The act of experiencing cinema is an act of watching. It’s a passive action. Receptive. It’s so passive that at times it’s as though there’s no input from the viewer at all. In this it is similar to the action of enjoying art. In this day and age there are ways of experiencing art that involve going down slides or talking to strangers, but the predominant impulse in art is to look, to see, to watch, to receive.
Ben Rivers is well aware of this. Firstly, his film in an observational one. His camera observes a character, Jake, a man with a verdant beard and an energetic if solitary disposition. In some ways the film is like a nature documentary, studying the hermit in his environment. The camera is a spy of which Jake is presumably aware. The beauty and eccentricity of Jake’s surroundings are in themselves intriguing, but perhaps insufficient to warrant a 90 minute film. Instead it is something the director does with this material that makes it magical. What he does is he compels his audience to watch. We observe not just the ‘action’ of the film, but also the ‘process’ of the film, as the filmstock itself flickers and distorts, engrains and degrains. These frames are all unique (as of course every frame there has ever been is unique) but the filmmaker draws our attention to their uniqueness. The fuzz of the footage means each second has its own texture.
There are two sequences in particular that are so striking, from this point of view, (demanding from another), that, a little like the latest twist in a Bond film, the reviewer doesn’t want to speak about them, for fear of spoiling their potency. These are moments when the viewer is drawn into the image, almost as though staring at a Rembrandt. The only other sequence I’ve seen do this as effectively is the opening of Reygadas’ Silent Light. In these moments the passive nature of watching is revealed to be a myth: the film only comes alive because we make the active effort to participate. Without our eyes a film is nothing (except sound). This is as close to 3D as film can get (forget the specs). Blink and it’s gone. Which is always the case, but normally we take it for granted. Here, that indulgence is denied us, but what we gain more than compensates, as the viewer becomes the sentient actor in the face of a passive screen.
There’s nothing remotely commercial about Two Years at Sea and I came to it with a mild sense of dread. There’s no shortage of poorly made “art” films out there which sink under the weight of their own pretension. But Rivers’ film is one of the most disciplined, charming and beautiful pieces of cinema I’ve ever witnessed, taking the viewer to the heart of what it means to be a viewer, whilst maintaining an irreverence and an understated use of mystery. The questions that remain unanswered are as potent as the ones that are answered, ensuring that the unstated “narrative” ticks along beneath the wordless surface. It will barely make a ripple in the cinematic consciousness, but in another world, one of Borges’ parallel universes, it will be revered, a true blockbuster, a game-changer which will make superstars out of the quiet genius’ who created this work.