Ben Rivers: the films that influenced The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers

Award-winning artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers explains how films by directors including Fassbinder and Pasolini fed into his visionary new film set in the heat and dust of Morocco.

Ben Rivers
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The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015)

The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015)

Some years ago, I started thinking about joining the small and relatively unsung genre of behind-the-scenes films. This may have come about through reflection on my own practice as a filmmaker, questioning the urge to create worlds, and the obsessiveness that can cause you to disregard other aspects of life. Filmmaking consumes my time, and my whole life revolves around thinking about them, travelling to make them, editing for months in dark rooms, working on soundtracks, and then travelling to show them. It makes sense to me that, at some point, I would want to directly make a film about this obsessive construction.

For my film The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, I wanted to move among different realms of reality – storytelling, songs, observation of a film being made, fiction – so that, in the end, the viewer is uncertain about where the fiction begins and ends. There were a number of films that I thought about while developing the project that were either observational documentaries about films being made or fictional recreations of a film set. What ties them all together is that they each show the darker side of filmmaking and its repercussions. I’m interested in the question of why filmmakers want to expose the dark side of filmmaking. There is something perversely compelling about seeing someone who is a mirror version of yourself being taken down a road of obsession and disaster, finding what at the end? Here are five films that influenced my process of thinking about the film.

Vampir Cuadecuc (1971)

Director Pere Portabella

Vampir Cuadecuc (1971)

This film was one I kept coming back to, because in many ways it was closest to what I had in mind – to make a film of another film, but for the boundaries of what is real and what is set-up to be uncertain and uneasy. It’s an extremely beautiful and eerie behind-the-scenes film, showing the making of Count Dracula, a low-budget horror by B-movie maestro Jess Franco. Pere Portabella keeps the nightmare to a general sense of unexplained dread. It’s a very complicated political film, without being in any way dogmatic. The only words spoken are at the end, when Christopher Lee reads the final passage from Dracula – which was one reason why I filmed Oliver Laxe reading the beginning of a Paul Bowles story at the start of my film.

The soundtrack of Vampir was made by fellow Catalan artist Carles Santos, which has a powerful effect on moving the film away from being read as a documentary. I asked Carles if I could reuse some of the soundtrack for both The Sky Trembles… these sounds form a bookend to my film, playing over ominous-looking taxis in the desert and the end credits.

The Last Movie (1971)

Director Dennis Hopper

The Last Movie (1971)

Dennis Hopper is an extremely underrated filmmaker, and this is his most underrated film. It’s not such a surprise that the studio suppressed it, because it’s such a radical piece of filmmaking – moving freely back and forth through time and space, between layers of fiction that leave you as discombobulated as the main character, played by Hopper. The scenes of locals recreating the whole script, but with fake cameras, are one of the best comments on movie violence I can think of. This film was a big influence in thinking about how to keep the viewer in a state of uncertainty about the veracity of what they are seeing. It may be kind of messy, but that’s a reason to love it, because things get messy.

Burden of Dreams (1982)

Director Les Blank

Burden of Dreams (1982)

Like Hearts of Darkness (about the making of Apocalypse Now), this documentary achieves everything that the film it’s about hopes to achieve and something more. Herzog is Fitzcarraldo, struggling against nature in the Amazon, surrounded by plants and animals that are simply out to get each other, including Klaus Kinski. Les Blank was a brilliant documentarist (see his great films of musicians), and here he observes Herzog and his crew attempt to drag a massive boat over a hill, using archaic means. Tensions are strained. The madness of being a filmmaker, trying to create worlds at any cost, mud and blood and sweat. A great accompaniment to Herzog’s brilliant Conquest of the Useless, his diary of the same production.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Beware of the Holy Whore (1971)

One of my all time favourite Fassbinder films, Holy Whore revolves around a film production (titled Motherland or Death) happening in a hotel in Spain – partly autobiographical, based on an earlier production. Most of the attention is focused on a group of crew and actors, played by many of Fassbinder’s greatest collaborators, held in a kind of purgatory, waiting around for the production to start, with drugs, alcohol, sexual intrigue and unrequited love in abundance. When the tyrannical director turns up he constantly creates tensions between the cast, flares up in anger then dissolves into melancholy, wants to quit… and there’s also no film stock. When the production actually starts things don’t go any better. In the end, Fassbinder seems to be saying filmmaking is a soul-crushing disaster, even if he was constantly compelled to continue.

‘La ricotta’ (1963)

Director Pier Paolo Pasolini

‘La ricotta’ sequence from Ro.Go.Pa.G. (1963)

Pasolini made this perfect little satire as part of the compendium film Rogopag. The film focuses on a film production of the crucifixion, with Orson Welles in the directing chair (sometimes seen reading a script of Mamma Roma by Pasolini). The main character is not Orson Welles, but one of the extras, trying his best, but failing badly, to get a meal out of the production. As ever with Pasolini, he’s able to move between different registers – funny, savagely critical and also very beautiful, with the colour tableaux of the crucifixion, complete with smirking actors trying to hold their poses, inserted into the otherwise black-and-white film. Pasolini in general has been an important influence on my filmmaking, and with The Sky Trembles… most specifically with his use of locations, the mix of mythic and contemporary time, and his use of non-actors to play major parts in his films, as a way to find an authenticity within the fiction.

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