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Film Review: ‘Leaning Into the Wind’

Variety logo Variety 4/9/2017 Dennis Harvey
© Provided by Variety

“You can walk down the path, or you can walk through the hedge,” says Andy Goldsworthy in Thomas Ridelsheimer’s second documentary about the British sculptor. That Goldsworthy invariably chooses Plan B goes to the heart of the fascination with his site-specific, variably ephemeral work, in which elements of the natural surroundings are altered into striking yet harmonious new shapes. “Leaning Into the Wind” is not so much a sequel to as simply an extension of the prior film, “Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time,” sharing the same meditative, episodic, visually seductive appeal — albeit spread out on a somewhat wider globe-trotting canvas this time, reflecting its subject’s increased fame 16 years later.

That earlier study was a surprise breakout hit, grossing $2.3 million for Roxie Releasing in U.S. theatrical release alone. While it may not match that unusual success for a contemporary-art doc, “Wind” is sure to inherit at least some of its audience.

Both films have a pleasantly meandering tenor, their only conspicuous structuring element being an itinerary that takes Goldsworthy from the location of one commissioned new work to another. We start out at the Ibitipoca Reserve in Brazil, where the artist admires the “beautiful” flooring made partly of dried dung in a local family’s house — an aesthetic use of found materials not unlike his own oeuvre — before beginning on a large-scale sculpture project there. We also see him working in San Francisco’s Presidio park, English pasture lands, Provence, a craggy Gabon landscape, and a Scottish forest near his home where he’s made a very long-term study of observing — and accentuating — natural changes wrought by the elements.

Some of these projects are monumental, and some even urban, like a St. Louis museum courtyard of twenty-five ten-foot stone arches. Others can be as fleeting as “rain shadows” — the silhouette briefly left on dry pavement by someone lying there at the outset of a downpour — or a moment when the now 60-year-old but still strenuously adventuresome artist climbs a flowering tree in order to shake it, creating a cloud-like explosion of colorful pollen.

In some cases the result of a semi-random experiment (as when Goldsworthy entices sheep into making a “painting” with their muddy hooves) may be lasting, but in others, the only chance spectators other than Goldsworthy may have of seeing it lies in his (or Riedelsheimer’s) photography. Even the most substantial sculpture gardens and such that he builds are designed to weather, degrade, and ultimately collapse, reflecting the fickle impermanence of their materials. In large part, his work enchants so many because it isn’t self-contained — rather than contrasting with its surroundings, it highlights them with a mixture of surprise and integration.

A nonfiction-focused director and cinematographer frequently attracted to the intersection between artistic expression, nature, and spirituality (however unarticulated), Riedelsheimer is well-matched to Goldsworthy’s methods and interests. As in “Rivers,” there is little biographical material here, beyond passing mention of some formative farm-working experiences and a failed first marriage. We briefly meet the artist’s long-term partner Tina Fiske, as well as daughter/assistant Holly.

But there are few glimpses of him in the studio or any other context but “out in the field,” leaving off-screen the no doubt considerable organizational energies that must attend some projects in order to present an image of the artist as a lone, mild-mannered eccentric at one with his muse, Mother Nature. Needless to say, the few statements Goldsworthy makes of any vaguely political nature here are ecological, as the seemingly infinite canvas of Earth now appears at risk of exhaustion after all.

“Rivers and Tides” clicked with viewers not just because of its beauty and novelty, but because it had a sort of blood-pressure-lowering effect — it was like a relaxation exercise in which you actually learned something. Seeing no reason to mess with a good thing, Riedelsheimer’s very handsome package (including his own cinematography, this time in HD) makes few significant alternations, maintaining the same alert yet tranquil pacing and tenor. He also fruitfully brings back composer Fred Frith, who contributes another diverse, imaginative chamber score.

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