In Thomas Riedelsheimer’s Rivers and Tides, a documentary opening this weekend, we follow Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy as he builds sculptures out of anything that nature allows him–ice, rocks, bracken, twigs–and then watches as nature itself undoes his handiwork. A bearded, gentle-voiced craftsman who might be played by Ian Holm in a fictional rendition of his life, Goldsworthy is modest, contemplative and deeply in love with the natural world–terms that fit Rivers and Tides itself.

Does this sound like a hit film? In fact, it is, and that’s something that deserves to be noted about Riedelsheimer’s unusual yet deliberately unassuming work. Not only is it remarkable in itself, but it’s part of arguably the most remarkable, if little heralded, movie trend of 2003: the sudden commercial potency of the documentary.

Looking at The Independent‘s movie listings a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by the number of documentaries already playing or about to open at local art houses. Surely this represents some kind of record, and it’s not confined to this area. From coast to coast, documentaries are quietly entering theaters in unprecedented numbers, and selling tickets in quantities that give the lie to the old nostrum that nonfiction equals box-office poison.

Have documentaries changed, or have their competition, or audiences? From the evidence so far, I would suggest that it’s primarily the latter. Two films above all define what has happened in 2003. When Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound (my favorite film of the year to date) opened at New York’s Film Forum in the spring, it drew such crowds that the New York Times ran a news story on the phenomenon, complete with a photo of hordes of expectant cinephiles lined up down Houston Street.

Rivers and Tides is the other big nonfiction smash. It played for eight months–an astonishing run for any kind of film–in San Francisco, and several months each in other cities. A friend who caught it long after it opened in New York encountered a sold-out theater and a crowd that gave the film an ovation at the end.

Such reactions have taken theater owners, distributors and critics (many of whom are longtime documentary champions) by surprise. Clearly, no new developments in marketing or press coverage account for the upsurge. The sudden change is an audience phenomenon, a word-of-mouth phenomenon, and the possible reasons behind it are, I think, worth pondering.

A critic friend who writes for a leading national entertainment magazine said his colleagues were recently discussing this development, and the most compelling explanation anyone ventured was that “reality TV” has erased the traditional stigma attached to nonfiction filmmaking, showing audiences that real life can be as entertaining as any fabricated entertainment.

That may sound persuasive for a few seconds, but I’m not buying it. The reason: The audiences for Spellbound and Rivers and Tides are demonstrably not the folks who’ve had their cinematic tastes forged by Survivor and American Idol. On the contrary, they are the latest generation of the traditional art-film audience: people who, perhaps more than any other subgroup in the country, embrace the individualistic, discriminating visions of literature and cinema over the collective mindwash of television.

As for why this group would increasingly gravitate toward documentaries, I would point toward two interrelated phenomena: 1) the decline of auteur cinema in the realm of art films, and 2) the rise of “unreality,” in the form of digital effects and empty-headed genre formulas, in the realm of big entertainment movies.

All this touches on a recurrent trend in modern cinema. For well over a half-century, the most intelligent, “progressive” elements of artistic filmmaking have been, in a literal (though not political) sense, reactionary. That is, they’ve reacted against the phoniness and hollow contrivances of the entertainment cinemas of their times, trying to offer in their stead greater doses of candor and realism. This was true of the Italian Neorealists, the French New Wave, and the innovative generation of American filmmakers that ran from Cassavetes though Scorsese, Coppola and beyond.

With fiction filmmakers such as these, cinema’s codes of realism grew ever more powerful and refined, and the directors themselves were lionized as the avatars of a greater artistic truthfulness. In the past decade, however, both trends have bottomed out, if not been reversed. Yet even while realistic techniques and auteurist audacity have ceased to pay the high dividends of yore, something else has become clearer: Beyond mere “realism,” art-oriented cinema audiences hunger for a connection to reality.

In practice, that now means sharpened, innovative views of human nature, or nature per se–a basic division that’s reflected in this recent spate of documentary hits. On one side, films like Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans give us views of the ways people behave in groups that are far more nuanced, striking and provocative than any you’ll find in current fictional movies. At the other extreme, the likes of Winged Migration and Rivers and Tides sweep us beyond the human pale to offer startling and thought-provoking views of the natural world.

Although Rivers and Tides is surely one of the best films I’ve ever seen that might be called “about nature,” it’s also about various other things, including artistic praxis and the relationship of that process to time, contemplation, nature and the modern world.

Like many excellent documentaries, Riedelsheimer’s film doesn’t so much dispense with fictional elements like the hero as find their equivalents in real life. Here, our protagonist is Andy Goldsworthy. Rather than encountering nature directly, we contemplate it through his eyes; in doing so, we are invited to contemplate the nature of art–including, discretely, the filmmakers’–as well.

The unusual character of Goldsworthy’s work becomes clear early on as we watch him, near his home on the Scottish coast, make small sculptures out of icicles. These of course are destined to disappear before anyone else can see them, a quality they share with many (though not all) of his creations, and the reason he customarily photographs his work.

Is it frivolous to make “art” that almost instantly vanishes? In this instance, Rivers and Tides convinces us that it is anything but. Goldsworthy’s art, we see, comes out of a profound and deeply reverent study of nature and his own relationship to it.

For the first part of the film, we’re happy simply to be in these gorgeous, haunting landscapes watching the waters rise around stone monuments Goldsworthy has erected, seeing the swirling movements of clouds and streams and leaf sculptures, noting the correlation between sheep and the landscape’s history. The photography, here and throughout, is mesmerizing, and the film’s measured pace allows plenty of breathing room for the spare, evocative embellishments of Fred Frith’s fine score.

Most of the time, the only voice we hear is Goldsworthy’s, and its combination of clarity and acute mindfulness has its own deep appeal. Of the stone structure he has made in the sea’s path, he says, “I haven’t simply made the piece to be destroyed by the sea. The work has been given to the sea as a gift, and the sea has made more of it than I could ever hope for.”

That may sound like New Age waftiness on the page, but heard in context, it comes off as sane and genuinely humble. As do the gentle emphases in this statement of his basic orientation: “I don’t think the earth needs me at all, but I do need it. To just go off in the woods and make a piece of work roots me again. And if I don’t work for a period of time, I do feel rootless–I don’t know myself.”

The film’s flow is so gentle that it can seem like it has little if any structure. Yet it does. It’s as if Riedelsheimer keeps his focus on Goldsworthy while gradually widening it to include other subjects as well: From concentrating strictly on the artist’s native landscape at first, it opens up to include animals, the village, Goldsworthy’s family, and the world beyond–we see Goldsworthy mounting communal projects in New York State and Digne, France.

Thus, this is a portrait not only of one artist but of an idea of art that evidently has struck a chord in many places and people. And no wonder. Visit events like the Venice Biennale or its equivalent at New York’s Whitney Museum, and you’re likely to come away with the impression that most contemporary art is little more than institutionalized onanism, all concept and no craft, a series of feverishly cerebral conceits constructed of politicized attitude and “theories” that have little application outside of academia.

Goldsworthy’s art, of course, is itself highly conceptual and its attitude toward nature is not universal or “natural” but belongs to the troubled history of the West: It’s the latest manifestation of a set of attitudes that surfaced with the Romantic Movement, which was reacting to the cultural predations and hyper-rationalism of that first age of “globalization,” the Industrial Revolution.

Yet if Goldsworthy’s work is (again, in a literal rather than a political sense) reactionary and obliquely sentimental, it still is a valuable, powerful corrective, reminding us that our own deepest impulses are fundamentally connected to the world of rivers and tides, of mountains and mud and the ceaseless workings of time.

This insight, I think, touches not just on the popularity of Rivers and Tides but also on the rising appeal of documentaries in a time when we are all (most movies included) being enveloped in an increasingly artificial technological environment. Andre Bazin, cinema’s greatest theorist, asserted that this art’s distinction comes from its ability to bring us the visible traces of the natural world and its movements in time. Rivers and Tides reminds us of the profundity of that definition. EndBlock