They say patience is a virtue, and you would think to watch a sloth do next to nothing for 40 minutes would really put your patience to the test. Turns out, the film Now, At Last! is a poetic and medidative journey where time becomes irrelevant. Very little action, but all the more meaning. Shot in black and white, the calming jungle sounds are only interrupted by a comic colour pattern and the tunes of «Unchained Melody». Generally, we’re watching the sloth sleeping, staring into space, and occasionally continuing its unbelievably slow upside-down stroll along the trunk of a tree. It really seems to have all the time in the world.
Modern Times Review spoke to British director Ben Rivers at Porto Post Doc and asked how he came up with the idea for the film. «A sloth is a classic example of an animal who has been named based on human characteristics. But a sloth isn’t lazy, that’s just us putting ourselves at the centre, as always, and putting our own time onto it. Actually it has found a successful way of living, which has its own innate sense of time,» he explained.
A filmmaker has the advantage in that they can determine what their audience gets to see. When you leave the cinema, you are never the same person as when you entered. Just like sound waves moving molecules, the images influence your mind. Similarly, the more we talk about something, the more we manifest it. The more attention we give it, the more real it gets. The debates about whether artificial intelligence, for example, is the solution or the problem, are necessary enough, but the more we write and talk about them, the more they inevitably come into existence. By allowing this subject to fill the slots on the telly and the newspaper columns, it is already invading our lives – simply because we can’t seem to stop talking about it. But what about putting a sloth on the screen? Is it a statement?
Mindfulness means giving our immediate surroundings the amount of attention they deserve.
«The film is political,» Rivers confirms. «It’s also a film about love. I live in London, I’m busy a lot of the time, and it’s really noticeable when you go into nature and time changes. Everyone notices it, and it feels good. I like it when cinema can do this, take you into a different state if you allow it to. Some people misunderstood the film as a joke about ‘slow cinema’ – actually, I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I think the film can be funny, but I’m also completely serious about it.»
A friend of mine makes anyone who comes to her house, leave their smartphones in a basket by the door. She requires their full attention. Being connected to distracting gadgets means our attention is always scattered. In the animal kingdom, this would have made you vulnerable – you’re not on your guard, your head is always somewhere else, while your body is left to navigate the concrete jungles where most of us live, on its own. Mindfulness means giving our immediate surroundings the amount of attention they deserve. Attention is the real asset here, not money, or even time.
Watching the sloth, I’m reminded of Heinrich Bõll’s great short story about the fisherman who is happily resting by the water. A tourist comes up and asks him why he isn’t working so he can buy a bigger boat, make more money, or have other people work for him so that in the end, he can enjoy life and relax. The fisherman answers, dignified, that he’s already doing just that. Just like the fisherman, the sloth seems happy with just being. It’s simply doing what a sloth ought to be doing. Somehow there’s a lesson in it for us. As a species, are we doing what we ought to be doing?
With its calming aesthetics, the film is almost manipulating people into meditation. Rivers says the intention was clear from the start: «Form and content should always be thought of hand in hand, and the worst kind of cinema is the one that doesn’t bother with it and has completely arbitrary cinematography that can look nice, but is empty of any relation to the content. For Now, At Last! I was quite sure that the camera should be still for most of the film, apart from the initial tree climb. I flew to Costa Rica with this film, and the way I was going to film it, exactly in my mind – I didn’t film one frame of anything else – just this beautiful animal, temporarily named Cherry.»
The sloth lives in its own time; it’s not bothered with all the fuss. Life’s not a competition, it’s just a matter of finding one’s place in the world. If we could obtain a collective understanding of where our species is going, then perhaps we would discover that time is plentiful. By repeating that we «don’t have time» we maintain the illusion that time is something we can run out of, while being mindful teaches us that we have all the time we need. In a society on the fast track to desolation, the best thing we can do is to slow down. Smell the flowers, take a deep breath. Attention is everything.