This article was originally published in print in
Fireflies Issue #4: Pedro Costa / Ben Rivers (purchase here), and has been posted here with the generosity of the magazine's editors.
Origin of the Species
As the titles of This Is My Land (2006) appear on the black screen, we hear Jake Williams’ voice: a song hum-mumbled that reminds me of my father ironing. I like him instantly. When we eventually see Williams, two leaves obscure his forehead and mouth as if to say, this is as close as you’re going to get, or maybe, aren’t these leaves nice, shouldn’t we all spend more time in the woods, playing with leaves? He holds the pose as though instructed.
After a few minutes, we get Williams’ first words as he stands in front of his house in the forest: “If you want to make a hedge but you’re not in a big hurry, you can hang up a line of birdfeeders on sticks or something, and then when the birds come there they’ll be shitting out seeds from the last berries they ate, so they’ll be shitting out rose seeds from the rose hips they ate and rowan seeds from the rowan berries they’ve eaten and bramble seeds and that, and then eventually you’ll get a line of shrubs growing along the lane.”
Later, I remember the words of Christopher Knight, the North Pond Hermit, who lived in the Maine woods for twenty-seven years without human contact. After he was jailed in 2013 for stealing food and supplies from houses, he told a reporter, “People want me to be this warm and fuzzy person. All filled with friendly hermit wisdom. Just spouting off fortune-cookie lines from my hermit home.”
‘Hermit’ comes from the Greek eremos (desolate, uninhabited), which gave us eremia (a desert, a solitude, an uninhabited region) and then eremites, “person in the desert”, used to refer to recluses such as the Desert Fathers. These were Christian monks repulsed by the decadence of the early Church who retreated to the Egyptian desert, where they were often sought out for spiritual counsel. The word travelled from Greek to Latin to Old French to Middle English, eventually transforming into ‘hermit’. Like the desert, hermits are defined by what they lack (human companionship, material possessions), and this lack becomes a means to revelation and revolution. It’s for this reason Pasolini obsessed over the desert in his films and writings, citing it in one poem as “the barren marble of the urinal which becomes the temple of my dreams”.
Carrying this etymological baggage though distanced from its religious roots, today’s hermit exists somewhere between noble dissident and batshit crank. By which I mean, the hermit is a fiction, even as a fleshy living breathing person haunts its edgelands.
“When I came out of the woods they applied the label hermit to me,” said Knight. “I had never thought of myself as a hermit. Then I got worried. For I knew with the label hermit comes the idea of crazy.”
We meet Jake Mangel Wurzel in I Know Where I’m Going (2009). He welcomes visitors but wields ‘crazy’ like a battle flag. His home is covered in painted, childish signs that have scuffed and faded over time:
THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT JAKE BUILT – YOU ARE ABOUT TO WITNESS A UNIQUE WATERSHED IN YOUR LIFE’S EXPERIENCE
THE CRAZI-EST COTTAGE IN CREATION
WELCOME TO DILDO HOUSE
Their creator is equally weathered and exuberant. A cigarette hangs from his lip, and a scrunched-up cloth acts as a Rambo-like bandana. His hair and frizzy, rascally beard are ginger, his cheeks slapped pink. He stands in his backyard on ten inches of newspaper serving as lawn, recounting his “big change” from being “an ordinary mortal”. His fiery air gives way to melancholy, suggesting he’s only found meaning in this messed-up world by constructing a bewildering fantasy home, which includes a car door repurposed as a front gate, and a fire protection system whose water is supplied by an aqueduct of old toilet bowls. Their mouldy porcelain becomes Rivers’ own temple of dreams.
The IRL hermit is hard to find, but Rivers has befriended one after the next. Though he never refers to his subjects as hermits, over the past decade he has journeyed to their far-flung homes and brought back images of their lives, building up a travelogue of hermit films.
Rivers sought out Williams in Aberdeenshire for This Is My Land, hoping to film a living version of Thomas Glahn, the solitary, forest-dwelling hero of Knut Hamsun’s novel Pan (1894). Their meeting spurred two further collaborations (I Know and Two Years at Sea, 2011) and a wider search, leading the director to Astika, a man inhabiting a rundown farmhouse on a Danish isle for fifteen years (Astika, 2006), and later Stewart, aka “the extraordinary S. who lives in the wilderness” of Scotland and crafts contraptions in his shack (Origin of the Species, 2008). These hermits fall in with the myth of the enlightened white man alone in nature, established by history and perpetuated through language.
The cliché is progressively diffused in the films that followed by the breadth of personalities recorded by Rivers’ camera: an isolated family living in a scrapyard in the Scottish Highlands (Ah, Liberty!, 2008); the Russian serial hoarder Oleg Meschko in Suffolk (A World Rattled of Habit, 2008); I Know’s Mangel Wurzel and his eccentric house, renowned in the town of Huddersfield; a fictitious black metal musician exiting commune life and going it alone in a Finnish forest (A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, 2013); and Rivers’ first female subject, the disarmingly kooky octogenarian painter Rose Wylie, filmed in the solitude of her Kent studio (What Means Something, 2015). The protagonists of these nine films each enact a form of self-sufficiency that confers some kind of inner peace, to them and to the audience.
These immersive portraits feel like brief daydreams of possible contemporary utopias, or what posthuman theorist Donna Haraway might refer to as an “ironic political myth”. We sense Rivers observing, by our side. Sometimes we hear his quiet laughter. He reassures each of his subjects: this is not a documentary we’re making. In place of reportage, we have a dalliance in the woods.
“Go on,” said Williams, “make me a star.”
Despite the difficulty of realising hermitic utopias – a struggle embodied by the musician in A Spell, who concludes his time in the wild by setting fire to his shack – they continue to appeal to urban imaginations thanks to our generation’s escalating, and increasingly intertwined, capitalist critique and ecological concern. In the same decade that Twitter purchased two 1870s log cabins that were disassembled, shipped from Montana to Silicon Valley and rebuilt as staff lounges, Rivers has sought out a different ideal of hermitism, one fostered by a childhood passed in a village in Somerset and a lifelong fondness for utopian literature.
The most name-checked and romanticised literary hermit is Henry David Thoreau, who desired “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life”. Gifted free rent on the land of his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau built a one-room cabin in the woods of Massachusetts. His twenty-six months there inspired the epiphanies of Walden, published in 1854 and indebted to Emerson’s landmark essay “Self Reliance”, whose championing of individualism resonates widely today, from Donald Trump to Mangel Wurzel.
But an irreducible gap lies between the lovable chatter of Rivers’ subjects and the privileged back-to-the-pond proselytising of Thoreau, which includes claims like “to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.” By contrast, the autonomous lifestyles of Rivers’ hermits appear far more sensitive to the realities of their present – in one memorable scene in This Is My Land, Williams is shown composting even the tin cans of his foodstuffs.
Viewed together, the films suggest that the common revolt has shifted. Hermitism no longer seems provoked by a disillusionment with decadent society or the hope to get closer to “the essential facts of life”. Rather, it’s driven by the millennial paradox that a positive engagement with the planet and our collective fate logically demands opting out of the ever-expanding capitalist network, which can only be achieved by cutting oneself off, going off the grid. In their investigations into what this course might look like, the films cast to the margins, travelling to remote locations and into the future.
Rivers’ cinematic excursions operate as speculative reverie. Hermitism becomes disruptive, joyful. His hermits figure a tension between the predetermined ways we’re expected to move through the world and the understanding that another, uncontainable way exists. Amid the apocalyptic tenor of the contemporary moment, his portraits flood us with the sense that one of the few effective arenas left is cinema.
This tension is even visible in the material properties of his celluloid, which at any moment threatens to gloriously self-destruct. Rivers often shoots on a wind-up Bolex camera, hand-processing the footage in his kitchen sink; the grain of his images is so pronounced it appears almost tactile, while flashes and white-outs flare across the screen. The fact that film is mortal, that each projection, no matter how careful, damages it a little, heightens this feeling. If humanity will soon be extinct, does it matter that cinema will be, too? As the director told Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope, “I like to think of the films as ones that could be discovered in a dustbin in two hundred years, as the last few survivors run a projector by dynamo to find out just where everything went wrong.”
“He wants to do some filming in your house,” explains Ben Meschko to his father Oleg, the star of A World Rattled of Habit. The front door opens. Oleg is wearing a bucket hat and thick-framed glasses, possessing the jowls of a bulldog. His way of talking resembles that of the Cheshire Cat, twisting and grinning, by virtue of a life under the Soviet, German and American regimes: “So, that’s why my outlook on things very different than normal people,” he says, “because I was not in a normal propaganda one area only. I was exposed all of a sudden to all opposites, you see, and then you get clear mind.” As if to prove his point, Oleg bites into a mysterious, horrid-looking jelly paste.
Objects are piled shoulder-high on every surface of his home, accumulated over years. “I used to have a couch here, but it’s now become a storage space.” His counters are buried under knife blocks, secateurs, a cooler box, electric cords, paraffin lamps, pliers, jumpers, steamer pots, old telephones with coiled cables, cardboard boxes full of old clothes, garbage bags, books, pickle jars, a printer, a microwave, a radio, rags, a bike helmet, paint cans, turps, a broom, rollerblades, and jars spilling over with potato mashers, whisks and wooden spoons. The solidified junk adds to the house’s entropic aura, seeming to foreshadow the loss of human mastery over the planet. Tarkovsky once said he needed to like every object that made it into his films; similarly, I imagine Rivers pawing at the defunct appliances, envisaging them re-cast by his camera, poetic and eerie.
In Ah, Liberty! a further post-apocalyptic vision is captured: two young brothers scale mountains of rusted-out machinery in a hinterland scrapyard, surrounded by free-roaming animals. Said Rivers in a talk at MoMA, “I like the idea that no one is particularly interested in [the land]. That it’s reached its resource value and there’s nothing else to gain from it, so it’s just left to grow in a completely free way. All the objects we leave behind, it’s all been reclaimed to the point where it’s unrecognisable.”
This deferral to the natural world, also seen in Astika and the Nordic cabin catalogue Sørdal (2008), is humbling, feeding into Rivers’ interest in re-envisioning humanity’s place on the planet. Rather than man vs. nature, we see man in nature, consciously impacting its ecology. And in the road film I Know, after Mangel Wurzel we meet Jan Zalasiewicz, the lead advocate for the official recognition of the Anthropocene as our current geological period. In voice-over, he hypothesises what traces of human civilisation may remain in one hundred million years. Between discussions of evolution in Origin of the Species, the silver-haired “extraordinary S.” sketches a pendulum clock – an allusion to man-made timekeeping that feels jarring for a Rivers film. More commonly, we see the passing of time measured organically: moss growing over the faces of statues in I Know; the recurring sight of socks hanging on a clothesline in This Is My Land, alternately framed in sunlight and snowfall to intimate the changing seasons. These images dilate to take on a wider geological perspective, displacing Rivers’ hermits out of time, or rather, post-time, left clambering over the rubble of human existence.
A “truth” unearthed by Rivers: hermits potter. There is no other word for it. They have a particular mode of shuffling about that is effected in unhurried, non-linear movements. This encapsulates perhaps the key fantasy of Rivers’ hermit films, his ideal way of relating to society, of moving through the world. Oleg turns pottering into an art form: he stands by the backdoor and dances the way my godson does, swaying upwards from the shins like a sunflower. A performance of transcendence, presiding over a lawn of fallen pears.
By eliding the standard backstory of how or why his subjects left the beaten track, Rivers confines these films to the present moment. The calm and optimism that emanates as a result, coupled with the polyphony of Rivers’ portrayal of the hermitic life, subverts the fiction of the displaced loner. We, too, can recognise our inner hermit.
At the same time, because the films lack Thoreau-like pointers or the cogency of a manifesto, they leave themselves open to the customary cynical questioning: what do these intimate, undeniably pretty vignettes do? Are they revelatory or merely surface-level trips at whose end-point we return, soothed, to the homogeneity of our jobs/relationships/cities, propping up the system, no different from Twitter and their co-opted cabins?
Such a response discounts the films’ revolutionary staying power. A birdfeeder made from a milk carton; an abandoned car filled with snow; a seven-minute uninterrupted take of a man floating on a raft he just built – Rivers’ imagery accumulates into a radical vision, which leaks into our current (re)thinking. As “the extraordinary S.” says, “something very, very subtle can change the whole existence of a species”. Even while Rivers’ films capture a decaying world unmoored in time, something lingers.
For example, this: Jake Williams closes his eyes as he takes a nap in his caravan, and it begins to levitate. It floats up, a little shaky, as though lifted by telekinesis or dodgy puppetry. The gravity-defying van is a thing of scrappy beauty. And then it settles on top of a tree and he wakes up and opens the door and is as surprised as we are. The distance between us collapses: blimey, we think in unison. Stepping out onto a branch, he inspects the woods from his unique perch, appreciating the birds’ noisy chatter. Even as threats simmer beneath the surface of Rivers’ hermit films, there is no explicit violence, no moral compromise. Instead, we’re fifteen feet up in the air, looking out from the end of the world.