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Two Years at Sea | DVD Review

Two Years at Sea Ben Rivers DVDAs everyone knows, films are generally the product of a team of artisans and technicians, a conspicuous collaboration between the nebulous nature of art and the mechanical makeup of industry, but for Ben Rivers, filmmaking is a personal, one man expedition into the unknown.  Armed with a 16 mm hand held camera and an eye for poetic austerity, Rivers ventures into the backwoods of Scotland to film a kindred heart in a burly self-sustaining recluse named Jake Williams for his first feature, Two Years at Sea.  In doing, he returned to the terra incognita where he lensed This Is My Land and a segment of I Know Where I’m Going, a pair of shorts that broaden his experimental cinema work while harkening back to Robert Flaherty’s one man operation of Nanook of the North, but without the hands-on direction or the cloistered cultural fascination of his documentary forefather.  Rivers renders his subject with a comparable mundanity, but he instead looks to his subject for contemplative inspiration not in how Williams survives in his seclusion, but thrives in seemingly suspended time.

Behind the beard and weather wrinkled brow is a man living the dream, or more specifically, his dream (many will perceive it as hell).  We aren’t privy to background in the film, but as a young man Jake fantasized of living in isolation amongst the green overgrowth of the deep woods.  It took two years as a seaman to realize this dream, but ever since he’s relied little on others, surviving frugally in his rural abode.  Detached from the digital age that seems to be imposing itself upon the globe entire, Jake passes the time in admiring observation of the natural space he inhabits, working on seemingly banal projects and sustenantial basics.  His simplistic existence, observationally filmed in extensive static long takes, reminds us that being disconnected not only from technology, but also from the overpopulation of modern human society, seems to have a serene purity and supreme appreciation for the world.  As he lounges, floating motionlessly on a nearby pond or in his surreal snow-covered tree top lookout, it’s almost as if Williams is trying to take in all that he can before humanity inevitably consumes the countryside, rather than before the elder himself passes to the otherside.  The slow progression of time is portrayed to create an astounding appreciation for our own.

But Rivers does not solely linger on the somber.  A true eccentric, Jake’s existence is not only austere, but often humorously absurd.  In the silence of the woods he revels in his own pack rat materialism while an ancient sound system blasts out music from a scratchy old turntable, one of few reminders of his remaining domesticity.  His beat up truck also doubles as a traveling boombox, the camera auspiciously placed path-side, capturing the sound of traditional Indian raga tunes slowly ramping up and subsiding into the wilderness.  Despite all his efforts, Jake is only marginally more removed than Rivers, a pair of foreigners in the heart of these harsh lands, but naturalized none-the-less.

A bleak black and white widescreen composition, the film itself was developed by the hands of the filmmaker alone.  Full of flickering contrast, artifacts and inconsistencies, the occasional missing frame and plenty of blunt cuts, constantly remind of the lo-fi, DIY nature of the project.  Yet, the images Rivers captures are consistently and overbearingly beautiful in their subtle being.  Lulling us into a subconscious dreamstate of reflective solitude, Two Years at Sea is a stark and still almost soothing depiction of one man’s defection from society and his loving and sometimes funny relationship with nature.  We’re privy to an ambience almost forgotten.  Let’s pray both Rivers and Williams keep the coals burning, even if the flames flicker out.

Disc Review:

Saving Ben Rivers’ slyly simplistic work of art from oblivion, Cinema Guild has swooped in and given Two Years at Sea a brilliant release, lovingly packing it with a pair of shorts, extra scenes and a beautifully written piece on the film to boot.  Though the film’s digital transfer is incredibly hard to judge due to the filmmaker’s chosen method of film processing, one could assume all the artifacts and instability within the image are as it was originally.  Likewise with the Dolby stereo track pushing mostly ambiance and the occasional in-scene music.  It’s all very raw, and meaningfully so.

I Know Where I’m Going (2009)
At its core, this is what most would call a road movie.  Rivers travels the British countryside, documenting the people and places he finds meaning in.  All the while a philosophical voice over trickles in and out, adding depth and a strangely ominous tone to the work. 30 min

This Is My Land (2006)
A precursor of sorts to Two Years, Rivers engages with Williams, but this time the hermit talks to the filmmaker with jovial affection, almost excited to have a visitor to his green abode.  14 min

Deleted Scenes
Almost a half hour of additional scenes are tacked on here, allowing Williams plenty more time to with odd projects, painting his roof, riding his motorbike and the like.

Within this brief leaflet included in the package, writer and director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Dennis Lim’s beautifully written essay on the film can be found.

Final Thoughts:

Relax.  This is what Ben Rivers seems to be telling us.  Take some time to absorb and contemplate that which surrounds you.  Look for joy in the simple things.  Give meaning to the meaningless and celebrate the novelty of it all.  For Williams, Rivers, and their trusting DIY collaboration in Two Years At Sea, nature is the best place for this to occur, and it does so with unyielding, introspective beauty.

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