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.