Hanezawa Garden

Text: C.W. Winter, 2015

Roughly thirty-one and half minutes into Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), a dispirited pensioner, finding himself down to his last lire against a backdrop of economic austerity, calls an ambulance and feigns illness so that he might briefly stay in a hospital in order to get a more comfortable bed, even the temporary succor of nurses, and three good meals a day. In the dominant culture of the Western narrative cinema of the time, following such a moment, a director would then be expected to cut to something like the arrival of the ambulance, to the pensioner already in the ambulance, or to the pensioner already at the hospital—dramatic action begetting dramatic action in an unbroken chain.

De Sica, however, disrupts these defaults. He makes us wait. He leaves us there in the boarding house passing time[1] in real time awaiting the paramedics‘ arrival from the nearby hospital. In a sequence running nearly eight and half minutes in total, we spend the middle four minutes eighteen seconds in dramaturgical suspension. The chain of dramatic action is broken. Nothing happens that advances a plot. We just wait. Listening to and seeing the type of span that Deleuze refers to when he says that the „image no longer has space and movement as its primary characteristics but topology and time.“[2] It was in this moment in Western narrative cinema, in this waiting for an ambulance, that lived time came untethered from text and emerged into the foreground.

From our current vantage point, with a legacy of image makers ranging from James Benning to Andy Warhol to Tony Conrad to Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet or to Chantal Akerman, among others…or more recently from Pedro Costa to Wang Bing to Heinz Emigholz to Jean-Claude Rousseau to Sharon Lockhart or to Lav Diaz, among others…a dramatic suspension of four minutes eighteen seconds might seem like an insignificant gesture. And those in the West would later learn that Yasujiro Ozu out in Japan had already been up to such dramatic suspensions for quite a while. However, given the Western cinema of the time, De Sica’s was a startling move.

As this passage from Umberto D. begins, we see an image of a young chambermaid. She has been awakened by the pensioner’s phone call, and, as she lies in her bed, she stares upward through the atrium ceiling of the entryway where she sleeps. From her point of view, we see a glass roof littered with old wet leaves clumped in black patches partially blocking out the soft morning light.

Sixty-two images into Anders Edström’s Hanezawa Garden, we find a similar image. One of five in a sequence. A picture of old dead pine needles in large black clumps seen through a glass atrium ceiling. A kind of inadvertent phagosome from Umberto D. And through this passage, one can begin to discover a sense of duration and resistance that is so central to Edström’s project. A patience. A waiting. A refusal of the speed of the dominant economy.

Deleuze, in his writings on cinema, often referred to Pure Optical Situations. Breaks in the dramaturgical chain. Pauses in the action. Or temporary steppings out of dramatic action. He saw these dramaturgical pauses as the birth of a modern cinema with Ozu as progenitor. A declaration of the latent power of the longue durée, on the one hand urgently contemporary and on the other echoing the Kant of 1754 who declared that it is no longer time that depends upon movement, but the opposite.

We can trace a through-line of such Pure Optical Situations from Ozu through Italian Neo-Realism into Antonioni, Minimalism, Structuralism and various conceptualisms, and on forward to cinematic new waves emerging from Iran to Taiwan to Romania to the Philippines and elsewhere.

But what does it mean when someone like Edström, surely the protagonist in Hanezawa Garden, doesn’t simply offer us a brief break from Aristotelian conflict/resolution, a momentary pause, a dramaturgical lapse…but instead makes a whole of a work—in its fixed, multi-year gaze upon a single geographic point—that is a Pure Optical Situation, a sustained act of looking, an exercise not of an agent but of a seer?[3] Gone are Deleuze’s Small Form and Large Form of narrative. And in their place there arises a situation-description, both a document and a performance. In this case, a POV of an individual and his frequent visits to a garden just down the road from his home in Tokyo—a garden that would eventually be uprooted, erased, and monetized by the contingent forces of development.

When thinking of contingency, we often think in terms of the Event. Of unforeseen occurrences of broad scale and impact. 9/11. The 2008 Crisis. Google. And so on. But contingent materials and forces are at work across all dimensions: from the massive, to the elementary, to the human scale. A practice like Edström’s both describes and affirms the contingency of our everyday at an everyday scope. Not through a sense of openness or improv, but through limitation. A limitation of technics. Of options. Of parameters. And, in the case of Hanezawa Garden, of geography. Here, we see the unfolding of a resolute focus on a single place. A site whose ultimate undoing was unforeseen. This isn’t a document of openness or chance; it’s a document of a closing down, of the contingent, of a befalling.[4]

And in thinking of such befallings, of an artist whose site disintegrates before him, one could think of superficial parallels to Pedro Costa’s long-term documentation of the Fontaínhas quarter in Lisbon. And while a strength of that work is its deeply empathetic focus on the ever-diminishing agency of that neighborhood’s inhabitants, a somewhat Straubian political description of a people who would otherwise not be seen, Hanezawa Garden, with its smaller scope and narrow-gauged volatility, with its quieter equanimity, brings us closer to something like a Latourian notion of perception—that of the human as sensitive instrument. Of detection reinforced by repetition, revisitation, and looping back. Describing and re-describing a location, orientation, and effects. „When the dictionary defines sensitive as ‚quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences‘, this adjective applies to the anthropos.“[5] Just as it applies to Hanezawa Garden, to the whole of Edström’s now twenty-nine-year practice, and to his perpetual examination of what is and isn’t worthy of being a photograph.

Edström began taking photographs in 1986. And in looking at his work from that early period, one finds it is largely indistinguishable from work he made in 1996, 2006, and now.[6] He has forged an uncompromisingly concise set of principles. A disciplined asceticism. And, over the last three decades, there are few other photographic bodies of work that have been more directly and indirectly imitated. Aspects of what now we take for granted as photography-generally can be shown to trace back to work he began in the 1980’s.

As a result of his long-term consistency, I tend to think of his images as the byproducts of duration. Hanezawa Garden is now a subset of that duration, a period of nine years, evidence of a straightforward and unpoetic approach, a resistance to allure and to commodity, an insistent exercise in plain speaking, a description of lived time emerging into the foreground.

[1] And in this, one could be reminded of Michel Butor’s Passing Time (1956), in which surplus descriptions of presentness accumulate to render an amplified banality, in some ways echoing his Russian Formalist predecessors.

[2] Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986.

[3] And from this, I’m reminded of the following passage: „The pleasure and astonishment of looking are unnegotiable. Nothing the world can do to them will make them go away. And yes, I agree, the world does plenty to try. Pleasure and astonishment seem to me qualities that the world around us, most of the time, is conspiring to get rid of…By which I mean the full range of human possibilities and sympathies that make up the human, as far as I’m concerned. Recognitions and sympathies, but also losses and horrors and failures of understanding. Everything the present ecstasy of „information“ wants us to transfer to trash…We are accustomed from a young age to living in a constant flow of visual imagery. The imagery is designed not to be looked at closely or with sustained attention…So make time for the opportunity for sustained attention, proposing that visual images carry within them the possibility of genuine difficulty, genuine depth, genuine resistance—a way of life in which the image-life of power could at once be derided or spoken back to.“ — Retort Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War. London: Verso, 2005.

[4] „Unlike the etymology of ‚chance‘ and ‚aleatory‘, which relate to ‚falling’—cadentia, alea, the fall of a dice, the eventuality of one of a number of possible outcomes (the faces of a die)—’contingency‘ comes from contingere, meaning ‚to befall’—it is an event that happens to us, that comes from outside, that simply „strikes“ without any possible prevision.“ — Mackay, Robin. The Medium of Contingency. Falmouth, U.K.: Urbanomic, 2011.

[5] Latour, Bruno. „The Anthropocene and the Destruction of the Image of the Globe“ Lecture, The University of Edinburgh, February 25, 2013.

[6] …which is somehow in a similar spirit to that of Mark E. Smith of The Fall, who, in 1977, penned the lyrics: „This is the three R’s, the three R’s: repetition, repetition, repetition.“ [i][ii] A resistance to the economics of the perpetually new. And while Smith has released thirty studio albums and nearly one hundred releases total over the last thirty-nine years, and while consistently brilliant threads have persisted in this work, his output, with its varied array, never fully adhered to the model of the three R’s. By this one specific standard, Edström could perhaps be seen as more Smith than Smith.
i. This footnote itself is a repetition, lifted from the text „The End of Seeing“, written for and never published by Ravelin Magazine.
ii. In the case of Hanezawa Garden, this isn’t a completist or limit point exercise as we might find from Borges‘ fictional Pierre Menard, who re-writes Cervantes‘ Don Quixote as-is, word for word. [†] Nor like Rodney Graham’s 39 billion-year Parsifal. Nor like Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movies (1972-1973), high water marks of the longue durée, that span, uninterrupted, for longer than any viewer could consume in any single lifetime. Hanezawa Garden, like most of my favorite representations of duration is a description, not a transcription, of lived time. It is an act of implying. A mutual understanding with a viewer of the power of fragments to imply a whole, not unlike the implications of time beyond ourselves that we might extract from sources such as Hindustani drones, much early Persian classical music, or the works of people like Jon Gibson, C.C. Hennix, Folke Rabe, Michael Snow, Henry Flynt, Earth, or Phill Niblock, among others.

. Borges, Jorge Luis. „Pierre Menard, Autor Del Quijote.“ Sur, May 1939.

Notes on Derek Bailey’s „Paris“

Text: James Waters

“Paris” makes up the A side of Derek Bailey’s Aida, lasting 19 minutes on a 33rpm, 2018 reissued LP and 19 minutes and 36 seconds on the YouTube video of the album I referred to while writing this (most likely ripped from the CD version, reissued by Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs’ Drag City imprint Dexter’s Cigar in 1996). The 36 seconds that separates the two versions either elongates or shortens what was already a delayed conclusion.

Chords begin to formulate at around the 17 minute mark. Before this point, each string could be heard on its own, Bailey familiarising both himself and the audience with the guitar’s six points of articulation. The audience is silent until his alarm goes off at the 18 minute mark.

Bailey seldom recorded in a studio, attributing the decision to a difference in “vibes” from a live setting and the „cubic“ measurements of playing possible in a live setting vs. a studio. In this sense, Aida isn’t a solo record, despite its subtitle: “Solo Guitar Improvisations”. His relationship to the audience isn’t begrudging, condescending, obsequious nor apathetic. His label, INCUS (which he initially ran with Evan Parker and Tony Oxley), was founded among the discovery of “free improvisation” as a practice. This is a music built on ritual, down to Bailey’s annual “Company Week” that fostered relations between the global cadre of free improvisers and their successors – among them Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Han Bennink, Jamie Muir, Joëlle Léandre, Johnny Dyani, Julie Tippetts and John Zorn.

The audiences’ eventual affect in Aida is only audible because of the unerring silence that precedes it. The willingness to fail can’t feed an artist when isolated for hours on end in a studio, hence the live “vibes” Bailey refers to. The audience – even if made up of only ten (as it often was) – reciprocates.

I remembered on my last listen to Aida that Bailey had timed the end of his performance perfectly with the alarm’s ringing. The opposite is in fact true, as the alarm eats into his set. He pauses from playing for approximately five seconds (corresponding with five alarm beeps) and continues playing for another five seconds and four chords. The combined ten seconds map out, in succession; the giggles of a couple of audience members that coincide with the alarm, Bailey’s final strums before turning off the alarm, the sound of his chords hanging in the air as he turns off said alarm, the giggles of some more audience members as Bailey plays out the final chords and quietly says:

“Well that’s the first part…”

Applause feeds the ellipsis that trails off his sentence.

Time, here, is no longer measured in seconds, but sounds. One can attribute this „cubic“ measurement, as Bailey would put it, to the 36 second difference in the two versions of the albums and how, despite the difference, they sound much the same. The 10 seconds that finish the record last longer than this missing 36.

Aida was recorded in Paris at the Théatre Dunois by Jean-Marc Foussat. The recording is dedicated to late Japanese music critic, Aida Akira.

Images from the shooting of One Plus One 2 (C.W. Winter, Anders Edström, 2003)

The Anchorage: The Wind in the Trees

Text: David Perrin

Finally, a film that does not feel like a weight on your chest; that does not set out to pound you back into your seat in an attempt to coerce you into believing that the world beyond the screen has ceased to exist, that it has somehow miraculously folded itself up like a three-dimensional board game and vanished into thin air. Nowadays (or perhaps it has always been like this), it seems like most films are like that: little burdensome weights that press all the air out of you, leaving you empty and stumbling around in the dark with nothing to see and nothing to hear, and you wonder how or why you ever decided to dedicate the hours and the days of your life to cinema. As one critic turned filmmaker once wrote regarding a particularly dreadful moviegoing experience: “There was nothing to see; the whole screen was full of it.”

The Anchorage by C.W. Winter and Anders Edström is not such a film. Here, the world soothingly drapes itself around you like a delicate piece of silk, a film of such ostensible lightness, you fear that a gentle gust of wind would be enough to blow it away off the screen. So, what is there to see? Three days at the end of October in the life of a 69-year-old woman named Ulla, living alone in a house in the woods in the Stockholm Archipelago; the slow, thoughtful rhythm of her movements as she cuts off the branches of a felled tree with a chainsaw; as she disentangles the fish caught in a net gleaming in the afternoon sun, the incessant wind wrapping the net around her like a transparent cape or cocoon; the gradual opening up of the day as the light begins to slowly break over the forest terrain, the colors of the dawn blending seamlessly with the color of her pink robe, while she makes her way towards the shore, where she disrobes and slips naked into the cold water as if it too were her natural element. You see her from afar standing on a pier, her back to the camera as she watches and waves towards a ferry carrying two of her friends pushing offshore, the boat slowly moving out of the frame and above her a slate of grey sky imminent with rain and below her the waves of displaced water lapping against the pier. Most of all, though, you can see and hear the wind blowing through the landscape, can see and hear the beauty of the wind rustling the branches of the birch and pine trees (as Griffith once so beautifully defined cinema); can see and hear how it breathes in the tall grass and brush of the forest, how it makes a red swing sway slightly in the early evening gloom, how it rushes across the pacific surface of the sea, how it defines and gives shape to this weathered landscape dotted with lone figures sunk in the everydayness of things.

Brief diary entries punctuate each day, jotted down scraps detailing the daily minutiae, the throw-away thoughts and observations that run through Ulla’s head, which when added together make up the surface of her life: recurring dreams of snowfall, the singing of the larks late into the season, the arrival and departure of friends, plans for dinner, the solitude and the weather. The quiet drift of her days is subtlety disrupted by the arrival of a stranger, presumably a hunter, whose boat is anchored just offshore from where she goes for her morning swims. But this ‘plot shift’ occurs at such a low frequency, that it barely registers as an event. The apparent intruder in the terrain is reduced to a faceless figure trudging through the woods at night, a specter glimpsed briefly through a window, his only discernible feature being the yellow of his safety jacket, which shines forth out of the darkness of the forest.

And what else? The feeling of the landscape as a clearly defined space – a result of the camera positioned as a faraway, unintrusive observer, often framing Ulla in full-body shots as she moves through the land or her home. This distance between camera and subject becomes a kind of breathing ground, a space to lean into from your seat that allows you the simple, yet incomparable joy of looking and listening: see the play of sunlight upon the branches of the birch trees as she walk through the forest, a single red spot amidst all that green and grey; hear the creak of the front door of the house as it is gently pushed shut by an afternoon breeze, while the larks call out to each other from across the tree tops and somewhere off the water churns in the wind.

What else? A sense of waiting and of the world rushing in, a sense that this is all there is and nothing else. And afterwards you imagine the feel of the warm wind in your face, brushing against your temples like a tender caress and you ask yourself: is that a storm coming or is it merely the arrival of a new season?

Trying to get the table: A dialogue with C.W. Winter and Anders Edström

Interview: Patrick Holzapfel

The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) by C.W. Winter and Anders Edström is an outstanding film because of how it works with life, people, nature, narration, sound… I am very happy to be able to talk to the filmmakers about the relation of life and cinema, a difficult relationship as we know, a troublesome, maybe even a failed one. In your film we can find certain elements related to what is normally called realism and then there are some elements that completely abolish that. It reminds me a lot about this notion that there is no true realism without mysticism. So, I have to begin with a rather big question but I feel we need to get it out of the way: How would you describe the relation between what you see in front of you and the image you want to make of it? Would you say that you collect an image, capture something, cut something out?

A.E.: For me as a photographer, I think I look at the world in a rectangular frame and I try to put things in there. I don’t really understand what I’m after, it’s very intuitive. It’s about something that makes it look pleasing for me. But of course, it’s also about collecting many of those images and putting them next to each other. It’s the same in film as in still photography. When you put images next to each other you don’t know what is coming next. It creates an effect for us when we look at it. It’s about some kind of feeling.

C.W: Our images aren’t created as in the dominant mode of filmmaking in which the primary role of the director is to be an illustrator illustrating a predetermined script. We are not working with a script. We have a vague outline, so that we have latitude to use the camera and the microphone as tools and go out into whatever field we have decided upon and use those tools to make things. So, that’s what we are waking up to do every morning with minimal preparation. At least in advance, we try to get a feeling for the land and a sense for the people and we fall, as much as we can, into the rhythm of the people we are working with, so that scenes can be written in the morning or sometimes the night before. This allows us to react with a certain level of knowability because we spend so much time, many years, familiarizing ourselves with the people. But we are not relying entirely on intuition. Daniel Kahneman has perhaps demonstrated that intuition is terribly unreliable and humans aren’t so good at it. The more intelligent one is, often the more vulnerable to intuitive error one can be because one is less likely to believe himself mistaken. So we can’t fully rely on intuition even if much of what we do is in the moment. We know that our intuition will largely fail, so we need to have enough of a volume of material to work with. So we work and work. We are looking for something that somehow feels other or strange in the plainest way possible.

A.E.: It’s not only about trying to get the most pleasing images at that moment. A lot of times we look at something, it can be anything, it can be a table, and we film it from many different angles…we try to get the table. And afterwards we can see how we can combine the images of the table.

C.W.: I think one of the most broken parts of film discourse is the conversation around cinematography. The latitude so many critics give themselves to be inexpert on the subject of photography is such that we usually only read about three types of cinematography: good, bad or breathtaking. Usually those three categories are running along an axis of classical beauty. It’s a curve that describes some path of agreement about an image, such that every man, woman, and child can agree that image A is indeed beautiful. In such a case, the question would be: ‚if consensus is the result, then what has the artist contributed?‘ And the answer in most of those occasions would be: close to nothing. What we are trying to do when we make an image is to find some sort of dissensus or some sort of friction or some sort of something that lacks a complete satisfaction. Because to be not fully satisfied is to want more and to have to think more and to not simply be a passive person but to be an active person who is being engaged. We try to think about why an image is made and how it is constructed. What are the frictions of satisfaction and dissatisfaction we can find in these images? It’s also intentionally bringing in failure. And being content with a certain level of being underestimated.

Yes, I can very much understand that. In your film there is a focus on work, not only in the title but I think your film reflects you as filmmakers. I can feel that the shots are not only representing a reality of the image but also the reality of those that make it. Your are not trying to be invisible. I wonder how the actual daily work then looks. In a more Classical scenario you would maybe have a 8 hour day or a 10 hour day but to me it sounds as if your approach asks you to always be working, always be aware. So I guess my question is: where is the not-work if the film is the work?

C.W.: Well, I’ve tried to figure that out…

A.E.: When we spend this time together during the film we keep waking each other up because all of a sudden something is happening or the light is changing. You never know. We are at the place, and there are always unexpected images popping up.

C.W.: People sometimes innocently and understandably ask if it is fun to make a film. I assure you there is no fun part.

A.E.: I think it is fun…

C.W.: Not for me. The fun part is maybe travelling to a festival and sitting together there and having a nice coffee…

A.E.: It’s also fun when we find that image or that light…

C.W.: I don’t know if I would use the word fun for that, but later it’s satisfying; it’s rewarding. We are pushing ourselves as hard as we can when we’re there. For this film we gave ourselves windows of a certain amount of time, and during those weeks we would sleep as little as we could physically handle. This is our third film in a row with a lead character who is around the age of 70 which presents the disadvantage that they sleep less. But we are not only filming people, this is also a geographic film. We have to be there for what the land is doing and how it’s behaving. That’s never stopping. There might be some non-work when it comes to the people but not when it comes to the land.

A.E.: Each time we sleep we have the feeling of missing something.

C.W.: Yes. It’s a physical work. You can only manage such a film by acquiring an increased fitness or adaptations or evolutions or resourcefulness. You give yourself this big thing to get across and then you have to get across it.

A.E.: Often we would just go out and drive somewhere and the decide to film there. We don’t even know if it is interesting to film there and after a while you get into it and then we go on and on and on. The people that are with us must sometimes think: why aren’t we done with filming this road. Sure, it could be enough, but we want to suck out the last drop of whatever we are filming.

Actually your approach to filmmaking reminds me a bit about Francis Ponge. This concentration on objects, on details, to go into detail, to keep it simple but also let it grow to an immense scale. I think your film is a very small and a very huge film at the same time. An important aspect in this is time, I think. I wonder how you work with time? I am asking this because your film does something to me, and maybe this is a surprise to you since it’s a very different filmmaker, that reminds me of Jacques Tati. That is, I go out into the world and see differently, it changes my perception of things, of life, of time.

C.W.: Tati is going out and thinking deeply about the folly or the failures of man made objects among other things, and I think it’s interesting to compare our approach since we also look at objects obsessively, if for different purposes. In our case it’s primarily a sense of when we first encounter something that it’s easy to be attracted by elements of it that are too easily interesting. We want to work through those bits and do away with those to arrive at better things that maybe take more time to get at.

A.E.: You have to dig deep in order to discover the more interesting elements. You have to keep working through solutions until you arrive at the plain ones.

C.W.: How can it be both other and plain at the same time? It’s a process of boiling.

And what about time?

C.W.: We shot our first film in 2006, The Anchorage. At the time there was still quite a lot to be done and said around the idea of slowness and so on. We have had an ongoing relationship with 1960s conceptualism and minimal music, and, out of a critical stance we had towards the larger postmodern project, we felt we wanted to revive something of what we loved about modernism. But when we started this project we felt that this exploration of slowness didn’t interest us much anymore. Yet, we had thought a lot about time, so we made a lateral move to duration and just kept on thinking about that. It’s a conversation that for most cinephiles starts with Deleuze and then ends with Bergson. But we think there is a more interesting conversation that you rarely hear about, not just in cinema but even in philosophy. It’s around some 19th century French philosophers who were thinking about duration before Bergson. Albert Lemoine and Félix Ravaisson, both of whom were talking about habit and the subject of habit. Habit as something that is built up over time inside a body as a sort of muscle memory and as a sort of performance that overtakes will and consciousness. When we look at farmers and people doing physical labour, so much of what they are doing is the duration of habit. It’s a habit that does not only come from their own life span of doing a skill but habit that was handed down across 11500 years of farming. This brings us to the Hesiod poem Works and Days and this idea of farmers
spending time in their geography. With Tayoko you see these kind of habits. When we think about someone like Bresson who would need up to 70 takes to get an actor to turn a doorknob with flat effect, we don’t need those 70 takes, because we are looking at actions that are trained by real labour, real exigencies. So, they are ready to go on take one.

There is also an idea in your film relating to time lost, the lost time of the village, there is an element of something that doesn’t exist like this anymore or at least not as much. Watching your film and also because you mentioned your troubles with not sleeping, I feel very strongly the things we can’t see. There are things that are lost to the film. Do you agree? Could this also have to do with you, even if it’s your family, being a foreigner at this place. I mean, is there a certain distance to the people, to the culture you feel in your film?

C.W.: I think in this case it has more to do with our concerns about exposition. We want to use fiction in another way than the dominant screenwriting manuals suggest. And discard the idea that what you do with the first act of a film is expository. We try to defer or just completely do away with exposition so that the relationship between the people isn’t made clear. This way the viewer is forced into some kind of other space and is left to figure things out but also to not figure things out. There is mystery left, there are puzzles left. At the end of the day our favourite films are puzzles that we have to put together.

A.E.: Concerning the distance in the images…you asked that right?

Yes, it was many questions at once.

A.E.: Yes, we like some kind of distance and we don’t always have to feel that it’s a person standing there looking at things. We try to avoid this guided way of looking as well as we can. Of course, when we choose our framing, we choose what we think works but we like a certain distance to what we film so that the viewer has the freedom to scan elsewhere.

C.W.. While we could see how someone might mistake this sort of framing as a lack of intimacy or social proximity between us and the characters — as we’ve heard one person grumble — this, of course, would be a misreading of the film. We spent 27 weeks living in the house with our actors after a combined 34 years of knowing them. With a shot, we are there. In a room. With people we know very well. So the idea that a camera standing 9 feet away from a person would necessarily be less intimate than a camera standing 3 feet away would be an error in sense making. That would be similar to declaring the whole of the oeuvre of Vilhelm Hammershøi or Bonnard or Zhang Lu or Wang E as socially detached. We would propose that that would be an unserious observation to make. What we are interested in are simply pictures that are not anthropocentric. It’s a film that is as much about the non-human as the human. So, if a person appears in a scale that is smaller than what cinematic expectation might lead one to yearn for, that doesn’t mean we are further away socially. To the contrary, we are giving you more information about them, not less. For example, you might discover the repair that’s been done on the door. Or the off-brand laptop. Or the wear on a cushion. To us, an insistence on these kinds of images proposes a different sort of generosity, as it offers other considerations to look at and think about and wonder upon. Or furthermore, in the specificity of the framings, one might notice something about images themselves. Or perhaps something about local decorum. We shouldn‘t think that that would be remarkable enough to have to mention, but here we are. For us, film criticism isn’t Read-only; it’s Read-write.

A.E.: The people are part of that rectangle I talked about. The objects tell a lot about the people who are in the image. This is my family and I’ve been photographing them since the first time I was there. I told them from the beginning that if I take pictures, don’t change anything; just be as you are; don’t react to my camera. They got used to that ,and they learned it. So, when we started filming we just kept doing the same.

C.W.: Yet, there was one moment when that broke down. It’s true what Anders said and his family are such good collaborators with the still photography. But for some reason, I think the weight of this being a movie upped the tension a little bit. So in the first week of shooting we began to film family dinners which previously had been these sort of happy affairs with a good amount of drinking. But when we filmed them, they were so stiff. We couldn’t get them to be how they were. We couldn’t get them to deliver the lines as we wanted…the fiction was breaking down.

A.E.: That also has to do with the fact that we were four people and they didn’t know everybody.

C.W.: Exactly. It’s completely understandable. One of the big reenactments for us is the funeral day. Everybody was there with their black clothes, and we knew it was the last night we could have everyone together, and I was concerned that we might end up having another stiff dinner we wouldn’t be able to use in the film. And I saw this picture on my computer, just randomly, it was Jerry Lewis during the making of The Day the Clown Cried. It shows him looking through the camera in his clown make-up. And it seemed that that was what we needed in this film, we needed a clown. We volunteered ourselves. As it was recently forbidden to smoke in the house, we had to ask for permission to smoke there for the film, and they said ok. So we knew there would be smoking. Then we made sure we had whiskey and sake, and we started the dinner with a shot with everyone. And then Anders, our cast member Hiroharu, and I started to get ourselves quite drunk and other people started heartily drinking as well…all the stiffness melted away. You can see that the scene ends with me passed out on the floor while the camera is still rolling. The movie is just ghost riding. It’s a good reminder of this tension between the theoretical and the visceral. Theory has its limits, and it can only take you so far. Sometimes it’s important to remember that stupidity is a vital tool.

The Thickness of Things

Text: Patrick Holzapfel

For a couple of years now, every time I see a film, I try and ask myself what would happen if the images and sounds of the work in question didn’t exist. It’s quite a frustrating experience, especially in a world flooded with noise and cheap images. My answer mostly ends up being that nothing would change, nothing at all. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) by C.W. Winter and Anders Edström is one of the few so-called contemporary films I felt different about and thus I decided to write about it in order to find out why this is the case. I am not sure I can because I feel that whatever makes a film count can not really be put into words, but maybe I can succeed in tricking myself into believing that something would happen if these words on the film didn’t exist.

Though it is quite often neglected, one of cinema’s most important aspects is the belief that the camera is really there. This not only relates to a space, in the case of Winter and Edström the houses, fields, creeks and roads of the eponymous Shiotani Basin not far from Kyoto in Japan, but also to time. We have to believe that the time spent on a shot, a scene, a whole film is real. It doesn’t matter if you look at a hand moving in a film by Robert Bresson or some horse riders crossing a desert in a film by John Ford, in both cases a relationship between the world and what is recorded is at stake. Decades of cheap manipulation, propaganda, commercials, superficial beauty and narrative effect have made this relationship between cinematography and the world suffer immensely. In some way, the The Works and Days restores this relationship and resists all the temptations of a 480-minute film on geography (cheap beauty), death (cheap drama), agriculture (cheap politics) and family (cheap sentimentalism) to arrive at something that is as plain and strange as life itself.

Every image counts. There is neither exposition, nor are there establishing or cutaway shots. We can say that each sound and each image re-establish a relation to the place and time of the film. Maybe it’s important to think about the space, a little village in which protagonist Shiojiri Tayoko lives together with her family including her sick husband Junji. We mostly meet elderly people there, which makes the film, after One Plus One 2 and The Anchorage, the third in a row for the filmmakers dealing with old age and a sort of self-reliant, isolated way of life. A bigger road leads through the village, a bus stop structures the days for those that come and go. It’s a place in dialogue with its surroundings: the hills, trees, a river, rain and snow. Life is still marked by nature, the way of life is attuned to it but changes linger on the horizon.

Winter and Edström approach this microcosm like a biologist would approach a habitat. In a habitat each element is of the greatest importance to the whole. A little puddle on a dirt road is as important as birds in a tree or the voice of a human being. If you destroy one element, everything is harmed. Thus there is no hierarchy in the film, only the elements of a habitat which are also the elements of habit. Whenever somebody asks me what this film is about, I say: the surfaces of windows and the sound of crickets. It’s not more inaccurate than anything else. It’s a film about coexistence. Fiction exists between trees, memories only appear because the moon is shining, wind also brings the music we like to listen to. Filming a habitat also means being interested in what exists outside of the habitat. Through bus rides, a political campaign entering the village, stories told, music or television screens, the outside enters the habitat. At the same time, Winter and Edström implement stunning shots of windows and frequently cut from things going on inside a house to the outside, as if they wanted to remind us that life is always the simultaneity of things inside and outside, a sort of synchronism in duration. The cuts are never motivated by narration or rhetorical arguments but always follow a hunger to see more of what makes life go on and ultimately end. I felt like discovering something like a harmony of being, or a logic of life and death in this habitat.

It’s habits that the filmmakers are mostly interested in, all these movements and gestures, rituals and recurrences that create a life. It’s not unusual for filmmakers to search for involuntary movements and seemingly unaware gestures. Claude Lanzmann’s psychological approach in Shoa, Bresson’s model actors or Chaplin’s 80 takes to get a funny gesture as natural as it needed to be all speak of a fascination the medium has with the lost awareness of those in front of the camera. What’s different in The Works and Days is that habitual actions are not filmed for an effect other than to make the habits themselves take center stage. Through them, we can discover a possible meaning of life and, as French philosopher Félix Ravaisson pointed out, it’s related to a harmony of being as well as a continuation of different stages of life.

So, when we observe people working, eating, drinking, bathing, sleeping, resting, walking in the film, something becomes visible that not only tells us about their life but also about the relationship between people and landscapes, work, their bodies and their memories. We sense that the way Tayoko shuts the shoji screens in her house tells us as much about her life as it does about the life of her ancestors and all the people living between such doors. These movements connect to the inside of a single being as much as to the outside of time and place. Something that is normally not seen becomes visible. It has to do with time and change or, as Ravaisson puts it, “(…) habit remains for a change which either is no longer or is not yet; it remains for a possible change.“

I wonder if the habits observed in the film are eternal and what is kept by filming them: a trace of life lived, an inkling of death to come. Maybe we can watch this film in the future and learn to live again. Annie Dillard once wrote: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and it’s impossible to disagree. The film’s title The Works and Days reminds of Hesiod’s lyrical farmer manual of the same name and confirms this idea of the film as a kind of poetic instruction.

When it comes to looking at people there are two kinds of films. In the first kind, people always turn towards the camera, and in the other they don’t. The Works and Days certainly belongs to the latter. It’s a hanging out film in the best sense of the phrase, a label that US American filmmaker and teacher Thom Andersen once gave to films in which we spend time with the protagonists, get to know them, live with them for a while until the film ends. What makes the time spent with the protagonists of The Works and Days so precious is that the time we spend with them does not exist outside of their time. It’s not as if they are standing on a stage in which they can escape life or even find some resurrection or revenge or hope in fiction, it’s just as if we were looking at their life from a very special perspective that helps us perceive what has always been there differently, a meeting of a simple thing or being and all the mystery inside of it.

Strictly speaking, all of these elements could easily fall apart if it wasn’t for the strong sense of structural juxtaposition Winter and Edström employ. Filmed over five seasons, the change of weather in the film is as much of a structural device as the transitions between light and darkness. A sequence capturing the melting of snow accelerates the movements of things as much as repeated shots of silhouetted figures at night give space to sound and imagination. Black screens following the intermissions lead to a symphonic approach to landscape, juxtaposing our ears and eyes and reminding us how much life and cinema relate to more than just one sense. Other recurring elements are dinner scenes in which we learn a lot about the life of the protagonist as well as Tayoko’s read-out diary entries, which give shape to a narration of her grieving and help her find ways of closure in her life with her husband.

The movement and stillness of images somehow mirror the stages of life, work and rest, living and remembering. In general, Winter and Edström not only capture the habits and the habitat, they adapt to the rhythm of these movements like a cat in the wild. The time of the film becomes the time of the village becomes the time of Tayoko. In order to truly film the habits, one feels, the filmmaking has to become a habit itself. In The Works and Days, this imitation of life has reached a point where it is no longer possible to understand whether a scene is staged or observed and although it might make no difference to the truth of the film, it bears saying that this ambivalence helps us understand that everything is possible all the time, something we normally only experience in life.

As in Edström’s photography work, we can sense a quest for something lying underneath the obvious quality of an image. It’s not about conquering images but about being conquered by images. Jacques Rivette once wrote that a good film begins with something being wrong. In The Works and Days there is something wrong in almost every shot, something that makes us look more closely, more attentively, until we realize that it’s not the shot that is wrong but the way we normally look at things. Those images do not want anything from us, they ask everything of us.

It takes time to achieve this. The Works and Days is a film about time but it’s also a film about time lost and regained. Most obviously, this relates to the omnipresence of death throughout the film with stories about corpses, the cemetery, a poisonous snake, a killed boar, health issues and Junji’s death. This presence is enhanced by the feeling that most of what we see and hear recounts a world vanishing or already vanished. The stories people tell each other mostly refer to the past, and it seems highly unlikely that the portrayed life can continue in the same way. Even the perception of time is an endangered species, which is proven by the apparent alienness of this film in the contemporary world. As much as The Works and Days presents itself as an experience of perception, it also creates an experience of volatility. Since it is humanly impossible to remember all the shots and see all the details, since the filmmakers risk failure each time they record or edit something, the quixotic nature of this undertaking is present throughout the film. It’s me and you, the viewers, that complete the film, that are free to discover as well as forget and for whom the habits will ultimately lead to a possible change if we are willing to accept the limits of cinema. Life is still outside of it, alas! Life is still outside of it, fortunately!

However, a film may still help us to survive. In daily life, humanity has quite successfully and tragically domesticated the thickness of things, nature, and people. Cinema was quick to follow in this domestication. It’s a small miracle to discover a film that resists these modes of confined representation and reminds us of the roughness of things, their independence and inherent beauty: the dim light touching a somber window, the reflections of bodies in the water at dusk, the smell of tomatoes brought as gifts, a concert of frogs, a tired body leaning on a wall, a shadow moving behind a screen, a drunk story long forgotten and, always, the wind, the wind in the trees.

The Works and Days proposes a way of perceiving that dares to become a way of living (and the other way round). To my mind, that is the most any film can be expected to do.