The year 2003 was a watershed one for documentaries. Winged Migration, Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans did as well in art houses as traditional narrative features.
Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, released in 2002, won an Oscar in 2003 and became the highest-grossing non-IMAX documentary ever. Late-year releases The Fog of War and My Architect, both nominated for Oscars this year, are doing well theatrically.
One especially remarkable story is the stealth success of another documentary that's been playing in American theaters for more than 18 months straight — Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time. It plays in a limited run through Feb. 25 at the new Film Society Cinematheque at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Even more remarkable, Rivers and Tides is about a British contemporary artist who specializes in earthworks as ephemeral as throwing a snowball in the air. It's a true art film.
Rivers and Tides, a collaboration between artist Goldsworthy and German director Thomas Riedelsheimer, has so far earned $2.2 million at the box office, a terrific figure for a documentary. (Friedmans earned $3.19 million; Spellbound $5.7 million.)
The film opened in the Bay Area in June 2002 at San Francisco's Roxie Theatre, after being named best documentary feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival. San Francisco-based Roxie Releasing, which owns that theater, is handling the film's distribution. It became one of the Bay Area's favorite films, playing at various theaters into this year. Roxie waited until 2003 to begin nationwide distribution.
"We have gone Goldsworthy gaga," says Rick Norris, Roxie president.
This is his company's biggest documentary — others released by Roxie include Nico Icon, Biggie & Tupac and Kurt and Courtney. Its top narrative release was John Dahl's 1993 Red Rock West.
"We're amazed at the repeat business," Norris says of Rivers. "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 also show the film appeals to environmentalists and Eastern-religion enthusiasts as much as contemporary-art followers.
Goldsworthy primarily is known in the U.S. for his 2,278-foot stonewall that snakes gracefully, seemingly organically, through the forested grounds on the Storm King Art Center sculpture park in Mountainville, N.Y. But Rivers and Tides captures him working on a far more intimate and quixotic scale.
He intuitively, with a sense of almost-cosmic wonderment, engages in making ephemeral but beautiful art in remote locations. His projects are as much about creating profound moments as enduring objects.
He assembles a chain of bright-green leaves and lets it busily swirl and flow down a river. And 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 the English-born artist 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. And, even then, he was hardly a household name. So the film has given people a rare chance to see Goldsworthy at work. And exhibitors, at first caught unaware, now realize the audience potential exceeds expectations.
L.A.-based Landmark Theatres — the nation's largest art-house chain with 53 theaters in 17 markets (not Cincinnati) — worked 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.' "
Some have also responded to Goldsworthy as a mystic or a 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 via 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 Goldsworthy 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 from Germany. "There was a feeling that we were doing something together. He sharpened my view on nature.
There might seem to be something paradoxical about urban audiences taking to Rivers and Tides, since it shows Goldsworthy at work in remote areas. But the artist says he's comfortable making art anywhere.
"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."
And many are finding nature — as well as art — in theaters playing Rivers and Tides.
Cincinnati native STEVE ROSEN has written for The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Denver Post. He is currently a freelance journalist in Los Angeles.