At its premiere screening in the New York Film Festival last fall, Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea fit comfortably among a series of films prefiguring the coming year’s end-of-days. While Abel Ferrara’s 4:44, Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia forecast encroaching wrath with resignation, Two Years at Sea studies an individual project of evading industrial demise. Following a lone, wiry middle-aged Scottish man called Jake as he goes about his solitary life in a (presumably) self-imposed wilderness isolation, the film suggests alternatives to feeding the machine of perpetual progress and consequent inevitable destruction. Shot in Super 16 and hand-processed, the image often has a fuzzy flicker that adds to its overall sense of dreamy idealism. Wobbly exposures and an anachronistic CinemaScope aspect ratio make still shots of trees covered in snow look like a 1920s nature study, but with the intense, crisp contrast of new film stock.
Two Years at Sea more or less follows a course-of-a day structure, beginning with a morning routine, and ending in a bonfire and pitch blackness. However, it becomes clear that temporal demarcation is neither interesting to its own subject nor ingrained in the fabric of the work. For instance, from scene to scene, the seasons vary. Jake enjoys an existence liberated from clock-time, and the film follows a chronology without cause-and-effect. Occasional full-frame snapshots of unknown people suggest a past, but everything else in Jake’s world reveals a continuous present.
Jake inhabits a few different crumbling domiciles, each of them at an early stage of being taken over by the plant and animal life around them. He sleeps—he sleeps a lot, actually—wherever looks cozy at the time: open field, trailer, homemade raft. Watching him curl up variously has a wonderfully soporific effect. It becomes easy, even in the film’s brief 68 minutes, to take a little doze, returning to find, “ah, Jake’s built a raft, so he can float around. How nice.”
Rivers has frequently addressed ideas and states of utopia in his films, from the anarchic, feral family depicted in his 2008 short Ah, Liberty! to his 2010 post-apocalyptic faux-ethnography sci-fi project Slow Action. What makes this revisit to the concept unique is how closely examined—how focused—it is, and how grounded in reality it still feels. The environment contains magic, but doesn’t have or require the element of whimsy. Jake plays music from a car radio and record player, takes hot showers, uses a gas stove—the world hasn’t actually ended, yet, but he’s found a way to live aside from it.
Upon a second viewing, a year later, I found myself unsettlingly reminded of the recent documentary by Gianfranco Rosi, Below Sea Level, which explores an involuntarily off-the-grid community who inhabit a deserted military base in the blank middle of California. Living in cars, and grasping at the last bits of existence, rejected from work and a chance for useful lives, they’ve created the mobile version of a tent city. Shot on poor quality DV, Rossi’s film is a profound and ugly counterpart to the wild isolation of Rivers’s film, allowing the suggestions of the one creep to into the other—which is to say that I couldn’t help but wonder when the bulldozers would come move Jake out of the way for a highway, or whether his decrepit castle would be foreclosed upon in the end. The inevitable imagination of this present has the effect of changing idealism into dystopia.
Two Years at Sea makes its theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives this month (October 12 – 18), after a year during which Occupy Wall Street began, peaked, fizzled, and has begun to resurrect itself. The palliative effect of this film on an ideological level, and how it dovetails with the present, is that its subject is doing exactly what he wants, and exactly what he wants is not to take from anything or anyone—to be left alone. This effect occurs on an aesthetic level, in that the texture and tangibility of the handmade push up against a flimsy, weightless immaterial present, offering solitude, and just enough action to command attention. Creating a world out of time.
Two Years at Sea opens at Anthology Film Archives on Friday, October 12 www.anthologyfilmarchives.org.