an artist would have an extraordinarily limited audience," he says. "But I think Goldsworthy's ideas have a political and spiritual value for audiences. But it's not the politics of a polemicist. It appeals to anyone who ever threw a snowball. It strikes people who remember when they used to experience wonderment as a child."
Spirituality, not mysticism
Some have also responded to Goldsworthy as a mystic or seer -- a practitioner of transcendence. But the artist, taking a break from installing a stone work at a New York gallery to discuss the movie by telephone, dislikes such terms.
"They trouble me -- I don't see myself as some sort of mystic," he says. "It really gives me the creeps, that kind of reading. I would hope my work has a deep spiritual content to it, but it's not being done in a self-consciously shamanistic or ritualistic way."
Yet he also understands why he's attracting such a response -- because he sees art and nature, and by extension humanity and nature, as one. "While I'm not pretending that what I'm doing is anything but being made by the hand of a person, the intention is to draw from nature itself and to understand it," he explains. "Inevitably, the division between what I make and what is already there is not so clear. And that's the great thing. It draws the place out into my hands."
Riedelsheimer, whose previous work as a director and cinematographer has taken him from Tibet to Tanzania, became interested in Goldsworthy after reading a magazine article eight years ago. They stayed in touch during the years it took to acquire European financing, including public funding from Scotland. The actual film took a year to make.
"The year of working with Andy was a calm experience," Riedelsheimer says. "There was a feeling that we were doing something together. He sharpened my view on nature."
Last year Goldsworthy created a stone cairn, a recurring motif, outside San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art. That museum plans to open a Goldsworthy show -- devoted to this cairn plus two permanent and three temporary ones he built across the U.S., including one near San Francisco -- on April 27.
True, San Diego is far more urban and congested than his home in Scotland, but Goldsworthy is comfortable making art there -- or in Los Angeles. "If there's one weakness in the film, it's that it's more pastoral than my art," he says. "I do work in a lot of situations that are not remote or wild; some of them are quite urban. I guess I'm drawn to those places where nature is strongest, but I can find nature in most places that I am."