“This programme is about making films with the good, the unbelievably obliging, and the sometimes long-suffering folk around you” – Ben Rivers
Beautifully thought through and yet totally unassuming, Ben Rivers’ Friends with Benefits was a programme that transpired to be, above all else, utterly gorgeous. Part of the 2012 LUX|ICA Biennial of Moving Image, it was undeniably put together with friends in mind.
Much of the Biennial was intellectually rigorous, and in a few places particularly dense – most notably in some of the more inaccessible seminar sessions, such as Cinema as Art. So Rivers’ programme was a slice of light relief, although this isn’t to say it wasn’t seriously considered and powerful.
“I had a feeling that many of the programmes in the biennial would be curated along rigorous theoretical rationale, so I wanted to be playful. A bit of irreverence is good” - Ben Rivers
The first point Rivers’ programme draws our attention to is the economic conditions of making artwork. Often artists are working on a shoestring and the only option is to call on friends. “This casual economy should be acknowledged (…) We make films often on tight budgets and have to exploit friends. The biennial seemed a nice opportunity to highlight this fact,” states Rivers. The creation of art is too often seen as a lonely business – the singular genius creating and communicating their vision, or version, of reality. In truth, collaboration is what gets art both made and seen. Jonathan P Watts notes this in his Q&A with Rivers: “behind [a filmmaker like] Jean Luc-Godard is a changing production team that conflux around a name.” Filmmakers and audiences should never lose sight of the fact that the films we love are the products of creative, working relationships. While there might be a driving force, the finished product is always a conflation.
“In a way the sound, the enduringly stinging notes, seemed to give the image a form of purchase.”
Rivers’s selection of films was “a list of personal favourites, one for each of the last five decades,” which express different conceptions of friendship in filmmaking. Ron Rice’s Senseless (1962, 16mm) opened the screenings and, according to Rivers, constitutes “the backbone [of] the programme.” In Senseless, Rice takes friends to Mexico and films them in a “free, anarchic way”. Then four friends joke around in Robert Nelson’s elegy Deep Westurn (1974, 16mm), and Stephen Sutcliffe uses a Monty Python sketch (the closest family of all) in The Garden of Proserpine (2008, video). Ute Aurand’s Paulina (2011, 16mm) and Franz (2011, 16mm) are a sustained consideration on family; filmed over fifteen years she charts the relationship a godmother has with her godchildren -“the films have intimacy as a result of this privileged relationship,” notes Rivers. Then there’s George Kuchar’s relentless yet kind comment on travel and friendship in We, the Normal (1988, Video).
“Films that I will probably never see again flickered in front of my eyes and took root in my imagination, if only for a fleeting moment.”
My personal favourite (although I loved them all) was Laida Lertxundi’s Footnotes to a House of Love (2007, 16mm), which in many ways is similar to Ron Rice’s Senseless. Lertxundi follows the same method of taking a group of friends to a location and then filming them. Yet while Rice films his friends in Mexico, Lertxundi takes her buddies to a shack in the desert east of L.A. The film has a rich colour that only desert light can induce: clear blue skies, sun-darkened skin, desert yellows and wood browns coalesce. Some music comes from a tape player that is placed in shot at points, the sonic warping of the dated tape marrying itself with the analogue film. The effect of merging these two outmoded audiovisual technologies is, if a little self-consciously retro, nicely done. At another point in the film a girl draws the hairs of a bow across the strings of a cello, creating elongated enduring tones. This same action/sound occurs over two independent, long and fixed shots. This audio/visual experiment particularly fascinated me; I’ve long been preoccupied with the relation of sound to image – how acoustic tones change and give shape to image – and this issue became particularly salient in these cello scenes. It’s difficult to articulate what was happening in these moments, but I am certain that the images would have been fundamentally different if seen without this sound. In a way the sound, the enduringly stinging notes, seemed to give the image a form of purchase. It certainly gave it shape.
Lertxundi also has a way of creating and framing space that is both open and intimate. Rarely do you see the faces of the people she films; instead her camera is preoccupied with corners, torsos, backs of heads. She films her friends messing around on blankets in the sun, making out, and urinating. The times when we do see faces they are framed candidly stealing glances at the camera, or peaking up behind a pillow: the person behind this camera could only be a friend.
As you might imagine, friendship relates very closely to Rivers’ own work. His latest feature Two Years at Sea (2012), reviewed by R|R here, sees Rivers build an intimate relationship with Jake Williams, who is the film’s primary subject or star. Curating is also an important part of Rivers’ artistic background: “I like watching and sharing other people’s work (…) My practice has been deeply informed by programming films.” Friendship is about sharing; it’s about conversation and ideas. The friendliest gesture therefore is to show something you think is beautiful to people you care about, and the true test of any friendship is the act of creating work together.
The Biennial was a fantastic opportunity to watch some incredibly rare work; films that I will probably never see again flickered in front of my eyes and took root in my imagination, if only for a fleeting moment. The driving impulse behind this programme – friendship – is something we all understand, with every film in the programme building on or expanding this theme. It was Lertxundi’s Footnotes, however, that captivated my attention, richly endorsed by the 16mm film upon which it was shot and lovingly projected.