In his 2006 film, Somerset-born artist Ben Rivers introduced us to the real life hermitic Jake Williams in This Is My Land. For Jake, a man with extraordinary eyebrows and expressive beard who lives alone in the high-Highlands, his self-sustainment and self-dependency is the realisation of a dream concocted as a young man. Two Years at Sea takes back up with Jake, the title alluding to the time spent working on boats so that he might lead this isolated life and though this film does nothing to explain those circumstances, it’s a bewildering starting point for an audience (one that no-one I was in the cinema with could possibly relate to).
The film is a long portrait, shot in muzzy black and white on 16mm but blown up to 35mm. It has all the snow and distortion that you could relate to a film from some other time – a deliberate aesthetic, there are glimpses of the burns, scratches, white-outs – but doesn’t come across as being from any particular era. In fact, there is something almost futuristic about the scene; man-made objects look like they’re degrading or are being used contrary to their purpose, nature is doing what it does best and Jake is making unexpected use of all of it.
It’s heart-growing some of it, especially one particular shot of Jake floating on the black water on a home-made raft that you’ve just seen from earlier shots strapped in unexplained pieces to his body as he scales a hill. He’s taking a nap like we’ve seen him do before in a heath in the middle of a hike and in his caravan at the top of a spruce tree, but here his sleep looks like the only thing that is moving him across the screen, nothing behind or in front of him, like the only happy solitary person in the world.
Art often gives a viewer way more time than is socially acceptable to check someone out. Be it in a film like this or a more traditional painted portrait, artists make the ultimate people-watchers and we follow their gaze and scrutinise and assume things about the subject’s history or thoughts or present right a long with whoever captured them. Rivers gives you so long for this in his unapologetically extended shots – it’s a device that emphasises how it, time, passes differently for the hermit – coupled with the essential wordlessness of it and you don’t even realise when you’ve stopped watching and have joined him, thinking elegiac thoughts right along with him.
As intensely as he is observed, Jake never breaks the fourth wall and if he does it is a quick glance in the viewers vague direction and immediately forgettable. When the break comes, it is his black cat that stares you down – just like the outsider you are.