Stately, fitfully mesmerizing but definitely not for lowbrows, experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers’ “Two Years at Sea” observes contempo hermit Jake Williams as he ekes out a living in the wilds of Scotland. Williams was also the subject of an earlier short by Rivers, “This Is My Land,” and this first feature-length work by the helmer is congruent with his other films, such as “Slow Action” and “Sack Barrow,” in its focus on landscapes and hard work. Shot on widescreen 16mm in pencilly monochrome, “Sea” is best seen theatrically, but its stringent aesthetic will confine it to festival berths.
Williams only speaks once oncamera, mumbling in a gruff Scots brogue about his “chesty cough” as he examines some medicine; nothing is explained about who he is or why he’s chosen to live in a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere. Instead, Rivers’ camera unobtrusively observes him going about his daily business, whether the day’s task is making grub, fishing in a nearby loch with a homemade raft, or hoisting a caravan into the air to build a makeshift treehouse.
Interspersed with the long, slow-breath takes of the man pottering about are rostrum shots of old photographs of landscapes and people that apparently belong to Williams, since they seem part and parcel with his homestead’s clutter. It’s hard to know what relevance they have, but mystery seems to be part of Rivers’ m.o., given that he favors quirky images that look almost like in-camera trick shots, such as one of a tree being bent to the ground, as if by magic.
According to published accounts of post-Q&A sessions at the New York Film Festival, Williams is a more outgoing chap than the version of himself he plays onscreen, and some of his activities were suggested to him by Rivers. This makes the pic neither a straight docu nor a work of fiction, but something that dwells in the twilight in between, misty like the mornings it records. In the end, auds will need less a grasp of genre than the kind of open mind one brings to quality gallery art. On the simplest level, “Two Years at Sea” reps a tribute to one man’s determination to survive on very little, apart from the company of the forest and passing animals (and an experimental filmmaker), and what sounds like a good collection of blues records, judging by the tunes heard from his gramophone.
Projection caught was shown digitally in Venice because of print problems, but the pic was shown on celluloid in New York.