Saturday, December 31, 2011

Two Years at Sea (2011) A Film by Ben Rivers

Focusing with unflinching directness on the unbreakable bond between a human being and his environment, Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea ultimately reinstates in 86 minutes both cinema's fundamental connection with labor and its function as a tool for comprehensive, peerlessly intimate portraiture. The camera is, at its technological and epistemological core, a device used to document physical reality, with people being its ideal and most revealing subject. Rivers, a London-based experimental artist who has been creating short, vaguely anthropological visual studies since 2003, does away with narrative trappings, explanatory details, and dialogue altogether to exploit this capacity in Two Years at Sea, his first feature-length work. Expanding upon the 2006 short This Is My Land, the film concerns the life of Jake Williams, a hermit living in the middle of a forest in Scotland. According to the brief production notes, Jake held a desire to live alone in the wilderness from a very young age, and "spent two years working at sea to realize it."

The film has no interest in revealing what exactly its title means, nor is it concerned much with providing any context at all for Jake's lifestyle. None of the aforementioned background information is revealed in the film itself (although there are occasional silent cutaways to photographs seemingly depicting Jake's past life with what are perhaps family members), leaving Rivers to immerse himself and his camera in the unconventional routines and temporal rhythms of his Herzogian subject without any urge for commentary. Jake has fashioned a decrepit one-story home filled with ungainly piles of tools, papers, and paraphernalia, a structurally questionable tree-house consisting of an old caravan hoisted up across the branches of tall trees, and a ramshackle yard that doubles as a holding ground for his gathered forest supplies (mostly wood) where he sits in a beach chair to enjoy the quiet tranquility surrounding him. A great deal of his time, however, is spent away from his home on day trips up misty mountains, across tree-less fields, and into derelict ponds. He has held onto a dusty Jeep in order to entertain some of his more far-flung adventures (how he obtains the gas is a negligible question mark), but the majority of the time he simply backpacks across land, whistling as he goes.

Rivers eventually finds a loose structure out of what is ostensibly a life without obligations and restrictions, defined only by the daily need for survival. The film alternates between passages of work and rest, with the transitional moments comprised of contemplative shots of the wilderness composed with a painterly sensibility for shape, texture, and light. For such a deceptively muted, peaceful, carefree film, Jake's life is punctuated heavily by labor, by the numerous manual tasks required to sustain even the humblest of livelihoods. Thus, the film restages life itself as labor, calling attention to the presence of humans as ultimately transitory in a larger, natural order. Jake, as all humans, is essentially a guest to nature, and his work is necessitated merely by the fact that nature throws obstacles in his way (weather, unpredictable availability of resources, etc.). What I love about Two Years At Sea is how it sidesteps the impulse to either glorify the isolated lifestyle as some agrarian, primitivistic ideal or predict its character’s inevitable loneliness to make a case for the necessity of sociality (see Into the Wild), which speaks to Rivers’ anthropological curiosity. No imaginary, non-human, or anthropomorphic friends here, just a man doing what he needs to do to survive alone in the wilderness, seemingly for the comfort and exciting freedom that isolation in the natural world brings.

As Rivers fixates his camera on Jake's routines throughout the film, the man himself largely remains an enigma. There's something so casual and well-adjusted about his behavior that suggests he has long ago shaken off any doubts about his radical lifestyle. Recurring shots show him sitting or lying down doing nothing to hold his attention, but rather than implying deep thought Jake's blank facade seems to express a transcendent tabula rasa, a total elimination of typical social concerns. At the same time, however, Jake has not entirely shed worldly materiality, showcased in his propensity for throwing on bluesy background music on his gramophone (he seems to have taken a special liking to the Jew harp and the bouzouki), or in the old photographs littered across his living space, fragments of a more traditional social history. That Jake can resemble anywhere from an excited boyscout to a Winter’s Bone extra to a great philosopher in a Rembrandt (a shot of Jake reading seems designed to banish any hasty assumptions of hippie illiteracy) depending on how Rivers frames and lights him only compounds his unknowable and eccentric personality.

In a truly original move, Two Years at Sea brings the real and intimate concerns of a documentary into the parameters of the hyper-cinematic, trotting out an absurdly wide ratio (2:75:1) via cropped Super 16mm that hasn't been touched since epic 70mm productions like Ben-Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). What Rivers does with the format is remarkable, lending a mythic quality to Jake and his environment even as he staunchly refuses the fussy cinematographic calculation of those Hollywood superproductions. Sometimes he will place the area of interest in the far side of the frame just because he can, leaving the rest of the frame black, whereas other times he animates every portion of the vast geography of the frame, watching as Jake takes the long hike across the composition. There's something truly sculptural - in Tarkovsky's sense - about the way Rivers carves out blocks of his subject's unique time and arranges them into striking, free-flowing images. In one instance, Jake assembles a makeshift raft out of wood and jumbo milk cartons (a comparatively bombastic moment in an otherwise quiet film) and rows it out into a pond. Right when the viewer assumes he’s headed to the other side, he stops dead in the middle of the body of water to drift carelessly - his body entirely motionless – the long distance to the other side of the panoramic frame. And once his vessel has nearly bumped against land, he turns back. It’s an achingly poetic image that possesses the sparse, smeared beauty of a Caspar David Friedrich oil painting and most succinctly and elegantly communicates Jake's firm sense of inner peace.

Further deglamorizing his bold format is Rivers' decision to leave evidence of the material wear-and-tear of his chosen medium. Throughout, the screen subtly flashes like a degraded silent film, evidence of a transfer from 16mm to 35mm that Rivers deliberately didn't refine, and blotches of dirt and dust accent the omnipresent grain. It's a fitting, and beautiful, aesthetic mirror of his subject, whose physicality and material well-being has been similarly deteriorated from continued exposure to the elements. As such, Two Years at Sea tends to feel like a lost film discovered beneath dirt, an organic object slowly dying like Jake's decrepit wilderness home and like the celluloid medium itself. In the marvelous eight-and-a-half-minute shot that quietly concludes the film, Jake drifts gradually into sleep beside a crackling fire, revealed only in a close-up that miraculously becomes less and less illuminated the more Jack slips out of consciousness. The film grain grows uglier and blotchier as the light source gradually disappears, eventually filling the screen with an indistinct mass of underexposed celluloid. Finding and watching Two Years at Sea is akin to discovering an unintentional objet d'art from this mysterious sleeping man.

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