Two Years at Sea (2011)

16 Apr

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;” (John Donne)

Donne’s 17th century poem explored the concept of human connection, yet his infamous opening line could be interpreted in a completely different light.  On one level, we are all interconnected, yet for some, connectedness with the land and indeed nature is of paramount importance.  For Jake, the subject of artist and director Ben Rivers’ feature Two Years at Sea,  being “a piece of the continent, a part of the main” defines his very being.

Previously, Jake, a Father Time esque individual, was the subject of Rivers’ short, This Is My Land and by revisiting his muse in long form, Rivers allows for a deeper exploration of Jake’s self-imposed isolation amongst the snowy wastes of Scotland.  Beautifully filmed in 16mm monochrome, Rivers opens Two Years at Sea with a long shot of Jake very literally leaving society behind and walking away into the wilderness, the sounds of nature his only companion.  It’s a wistful opening gambit.

What follows is a series of extensive establishing shots of Jake living in seclusion; creating a mattress, taking a shower and static, framed shots of woodland, laundry, a ticking clock.  It’s an effective device, which captures the beauty, stillness and purity of solitude.

Jake, for the most part, provides his own score, whistling away to himself as he carves out an existence and what is evident is his complete rejection of and escape from societal norms.   It’s engrossing, absorbing even to just watch someone live their life, even when it’s doing something as trivial as chopping wood.  Rivers appreciates the aesthetics and the beauty of every aspect of Jake’s surroundings, a world that is so small and insular that the minutiae of the insignificant take on increased importance.

It’s made fundamentally clear, however, that Jake in fact enjoys a full life entirely on his terms as he’s constantly on the go, moving, working, living.  Rivers is careful to reveal almost nothing about his subject, only ever hinting at Jake’s past through photographs, ensuring that the formulation of context is left entirely to the audience.

The introduction of some disconcerting music soon interrupts the realism and lends proceedings an ethereal, dreamlike air, which neatly coincides with Jake’s bizarre and inventive creation of a caravan treehouse and the construction of a makeshift raft which literally and metaphorically cut him adrift from the world. The lack of dialogue, Jake utters just two words throughout: “chesty cough”, and the hypnotic quality of Rivers photography eventually turns Jake’s quest for ultimate tranquillity into an endurance test and there’s little doubt that this immersive study would be far more suited to the art gallery than the picture house.

But this is an unapologetic contemplative meditation on meditation.  Jake’s dedication to becoming “part of the continent, part of the main” is clear and ultimately successful as nature essentially happens around him.  The incredibly poignant denouement, a close up of Jake, his image flickering in and out of sight as a fire burns out, is an emotive and visually luscious expression of Jake’s state of mind.  He occupies but a fleeting, distant and insignificant place in history and there’s a sense that he’s living out his days, with nature as his trusted companion, as he waits for the inevitable bell to toll.


(originally featured at on 14/04/12)

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