“Too much exposition is the kind of thing that makes me bored with Hollywood movies (…) I like films that leave a lot to the audience.” - Ben Rivers
‘Slow Cinema’ is a new term that has found purchase in film circles. It’s a type of contemplative, observational movie in which sound and image take precedence over narrative. Sukhdev Sandhu writes eloquently on ‘slow cinema’ here. The term fits Ben Rivers’ work like a glove; at times Two Years at Sea (2012) seems to slow to the stillness of a photograph, with just a tiny amount of motion to let you know time is passing – a cloud drifting across the sky, grass rustling in the breeze.
A recent review notes that “Rivers’ work could perhaps be seen as the flip side to literature: when you read a book, you’re given a plot and you conjure the images in your imagination; with [this] it’s the other way around”. Rivers presents carefully composed images and sounds to create poetic beauty that is simultaneously rich with meaning yet totally ambiguous. Each shot runs seemingly longer than it should, and in that extra time the viewer can begin to generate their own meaning (or fall asleep like the woman sitting next to me). Both are appropriate reactions I think; the film’s subject Jake Williams spends a lot of his time either contemplating or nodding off.
“His is a cinema of process; he manages to reveal a truth and beauty in actual time.”
Two Years at Sea is Ben Rivers’ first feature film after making some twenty shorts over the past decade. Made with a £35,000 commission from the Film London Artists Moving Image Network (FLAMIN), it ‘stars’ Jake Williams, the focus of Rivers’ 2006 short film This is My Land. Rivers seems to have a preoccupation with people who have created their own realities far from civilisation: “I’m interested in the worlds people have created – very specific…[insular] worlds” states Rivers, and perhaps this is why he returned to Williams. The film seems to present Williams living in complete isolation, a kind of “rural Mad Max”. Williams lives alone in the forest of Aberdeenshire surrounded by junk and anachronistic objects, like his beloved gramophone. Nothing is explained in the film, so why is Williams there? Is he real? Is this documentary or fiction? Much is left to the audience.
The film focuses on Williams’ daily routines: taking a shower, reading a book, fishing, drinking coffee, listening to records and tapes. Rivers dramatises the banal, wrapping boredom in serene, filmic beauty. His is a cinema of process; he manages to reveal a truth and beauty in actual time. Because of the ambiguity of the depiction, everything that Williams does seems extraordinary – everyday activities become charged, everything seems mysterious. This is most clearly realised in the film’s special effects sequence. About two-thirds into the film Williams goes into an abandoned caravan to take a nap. Upon waking, he goes to the door of the caravan only to find himself 30ft in the air, the caravan mysteriously floating away, up into the treetops.
Two Years At Sea interrogates the conceit of documentary – that the truth of an image is somehow related to its status as a fictional event (or event otherwise enacted for the camera). Indeed, “even if it’s a re-enactment of things he would ordinarily do, you’re still fictionalising to some extent” explains Rivers. His work stems from the self-conscious documentary tradition forged by the likes of Humphrey Jennings, who staged events in his films like London Can Take It! (1940), screened recently by R|R contributor Jess Lenten at the Reel Ale Film Club. This tradition of re-staging also harks back to Robert J. Flaherty, who staged events in his canonical Nanook of the North (1922), through cultural reconstructions of local culture.
Rivers is a filmmaker proper; he shoots on an old, wind-up Bolex camera with black-and-white 16mm film, and then develops the film himself at home. The beautiful print of the film that I saw at The Watershed illuminated the relationship that celluloid has with reality – the kind of artifacting and dynamism that can only occur with celluloid, rather than with digital images.The image you see on film is a photochemical phenomenon; light and chemicals change the surface of the film, so it has an indexical relationship to that which it represents. What you see is what you get, so to speak. Digital images are fundamentally different. They’re numbers, data, pixels – an artificial map of a represented reality. A big part of the resonance of Two Years at Sea is the fact that it is shot on film; blotches, scratches and flares occur on the surface of the celluloid adding another layer of filmic activity. This bestows a sense of materiality that matches the kind of untreated physicality that Williams’ performance embodies.
“There are other points where the film itself seems to overwhelm the image.”
In the final sequence of the film Williams stares into a crackling fire and gradually nods off to sleep while the image gradually descends into darkness. This is a kind of parallel point-of-view shot; the film and audience seems to nod off with Williams. What’s left on-screen are the final reels of film spooling through the projector; the darkness is interspersed with the grainy texture of the film as it is illuminated via the projector. There are other points where the film itself seems to overwhelm the image. In overexposed daylight shots Williams’ face begins to fizz and fleck, showcasing the relationship between image and medium, in a fine balance which at any time could be destabilised.
Rivers is an important and exciting British filmmaker, soon to curate a programme of short films entitled Friends with Benefits, screening at the upcoming LUX|ICA Biennial of Moving Image (24th – 27th May 2012) at the ICA in London. There are many other exciting programmes at the Biennial. R|R will be there, will you?