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Time is sculpted on screen

One of the greatest charms of the movies is their evanescence. They seem bigger and grander than us, even though they're just made of light. Much of their beauty, in fact, is in their transience.

The advent of home video has made revisiting favorite moments easier, and that convenience becomes a lesser sort of preservation. But it's still just home video Ñ not movies, not really.

Want the best description of movies and what they do? Look at that moment from 'Lawrence of Arabia' in which a close-up of a match being blown out becomes an explosive desert sunrise almost too vast for the screen to contain, all in the space of a cut. It takes your breath away, the first time or the 50th, and there's no way to fully appreciate Ñ let alone tell somebody Ñ everything this simple transition from close-up to long shot conveys. And it's all in the blink of an eye.

It's really not so strange that watching the documentary 'Rivers and Tides' would lead to musings about the nature of movies. The film is subtitled 'Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time,' because in much of this Scottish sculptor's work, time is truly of the essence. The things he makes are there, and then they're not. Movie buffs who see it Ñ and movie buffs should see it Ñ are liable to be reminded of the book title Peter Bogdanovich took from actor James Stewart's description of movies: 'Pieces of Time.'

In the course of director-cinematographer-editor Thomas Riedelsheimer's unusually graceful and alluring study of the artist at work, we see Goldsworthy create pieces designed with transience in mind. Composed of rock, wood, ice and leaves Ñ his choice is a sort of natural selection Ñ these works are often intended to complete themselves by disappearing, to literally go with the flow. The ones that aren't meant to be reclaimed by nature are made to be transformed by the passage of time. In the process, like the best movies, they allow you to see the world differently.

If patience is a virtue, Goldsworthy also makes it an art Ñ or, perhaps more accurately, the medium of which his art is made Ñ and with which it is best appreciated. (We certainly share his frustration when, say, a delicate web of twigs collapses.) Nature is a participant, and Riedelsheimer is sufficiently aware of this to let it provide the soundtrack much of the time, so that the film often achieves a water-over-rocks sense of serene motion.

Goldsworthy's work has been astutely described as 'environmental poetry,' but not by the man himself, whose comments tend to be attempts to describe what the work means to him. He is neither pretentious nor precious, and the film very rarely flirts with the New Age-iness you might fear it would wallow in.

Goldsworthy photographs his work for attractive books, but a movie is the best place to see it. Even if you were really there you wouldn't be afforded a film's variety of perspectives. Here you can see a coil of driftwood unreel in a tidal stream like the spiral designs in 'Vertigo.' Nature take its course, and steals every scene. Gone with the wind, indeed.