The third part of Ben Rivers’ so-called “sci-fi” trilogy, following Slow Action (2011) and Urth (2016), Look Then Below gives the unique impression of being an actual alien artifact. It renders the natural unnatural, transforming Earth’s basic signifiers — water, foliage, dirt, rock — into a bizarre, phantasmagoric unreality. Shot in the Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset, England, where Rivers is from, and (like the preceding films) featuring text written by Mark von Schlegell, Look Then Below is both a continuation of and expansion on Rivers’ long-term project of disrupting what might be called the ethnographic documentary. Using the building blocks of reality, Rivers renders them new and unfathomable. Shooting on 16mm film, Look Then Below takes the form of a (possibly otherworldly) visitor (only heard, never seen) exploring the remnants of a civilization that has taken shape after some kind of cataclysmic event has eradicated human life. The visitor’s voice is scratchy and distant, like a third generation recording, and its words are rendered in von Schlegell’s mix of pseudo-scientific gibberish and genuine awe at the mysteries this strange land contains. Whereas Slow Action and Urth mined the disjunction between (mostly) recognizable, realistic images and von Schlegell’s cryptic narration, Look Then Below directly manipulates the film frame itself. Rivers has essentially painted over his filmed footage, altering colors and textures into a psychedelic, hyper-colorized version of an irradiated world (think the stargate sequence from 2001). Here, the camera catches undulating waves, the skyline, and all manner of flora and fauna, but everything has a bio-luminescent feel; water is a pulsating, unnatural baby blue, while the sky is alternatingly a creamy peach or teal color.
The camera leaves the ocean and traverses the land, a dense forest filled with multi-colored fog, before descending into an elaborate cave system. There’s one very impressive crane shot on land, a rarity in micro-budget short films, as the camera slowly pans right above the treeline, catches the top of a sculpture, moves down the length of it, and then gradually retreats backward at ground level. It’s impressively scaled, and when Rivers begins exploring the interiors of the island, there’s another “how’d they do that” moment. Here, the camera slowly zooms in on what appears to be a small opening in a rock formation, then keeps going through to reveal a larger interior space, and then keeps going even further until it comes to an expansive sculptural structure that appears to be enormous. Scale is amorphous here, so abstracted are the images, and the altered footage sometimes gives the impression of old-school matte paintings. There’s a line of narration in Slow Action that describes a space as “sublime, unfathomable dimensions.” The irony in that film is that the phrase is laid over a perfectly quotidian bit of footage, on its own totally unremarkable. With Look Then Below, Rivers has taken on that description as a kind of operating maxim, fully committed to envisioning such a fantastical dimension. It’s a remarkable piece of work — hypnotic and strange. As an anthropological study of an imaginary future, it blurs the lines between past and present into a liminal space of haunting beauty.
Published as part of NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 6.