I saw Ben Rivers’ 16mm 2011 film Slow Action (UK) like I saw his 16mm 2010 film, in the video lab at Rotterdam. Some might say a disservice to a work; others may count themselves lucky it was digitized to be seen later at all—but regardless of the uneasy image politics of digital access to filmic cinema, Slow Action’s alien travelogue, shot in scope but minimized to the size of my laptop screen, seemed even more tangibly beamed from a distant planet than it was undoubtedly originally intended, a binary artifact archived from a dead media source, kept on file for future generations to access.
The subject of this short feature is a handful of utopian island societies of the Pacific, the majority of which are fictionalized through voiceovers reading from a curator’s text from an encyclopedia on the subject. The images accompanying the voices were grabbed, no doubt, from very precise locations, but the ambiguity as to whether they were shot by Rivers himself, found through the filmmaker’s tenacious archive research, or produced through a mixture of the two renders Slow Action more pointedly provocative in its faux-essay approach, more fable like, sci-fi, fictionalized. The narration is vague and generalized, the image adjusted by flaws in the footage, special effects, archive resurrection, black and white—all leveled and smeared by the serene definition of the curator’s voice. Purposefully, the images are not strong enough to be re-defined by the words, but rather are formed by the definitions we hear, a fanciful ethno-geography about (and perhaps by) ghosts.
These ghostly, vacant societies are reflected upon from an afar so far that the Earthly attempts at isolated island utopias seems as unlikely as does the survival of the “interested” narrating species (thus the sense, when watching it in the Rotterdam video archive, that this is also the story of the storytellers themselves, potentially another failed society). The film moves always on, the curator’s texts imbuing the moving images with infinite unseen details proving and defining something that remains out of reach (utopia in actuality, utopia as something to study, utopia even as something to fictionalize). In the end, the encyclopedia, despite its seeming expertise, offers no structure and no argument for what we are seeing and hearing, and we find even history and in art, embodied in the artifact that is Slow Action, fails at a kind of utopia as well.