British filmmaker Ben Rivers makes quasi-documentary films about real people living on the margins of civilization: hermits, eccentrics and back-to-the-land types who have created self-contained worlds in wilderness environments. The protagonist of Two Years at Sea (2011), Rivers’s first feature-length movie, is Jake Williams, who lives alone, save for a cat, in a ramshackle house in the middle of a forest in Scotland. Shot over the course of a year, Two Years at Sea follows him through the seasons as he goes about his daily routine.
In the film’s opening scene, the camera tracks Jake as he tramps down a snowy path through the woods, drawing us into his world and inducting us into Jake’s way of being in it, which involves spurts of furious activity alternating with an almost trancelike stillness. Shot in 16mm black-and-white stock which Rivers hand- processes in his kitchen sink, the flickering images and their non-narrative sequencing underscore the immediacy and start-and-stop nature of Jake’s existence.
Jake unselfconsciously washes off in a hand-built shower, fixes tea, collects wood, reads, cooks, pulls down a tree using a winch and, quite often, just sits. He appears to live entirely in the present, and so, when watching the film, do we. Hints abound, however—in the form of boxes of correspondence and sheafs of photographs—that there were once more people in his life than now.
Despite living in accordance with the weather and the seasons, Jake’s relationship with nature is equivocal. A veritable tsunami of manmade stuff—jerry-rigged appliances, old furniture, tools, vehicles, bicycle parts, plastic jugs and a great deal of rope—litters the yard and fills Jake’s house and adjoining out- buildings to overflowing. Music—Indian ragas and Scottish ballads played over a disused truck’s cassette player or over loudspeakers affixed to the side of the house—keeps the silence of the woods, and perhaps loneliness as well, at bay.
In one of the first intimations that this film is not quite a straight documentary, Jake mucks out a deserted camper and lies down in it, at which point the camper rises slowly into the air and lodges at the top of a tree. It’s a magical image, but one that is rather spoiled by the trailer’s continued presence there for the dura- tion of the movie. Other moments—including repeated images of Jake asleep in various unlikely places—also seem self-consciously surreal.
Far more engrossing, and in no need of additional art, are Jake’s everyday activities and the unearthly beauty of the landscape around him. And far more mysterious than a levitating camper is Jake himself as he sits in front of a fire, his thoughts unknown to us and his eyes never ceasing their restless movement even to the last, when the fire dies down and the film fades to black.
Photo: Still from Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea, 2011, 16mm film blown up to 35mm, 86 minutes; at MoMA.