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.