NYFF 2017: Ben Russell’s Good Luck

“In both shape and sensibility, the work of Los Angeles-based filmmaker Ben Russell embodies a fluid yet holistic creative practice,” writes Jordan Cronk, introducing his interview for Film Comment. “A spiritual descendant of cinematic anthropologists Jean Rouch and Robert Gardner, Russell has consistently worked to disrupt traditional bounds of ethnographic filmmaking through a singular stylistic admixture that boldly merges the musical and the mystical, an approach that sets him apart from such like-minded contemporaries as Britain’s Ben Rivers and the past and present affiliates of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (Lucien-Castaing Taylor, Véréna Paravel, J.P. Sniadecki, et al).”

Good Luck premiered in Locarno, has screened in Toronto and Vancouver, and will be presented tomorrow and Sunday (October 7 and 8) as part of the Projections program at the New York Film Festival.

“In the first of its two equal parts,” writes Tony Pipolo for Artforum, “Russell follows Serbian copper miners, filming them at work and engaging in conversation during breaks. The elevator that returns him to ground level seems to go on forever before the film cuts dramatically to another setting: Suriname, a country bordering French Guyana on the northeast coast of South America where Russell films an illegal band of gold miners. His long takes capture the spatial and temporal dimensions of each site. Time seems suspended in the cramped and dark interiors of the mine, while the open, sunny vistas of the second part lend a languorous air to the workers. In both cases, the ambience exerts a power over these men beyond anything we learn from the dialogue. Russell’s questions are met with clichéd responses—as if, wary of this outsider with the movie camera, they are reluctant to volunteer too much. Nevertheless, aware that they work for powers beyond their control, their demeanor speaks volumes.”

“Though much of contemporary thinking would prefer to keep labor and art separated, Good Luck forces them together under an even more unlikely third term, the psychedelic, which has for too long been the domain of reactionaries,” writes Phil Coldiron for Cinema Scope. “With its Latin roots indicating a vision of thought, the psychedelic must be understood as, in at least one sense, analogous with art. Both count their highest achievement as the inducement of reflection. Borrowing from the surrealist tradition, we might take the perfect psychedelic image to be two mirrors gazing directly upon one another. This image is a form of utopia, always awaiting activation by a subject that it desires even as this subject draws it out of the impossible into the actual. Russell’s subject here is labor; to reflect it so fully is a vital achievement.”

“To ask the question of why a dialectal film about mining today,” writes the Oklahoma Museum of Art’s Michael J. Anderson, “is to immediate answer it in the concrete affirmative that Good Luck presents, of the incredible, unmappable spaces lit only by the miners’ small headlamps, of the void that these men enter every day, and on the surface, on the other side of the world, in the murky, copper-colored waters where the much younger men prospect in hopes of luck, of finding the tiniest fragments of ore. Both astonishing in their essential, fear-inspiring qualities, and also landscapes, both visually and audible, of preternatural poetic beauty.”

“Russell’s subjects instruct and opine to camera throughout, as well as appearing solo in interspersed camera tests, self-taped on scratchy, evocative black and white stock,” notes Matt Turner in the Brooklyn Rail. “These beautiful micro-portraits divide the lengthy landscape segments, as people and place, character and creator all become intermingled and inseparable.”

“Like the breadth of Russell’s work, Good Luck is a documentary that works hard to evade expectations of form, genre, and style, resulting in an expansive and terrifying piece,” writes Jeremy Elphick, introducing his interview with Russell for 4:3. More from Muriel Del Don (Cineuropa), Kelley Dong (Notebook), Rory O’Connor (Film Stage, B+), and Joseph Owen (Upcoming).

Update, 10/11:Tim Chandler for the International Cinephile Society: “Ben Russell’s previous film, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, was a minor miracle; he took a series of seemingly unconnected stories—a heavy metal concert, a life of seclusion in the Arctic, pagan rituals—and made a wonderful film out of them by subtly combining them into a statement about purpose in life, finding your space and your people, and being at one with the world. With his new film Good Luck, he attempts something similar, only it does not work nearly as well.”

Update, 10/14: “Where an extended shot may work to build a spatial and temporal awareness in other films,” writes Zach Lewis at In Review Online, “Good Luck uses this as reinforcement for a joke: shoddy machines crank tirelessly alongside sweaty men and nothing is found—then, they try again. The title comes from the ‘good luck’ or ‘no luck’ dichotomy of the Surinamese workers, as there’s no particular skill involved in their occupation; finding gold in Suriname is a lot like finding capital in the developed West—either you got lucky or someone found it for you. . . . Whether Russell is shooting his 16mm camera in the caves of Serbia (lit only by flashlights) or in the mud and bright sunsets of Suriname, the harsh continuing relationship of capital to labor is clear as water, bright as gold.”

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