Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 03, 2021 8:37 pm 
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This short experimental documentary feature packs in a lot about Hawaii

Rock Bottom Riser, whose subject is Hawaii, is Portuguese American Fern Silva's first feature, an experimental documentary that it's been said Werner Herzog would be proud to have made - which seems quite true though this is in no way derivative work. It's a short film, only 70 minutes, but packed with information with many twists and turns that work fine because they're all part of the complexity of a subject that encompasses indigenous people, white colonialism, science vs. native craft and art, cluelessness, stoner nuttiness, spectacular lava from live volcanoes, and a surfer sailing in on a long easy wave. The natural scenes, especially the volcanoes, make this clearly a film designed to be spectacular on a very large screen though many will have to see it in the largely virtual New Directors/New Films this year. There are texts, there are speeches, there are scenes of deep unperceived absurdity, all this so concentrated that second viewings would be beneficial.

"...Silva catapults us through a fiery wormhole, runs us through a forest glimpsed in infrared (shades of Predator), and allows us to glide above the Earth as fiery magma belches out of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii and flows around a small village like a river of fire, as a burbling Carpenteresque synth score fills the soundtrack. And that’s just the first five minutes of this at once playful and serious avant-garde documentary, which offers a consistently unpredictable survey of Hawaiian history, culture, and political issues... " (Keith Watson in Slant).

From NotMattDamon on Letterboxd:
"this documentary has everything
cool nature shots
A Simon and Garfunkel deep-cut
hard to decipher science
vape tricks
Dwayne the rock Johnson
Dramatic monologues."

More from Keith Watson:
"The film puts particular emphasis on the tense interplay between Western notions of scientific inquiry and indigenous rights, with the battle over the proposed construction of an astronomical observatory on top of Mauna Kea—the most sacred site in native Hawaiian culture—serving as a focal point. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), as the project is known, is positioned as both a colonialist substitution of indigenous modes of inquiry and a Trojan horse for the further displacement and carceralization of native Hawaiians."

If it works, when you're done watching all these things are whirling around in your head: the sweet, clueless lady and her middle class white class sitting to learn about the "poetry" of Paul Simon's "I Am a Rock": we hear the song and watch the rapt listeners, but are spared the explanation. At the "Volcano" vape shop we watch a spectacular display of smoke vaping and smoke-ring making by a trio of regulars, and this comes after a lot of volcano footage so the overlap is doubly or triply trippy. The "cool nature shots" resonate strongly with the issue of indigenous sacred land that is particularly intense in Hawaii and Silva's underlying motivation.

As Watson hints, and the Letterboxd list notes, there is some pretty incomprehensible professorial blackboard-jotting talk about stars. But there is another talk with a heavy French accent that justifies space exploration and future colonization as well as I've ever heard it done. A seduction? Dwayne Johnson, also often seductive, we see here distanced, a shot of him on a TV screen on a wall, as he unconvincingly and repetitively claims objections to his upcoming playing of King Kamehameha are being nicely sorted out.

Which of these and the various other pungent sequences you will like best or find most significant will depend on you and may change on subsequent viewings. They are all there, they all fit, and there is an admirable avoidance of cliché in the choices. Even the final surfer sequence feels fresh because it's so simply shot. Werner Herzog, take note. This is a film that's both passionate and witty. Promising work.

A FSC-Harvard fellow, Fern Silva is a faculty member at Bennington College. He received his BFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and MFA from Bard.

Rock Bottom Riser, 74 min., Color, 5.1 Sound, Super 16mm/35mm, debuted in Paris at Cinéma du réel in March 2021. It also showed at the Berlinale in March in the Encounters section, receiving special mention. Watched online at home as part of its US debut in New Directors/New Films.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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