With two fascinating film premieres, Anthology is on a roll

A scene from 'Two Years at Sea.' ()
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If I say that Anthology Film Archives is the most exciting place for a certain kind of adventurous viewer to watch a movie in New York City this fall, it’s not for the reasons you might assume.

The city’s most combative platform for American independent and avant-garde cinema usually addresses itself to the medium’s cutting edge and underserved margins, without worrying about putting asses in the seats. (My favorite ongoing series is called “Boring Masterpieces.”) For the moment, at least, Anthology’s programming seems less interested in trailblazing than recovering the past—and now that Film Forum has gone gaga for digital projection, Anthology is one of the few dependable arenas for film projected on film. In the coming months, you can savor celluloid retrospectives of low-budget pioneer Edgar G. Ulmer, French anthropologist Jean Rouch, the documentaries of Shohei Imamura, and most excitingly, the late, great Ben Gazzara.

But first, Anthology spotlights the work of two burgeoning world cinema titans, both devoted to analog methods but not gauzy nostalgia. Though both hover in the orbit of the avant-garde, both Ben Rivers the Brit and Denis Côté the French-Canadian keep their work approachable by establishing an ethic of radical simplicity.

Getting a weeklong release after celebrated screenings at the Venice, Rotterdam, and New York film festivals, Ben Rivers’ first full-length feature Two Years At Sea introduces American viewers to a delicate and ambitious young talent—already a household name in experimental-cinema circles—working at the crossroads of documentary, ethnography, and science-fiction.

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The wordless but hardly silent Two Years At Sea unobtrusively observes an ageless dude—he’s either the world’s hardiest 65-year-old or a young man with an impressive Bonnie “Prince” Billy beard—showering, shitting, and sleeping in a kind of solitary wooded retreat. Rivers’ previous film was called Slow Action, and the title certainly applies to this relentlessly quotidian mini-epic.

From watching the film, you’d have no way of knowing that we’re in the Scottish highlands, the guy’s name is Jake, and the title refers to the period of labor that bankrolled our protagonist’s commitment to simple living. Is Jake’s existence an experiment or a necessity? Is he running from something? Has he ever encountered another human being? Rivers withholds any information that might suggest a mission statement. Jake is hardly a monk; he drives a Daihatsu jeep when running errands, and his record collection contains both sitar music and English murder ballads. No developing narrative or musical score exists to dictate our approach to this fellow, though at times Rivers allows a soft surrealism to infect the otherwise organic proceedings: I’m still not sure how Jake’s mobile home appears, in one scene, to slowly ascend a tree.

Shooting on richly textured 16mm black-and-white film stock (and intended for projection in a 35mm blowup), Rivers puts his own seemingly outmoded technology into conversation with Jake’s analog tools. Without stating any intentions, both men may be working toward the realization that solitary bliss is a form of full-time employment. In the film’s arguable centerpiece, we watch Jake painstakingly assemble a raft using an inflatable air mattress; he puts it to use by lying on his back and floating out into the middle of the lake, in a shot Rivers holds for several minutes. The disjunction between the labor and the reward suggests a kind of comedy.

In a testament to Rivers’ rising stature, just this week Cinema Guild announced its acquisition of Two Years At Sea for an eventual DVD release. Rivers’ work rewards the patient, but in this case don’t wait. Two Years At Sea is generous, peaceful, and immersive—it requires a big screen, darkness, and closed doors.

In Bestiaire, another wordless and unorthodox variation on the nature documentary, our desire to know more about the beings onscreen is linked to our desire to tame them. Screening for a week (starting October 19) as part of a Denis Côté retrospective, the film turns its lens and compositional eye on the cows, hyenas, rhinoceroses, and zebras that inhabit—sometimes calmly, sometimes restively—Montreal’s Parc Safari, a cheap simulacrum of their natural habitat created for the benefit of tourists.

It’s not Planet Earth, but it isn’t Frederick Wiseman either. Côté’s long shots aren’t meant to reveal the subtle machinations of an institutional power. Instead, they inspire a series of graduate-seminar-level questions: Why does the process of anthropomorphizing feel so natural? Is our sense of animal “innocence” a misguided projection? Do animals get bored?

Côté’s film resists classification, suggesting that the animals might do the same if given the opportunity. “The film is no fiction, obviously,” he has written. “However, if it were a documentary, there would be a ‘subject.’ Also, to describe it as an ‘essay’ would entail a polemic or partisan implication.” Bestiaire refrains from any kind of insistence, but in its impassive way, the film illuminates the discourse of “wildness” from several thought-provoking angles. The film opens with three art students sketching a dead doe, with each drawing revealing (or inventing) the doe from another angle. Côté’s film understands that we assert our dominion by looking, but also knows that animals projected on a screen are always already domesticated.

Bestiaire lacks a coherent arc, or principle of arrangement, though a few of the individual shot compositions are mesmerizing. Côté is content to let us see the animals for what they are, or rather, what our eyes make of them. For the active spectator, that should be more than enough.

Two Years at Sea’ opens today for a one-week run; director Ben Rivers will be on hand for opening night and the 7 p.m. screenings on Oct. 13 and 14; ‘Bestiaire’ opens Oct. 19 for a one-week run; director Denis Côté will be present for opening-weekend screenings.