There’s an inherent problem at the core of documentaries about artists, namely, the fact that the films themselves are seldom as beautiful as the work they’re documenting. A rare exception to this rule is director Thomas Riedelsheimer’s Leaning Into the Wind, a follow-up to his 2002 film examining the art and philosophy of Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides. A sculptor who works with natural materials in their native setting to produce stunning works of impermanent sculpture, Goldsworthy is a magnetic screen presence whose installations are as beautiful as they are intriguing.
Much of what made Rivers and Tides so captivating 16 years ago remains intact in the work depicted in Leaning Into the Wind. Goldsworthy is still primarily working in nature, although he’s now included urban landscapes into his definition of the “natural” world. Riedelsheimer’s camera work is still drop-dead gorgeous, although he’s moved from shooting 35 mm to digital. Both men have now incorporated their adult children into their work, with Goldsworthy bringing on his daughter Holly as a collaborator and Riedelsheimer employing his son Felix as assistant camera operator. But at its core, Leaning Into the Wind possesses the same meditative, quasi-pagan spiritual quality that made Rivers and Tides such a surprising cult hit nearly two decades ago.
Goldsworthy’s work, largely based near his pastoral home in the Scottish countryside, typically consists of manipulating natural materials, such as leaves and stones, fallen trees and mud or snow, into thought-provoking studies in color and form. But his late-career work has become more ambitious, spanning the globe from Scotland to Brazil to San Fransisco to Gabon. The artist seems to place the same importance on creating massive networks of interwoven stone arches as he does lying on a sidewalk during a rain shower to create silhouettes that vanish almost as soon as he gets up. It’s a fascinating dichotomy driven by a creativity that’s almost childlike in its innocence but deceptively sophisticated and one that Riedelsheimer films with impressive empathy and intimacy.
Photography is critical to documenting Goldsworthy’s more ephemeral works, as their very transience is central to the ideas and themes he employs. While the artist typically photographs his own work, Riedelsheimer’s camera provides a perfect foil, utilizing time-lapse to capture the entropy that inevitably reclaims all of Goldsworthy’s pieces. It’s impossible not to share the artist’s frustration as the wind blows away leaves that he has meticulously placed on the flat surface of some wet rocks, but that very sense of uncontrollability is at the heart of his work. And while the transition to digital has stripped Leaning of some of the lush quality that distinguished Rivers, it also allows formal innovations — such as an impressive drone shot following a path cut lengthwise through the center of a rock wall — that would’ve been impossible in a less nimble format.
Leaning Into the Wind is a worthy successor to Rivers and Tides, not only because of Riedelsheimer’s exceptional camera work or Goldsworthy’s undeniably brilliant artistic style and technique but also because of the general impression of contemplative calm that the film evokes. It’s a gentle, meandering work that leaves the viewer feeling cleansed in a sense not unlike Goldsworthy supplicating himself to the rain. This is not a film about the process of artistic creation, but about the effect and affect of creating art. It’s not common, in my experience, for a documentary to record a feeling rather than an action, but that’s about as close as I can get to defining the inexorable allure of Leaning Into the Wind — and that also constitutes an unequivocal recommendation.
Rated PG for brief language.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.