It may seem peculiar to say that the most interesting thing about a documentary is its use of Steadicam shots, though this probably reflects more on my personal viewing tendencies than the overall qualities of the film in question. As soothing to watch as it is stimulating to reflect upon, Rivers and Tides is a portrait of British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, who creates time-sensitive installations from materials taken from nature: stone and and wood, leaves and water. Director Thomas Riedelsheimer balances sequences of Goldsworthy diligently at work with his life in his home village of Penport in Scotland, while giving Goldsworthy ample room in the soundtrack to share his thoughts on how he taps into the ephemeral creative energies found in nature, crafted with the help of time and the elements. All of this makes the film one of the more enjoyable films about art in recent memory.
And yet, I keep thinking about those Steadicam shots. They take up about eleven minutes, or one eighth of the film’s runtime, and are scattered throughout the film as cinematic punctuation marks. These moments take the world of the film into a distinctly different dimension from the more humble, matter-of-fact footage of Goldsworthy at work or enjoying time with family and neighbors. These kinds of shots stand out so much in this movie that they beg the question of what they are doing in the film.
There are many ways to look at these shots; a term that applies in multiple ways to describe them are “money shots.” Money, in that they are almost certainly among the more expensive shots in the production, given the costs of renting or acquiring Steadicam equipment (there’s also one helicopter shot that operates like an elevated Steadicam, gliding across a lengthy Goldsworthy installation along a highway). They are also “money” in that there’s a kind of purchase, an acquiring of status. These shots indicate that the film is more than just a documentary, it is “cinema,” at least in the sense familiar to those who love the likes of Tarkovsky or Malick, whom these shots clearly emulate. But their intermittent and not-entirely-seamless integration in the overall film can’t help but bring up an inadvertent comparison between one type of image and another: the raw and the cooked, and whether and how the two might co-exist in one film.
There’s no denying the immediacy and spectatorial pleasure of the Steadicam shot, how it puts us in the body and eyes of an angel floating perfectly through the world. And yet I can’t help feeling how this also something of a cliche, this perfect moving eye that the Steadicam affords us, and how it actually takes us away from a more “real” view of the world. Of course the whole point of the Steadicam is to give us a viewing sensation that’s “realer than real”, that’s beyond the human; again, that idea of the angelic. Or is it really a Satanic view? Recall that the evil one, as part of his attempts to tempt Jesus away from his holy mission, took the Savior to a great height revealing a majestic view of the world: a projection of the powers he could attain at the devil’s disposal. The Steadicam offers us a similar seduction, lifting us off our feet into a body-less experience of the world. But when we gain this vantage point, what view might we also be losing?
Would we have less of a film if these shots weren’t around? You’ll have to watch the whole film to see how it adds or detracts from a portrait of an artist who seems thoroughly grounded in his own earth-bound practice. But as we are still in a Kubrickian age of Steadicam cinema (even as Kubrick is well into his second decade of mortality, surely as cold now as he was in life), we’d might as well serve up another instance of glorifying it, especially since its soothing spectatorial pleasures function so well in the age of online viewing. (On the other hand, celebrations have a way of becoming their own critiques, as spectators on the parade route get a closer look at the emperor’s clothes.)
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. Follow him on Twitter.