Two Years At Sea

Two Years At Sea


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

To be at sea is either literally to be on an ocean voyage or metaphorically to be lost or confused. That is not why Two Years At Sea, the feature debut of video artist Ben Rivers, is so called. After all, its events span the seasonal changes of a single year and unfold in and around an Aberdeenshire forest, while its protagonist Jake Williams, though at times impulsive, never seems lost.

In fact the title derives from a stint of work on a Merchant Navy ship that Williams undertook in order to finance his chosen lifestyle as a hermit in a large, ramshackle property in the middle of nowhere – although you would never know this from watching the film itself, which comes with no dialogue, no context and only the presence of Williams himself to bring a human dimension to the natural landscape that he inhabits.

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Sinewy, bearded, ageing Williams first appeared in Rivers' 2006 short film This Is My Land - and perhaps the short film format, or at least a different approach from the one found here, might be better suited to this subject. He is no doubt a fascinating figure – but, despite vague hints of a history to be pieced together from occasional glimpses of other people's faces in his photo collection, or suggestions of a personality to be reconstructed mostly from the layers of detritus scattered round his isolated house, shed and caravan, Two Years At Sea leaves Williams himself, much like its title, studiously undefined. If this is a character study, there is little character in it.

Instead, what we see is Williams engaged in his banal, if at times eccentric, quotidian activities – showering, walking, pottering about and (especially) sleeping, the latter in a range of locations from the bed in his house, to a mattress in his caravan, to a self-fashioned raft in a loch. The film's final shot, too (and this is no spoiler, as there is no plot to speak of) is a very long single take of Williams sitting in the dark, his face illuminated only by the dying flickers of an outdoor fire, as he slowly, oh so very slowly, drifts off into the land of Nod.

Perhaps all this is intended to evoke a way of life where waking, sleeping and dreaming form a continuum – and sure enough, odd flourishes like the surreal spectacle of a caravan suddenly floating up into the air imply, at least momentarily, that there may be more to this feature than its dominant mode of documentary realism.

At the same time, however, these repeated, often prolonged images of Williams napping also unavoidably bring home the film's soporific effect on the viewer. If the protagonist can sleep through his own feature, why shouldn't we? With so little on screen to engage or keep our attention, it should come as no surprise that the London Film Festival press screening of the film was accompanied by the sounds of loud snoring from several critics, their heads no doubt filled with far more diverting fancies than anything playing in the cinema. If Two Years At Sea attempts to slow film narrative down to something that approximates the unrushed pace of Williams' existence on the margins, it also leaves us preferring to keep our own company, and desperate for something – anything – to happen.

You have, to a degree, to admire Rivers for his tenacity, his commitment and most of all his patience, in putting this film together. The sound, recorded by Chu-li Shewring and mixed by Kevin Pyne, is simply superb, and Rivers' black-and-white images, shot on outmoded 16mm cameras, eloquently capture Williams' strange existence, governed by the eternal rhythms of the seasons yet also thoroughly out of time.

Still, the monochrome purity of the footage is neither excuse nor compensation for the film's other kind of colourlessness. Outsiders like Williams often have an interesting story to tell – but unfortunately this film never lets it be told, or offers any of the things that viewers might conventionally wish from a feature. In the absence of character, event, development or obvious point - leave alone entertainment - what remains is merely an impression of time misspent. Perhaps that in itself is an oblique comment on Williams – but the challenges of endurance presented to the viewer by this particular film suggest that it is Rivers, and the body that funded this project, who are truly at sea.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2011
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A portrait of Jake, an outsider who lives in the wilderness of his own creation.
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Director: Ben Rivers

Starring: Jake Williams

Year: 2011

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: UK

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