The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène
By Mark Peranson
Set in the Shiotani Basin, a short train ride from Kyoto, the long-awaited return of C.W. Winter and Anders Edström, a decade following The Anchorage, patiently accompanies Shiojiri Tayoko over five seasons in her small village of 47 predominantly elderly people (most of whom, like Tayoko, play themselves). Though it’s equally concerned with observations of nature and the simple way that life itself is lived, partway through the film a narrative gradually asserts itself, in the worsening sickness of Tayoko’s husband, Junji—though the presence of death is never far from the surface, whether seen through periodic visits to gravesites, fatal snakebite, the hunting of animals for food, or a fantastical story (told via subtitles) of a soldier’s return home from WWII to commune with the corpse of his recently deceased father. The film also illustrates the death of a place and its way of life, a factor of population displacement, and the environmental destruction that’s irreversibly changing the relationship between the villagers and nature.
Time, indeed, is of the essence: at 480 minutes, five chapters, three parts, and two intermissions, The Works and Days clocks in as the seventh-longest feature film ever made—or the third-longest, if one doesn’t count Lav Diaz. But, besides its length, it has little in common with other “long films” or “slow cinema,” mainly due to Winter’s extremely precise editing. The immersive approach and attention to detail and the constant attention to commonplace beauty (and, very often, mystery) make the experience of viewing it far from a chore, unless one considers watching work (and non-work) to be a chore (I prefer to use the term “idyll”).
Given the real-life basis of much of what we see—further compounded by an accompanying 677-page monograph comprised of 23 years’ worth of photographs taken of the village, its surroundings, and Tayoko and her family by Edström (who is her son-in-law)—one might be excused for regarding The Works and Days as a documentary, if, like The Anchorage before it, it did not obliterate the boundaries between fiction and documentary. Winter and Edström do not concern themselves with such conventional cinematic designations, nor, in fact, with “cinema” as such. Even if one can glean the influences of such filmmakers as James Benning and Pedro Costa, the film predominantly draws upon a litany of artistic forebears and thinkers mainly from outside the cinema (a fair number of whom are touched upon in the detailed interview that follows).
Though the process of watching the onset of life’s end yields gut-wrenching moments, some recorded, some reconstructed, it makes little sense to extract one scene from the whole picture, as the film’s ultimate strength lies in its refusal to privilege, well, anything: an image of a tree means as much as a visit to an onsen, three people walking in the dark, a farmer hoeing her land, or a black screen with no image at all, only an intricately composed soundscape (as the quote introducing the film reads, “Until the moment you are dead you can still hear”). Make no mistake: though mortality is front and centre, this is a salute to the possibilities provided by cinema, a celebration of life. This brief introduction does no justice to the experience of watching The Works and Days, an utterly confident, magisterial effort that will stand the test of time.
Cinema Scope: How did you and Anders meet and what led you to work together?
C.W. Winter: The story of our meeting is one of preposterous chance but is maybe too much of a tangent. A short version is that we were both in Berlin on jobs and met by happenstance at a bar. A couple weeks later, en route back home to America, I stopped for a few days in London, where Anders then lived with his wife and son. This was before their daughter—one of our actresses, Mai—was born. And we got to talking about ideas. Those few days were the beginning of what has been one rather long conversation about photographs. How we feel they work or don’t. The ever-shifting lines between the commodity image and the non-commodity image. Images as resistance to the dominant economy or to the sellable choice. Disinterest to allure and to creativity. A preference for plainness. For recursive decisions over taste-based decisions. The sometimes-virtues of failure. The welcoming of underestimation, etc.
Anders’ photography practice began in 1986, and so he was well down that road by the time we met. As an undergrad, I had been aware of and had admired his work. I would frequent a newsstand in Los Angeles run by a Frenchman. He and I would talk about photography and, knowing that I couldn’t afford to be buying loads of magazines, he was nice enough to let me pull up a stool and look through all of their small-press journals as long as I’d buy the occasional one. A number of those publications were coming out of Paris where Anders was living and working at the time. And his work was frequently published in them. I was struck by his sensibility. I found it singularly dissensual—“bad photography” it might have been called at the time—in a way that seemed like some sort of analogue to the music I most cared about.
At the beginning, we didn’t want our reach to exceed our grasp. We thought we’d keep things contained: just images and sound. So we spent much of one summer at Anders’ family’s house in the Stockholm Archipelago. For the sake of scope, we set out to make a film about mosses and lichens. Some sort of austere psychedelic movie we thought. Some weeks into filming, Anders’ mother, Ulla, joined us. Over dinner one night she told a story of a time, many years prior, when, during moose-hunting season, an unfamiliar hunter arrived by boat and set up camp. She told of the disquieting experience of realizing that, on multiple nights, the hunter was walking out around the periphery of her largely glass-walled cabin, just at the edge of the tree line. And we realized that this fragment of a family folk story was enough material from which we could make a whole fiction film. It took some time to figure out how, including a diversion to make a 49-minute film with Derek Bailey. But three years later, we returned and shot our first feature, The Anchorage. And from there forward our interest has been fiction.
Scope: What was the starting point for The Works and Days?
Winter: As with The Anchorage, the catalyst for The Works and Days arose from drinks after a meal. In 2010, we were in Shiotani, looking for something. We weren’t sure what. One night we were drinking sake around the kotatsu with Tayoko, Hiroharu, and Junji and Tayoko issued forth with a story, one she’d kept mostly bottled up for decades, of a lifetime of regret and frustration. Of opportunities denied her due to her sex. An education denied her. A career denied her. The remorse, at this stage of her life, of wondering, “What if?” A story she hadn’t dared tell before. Why tell it then? We’re not sure. Was it the observer effect of my and Anders’ presence? Perhaps. It became clear in those moments that we had enough of something to get to the starting point of making a film.
Back in those early days of our meeting, we found a shared interest in duration and the long game. Delivering with a restraint that emerges over extended time. Maybe it’s vaguely a nouveau roman-ian or Russian formalist sensibility. Surpluses of description, along with a valuing of repetition, “Always different, always the same,” etc. This partially drew us to making One Plus One 2 (2003), the Derek Bailey film. A response to One Plus One (1968). Not a portrait of young comets, but a portrait of someone who worked defiantly over time. Always dignified. Ever better. Till the end. Like a redwood.
This is seen in Anders’ photographs as well. If one is to look at his pictures from the ’80s on through to now, excepting the occasional clues like haircuts or automobiles, one would be hard-pressed to tell when any individual photograph was taken. A more casual observer might see them as slapdash. But in observing them over extended duration, a clear specificity emerges, a discipline, a narrow amplitude, and a tightly focused intentionality.
Scope: What you were trying to accomplish with The Anchorage? One can say it’s an early example of the new peak of hybrid cinema.
Winter: Certainly we can understand people thinking in terms of hybridization or what not, though, when we got down to filming in 2006, that wasn’t among our concerns. Our thinking had more to do with a disinterest to those sorts of categorizations. For our way of doing things, a film is just a film. We’re not boundary blurrers. We just had a set of recording interests that were largely non-cinephilic. Predominantly, transferable ideas from music, geography, still photography, literature. Or maybe they came loosely from having taken onboard the general spirit of films like Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movies; James Benning’s 16mm films; Nancy Holt; Dan Graham; Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971); that sort of thing, along with a certain influence from Thom Andersen, who was my MFA mentor at the time. And so a fair amount of our fiction problem-solving just naturally results in approaches that are somehow other than the dominant cinematic fiction model.
Some aspect of the intentions back then was affective or gestural. A recognition, for example, that the records of certain musicians—Folke Rabe, Phill Niblock, Jon Gibson, Earth, Conrad, etc.—worked on us in ways that were emotional and physical. And seeing if, at least in small part, we might work through some indirect fictional analogues to those sorts of feelings.
Saying all this might tend to overstate the degree to which external influence comes into play when we’re working. We’re not discussing these things as we film. Our filming discussions mostly revolve around the weather, work, the above-stated concerns with photography, and approaches to foregrounding sound. Trying to sustain intensities of looking and listening while mapping a place.
It’s difficult to say concisely what we were trying to accomplish. A family film by other means, I suppose. To some degree I think we had an interest in revisiting the spirit of certain 20th-century projects that we felt had, in some way, reattained relevance and urgency. Some swirl of minimalism and Robbe-Grillet and Maeterlinck and Shklovsky mixed with our personal photographic, sound, and performance concerns. A recalibration of duration, asceticism, dissensus, etc. brought to bear on certain dissatisfactions with the state of cinema in the early 21st century. But it was our first feature. We were ornery kids coming out of the gate, and one’s concerns change over time. I seem to remember that at that point we had a feeling that the real enemy wasn’t Hollywood; it was Indie. Hollywood is honest about what it does. In most cases, Indie was always a kind of faux-resistance stance masking poorly concealed desires to make it to the big leagues, using the big-league forms, templates, and redemption arcs. In part, we were putting forth some kind of response to that whole Sundance sensibility, which thankfully now is a more common position, so we can be on to other things.
Scope: What is your typical division of labour, and did it deviate on The Works and Days?
Winter: Out of undergrad, I fluked into a job as a ghostwriter after spending time on film sets doing menial tasks like being a night-shift guard of equipment trucks or fetching coffee. So when we met and agreed that we should try to make things together—films probably—the roles fell into place, with Anders on camera and me writing, or at least outlining, in addition to recording the sound, with each of us playing the role of the other’s critic: “too strong,” “too alluring.” And we’d usually agree.
As our approach has become more heterogeneous and expansive, some variations have occurred. For example, we often used a second camera on this film, though this often just captured wides, as my primary focus was on the actors and the sound. Or, in the case of a scene where Mai telephones Ulla in Sweden, we wanted to record them delivering the lines over an actual call. So I went ahead early to Japan and filmed Mai while Anders stayed back and recorded the events on the other end of the line. It’s a conventional two-camera shot, just with the cameras placed 8,000 kilometres apart. And then there were times of total division. The portraits and still lifes, for example, are the closest moments in the film to pure still photography. So I insisted on not being in the room when they were filmed. It seemed best that Anders should take the Paul Morrissey role and work through those on his own. Just as there were times at the ends of the seasonal filming rounds when I’d stay on as a one-man outfit to record sound without the noise of our four-person crew, while also shooting some corresponding images. And while it wasn’t the intention from the beginning, the edit turned out to be a solitary exercise, largely down to practicalities of scale and geography. The Works and Days was made as the practice component of my PhD that, by the time we got to shooting, imposed a deadline of five years to complete the whole thing, while also doing a written dissertation. This resulted in a few years of 90- to 100-hour weeks and a triaging of most other aspects of life. In the end, this stuff is just work. You show up every day, and you work.
Scope: You’ve brought up your dissertation that you’ve just completed at Oxford, so let’s get into it. What is the written part of the dissertation, and how does it relate to the film?
Winter: Yeah, it’s a fair question, though not one I’ve yet figured out quite how to address. I think my hesitation comes from my contradictory impulses on this stuff. On the one hand, I quite enjoy research and am aware that the opportunity to monomaniacally burrow down and follow one’s nose and pursue reading/watching/listening/writing full-time shouldn’t be taken for granted. At the same time, so much of our filmmaking is born out of our interest in intuitive, visceral, hardscrabble making in the field as we go. Making from a place of personal connection and also making in a landscape. I like W.J.T. Mitchell’s idea that the land will do away with the vanity of total control. You can go work in the land, but, in return, the land will work you.
And so it’s a constant push-pull. Thinking conceptually in a first-principles way, but then keeping that at bay enough to allow for a film flushed with emotion and intimacy and, importantly, stupidity. I think most of our favourite art has some component of dumbness to it. Not just striving to virtuosically mine ideas from some right tail, but to mine left-tail ideas as well. Be it for the sake of humour or for confirming our everyday or as just an acknowledgment of our own limitations. Carolee Schneemann has a title we like: Up to and Including Her Limits. One advantage we have over expensive productions is a greater opportunity to make work that feels personally idiosyncratic and homespun, and some of this comes from including one’s limits and making virtues of small failures. It’s a sort of quality that can be killed by overthinking. Some of this is helped by the fact that my research is in geography and literature, so maybe this builds in room enough to avoid coming at film in an overdetermined manner. And so if I avoid talking about the written component, it’s not to be evasive per se. Maybe it’s that dissertations are a form that might tend to make the implicit too explicit. It just feels as though that might serve as some sort of distraction from what we would hope the film could do on its own and might deprive viewers of too much of their own imaginative interaction with the movie.
Scope: Anders, what do you think about when making pictures? What rules do you have when you make them, and how do you translate that to the shooting the films?
Anders Edström: The main reason I started taking pictures over 30 years ago was because I wanted to learn how to make prints, and I was fascinated by the camera as a mechanical tool—that a photograph is made by light going through the lens and hitting the film. It’s similar to how an eye works with the pupil being wide open in a dark room to let in as much light as possible and on a bright day being a tiny hole to stop too much light from coming in. The relationship between aperture and time.
I instantly fell in love with the chemical process when I saw that first image appear in the darkroom. It was magic. So I needed to take new pictures to have negatives to print from. It wasn’t so much about trying to take beautiful images. I was mainly curious to see how the camera would catch smoke and what would happen when I changed the aperture and time. I photographed things that were around me; people walking, wet asphalt, ice, cars, trees, some friends and family. I didn’t care if the subjects were mundane.
A year later, when I started learning more as an assistant to a commercial photographer, I began to take images that I imagined other people would find good or interesting. I started to copy other photographers. In a way, it was good to understand light and technique, but three years later I ran into a dead end. My pictures weren’t special. I had been concentrating on what would work for other people, so I had no idea what I liked anymore. So I started all over again from scratch. However, I realized that the pictures that I’d taken that first year weren’t bad. I found them interesting because they were more plain and detached. They hadn’t been taken in order to be liked: they were pure observations of things around me. I found these to be much more original. I realized that each person has his or her own life, so no one else can ever see what you see. Even if they’re right next to you, their perspective will be different. I was hoping that I’d have my own way of seeing things. I let the things that attracted my attention get my attention. It was liberating to let things happen that way. I could just look at the world around me.
I remember an arts class that I had in school. It was very basic, but I thought about it again when I started to think about pictures. It was about the golden mean. As a 14-year-old, I thought it was interesting that there was a geometric formula to create harmony in a picture. At the beginning I tried to apply it, and it was easy. However, all these harmonious images soon became boring. There was too much weight to them, especially when I put them in a sequence. In looking at sequences, I don’t want the eye to stop. I want more of a light musical note and then move on to the next one. I want the pictures to sink in after you have seen them.
I generally like dissonant music. Maybe it’s because it takes longer to get used to it, and then it lasts longer before I get bored of it. I think it’s the same with pictures. The difficult ones are the ones that feel good even after seeing them many times. It’s hard to do because they’re simple but impossible to repeat. I know the state I was in when I took them, so I keep trying to find that state. A bit like the state of mind an athlete will find. The zone. If you’re in a flow state, you play every shot perfectly without thinking about how. And the instant you start to think about how great you’re playing, you come out of the zone, and then you can’t find it again. It’s a fragile state of mind. It’s frustrating when you can’t find it, but you just have to keep trying. It comes and goes.
To shoot films comes naturally to me because, as I said, I don’t care so much about the individual picture. It’s about the sequence. A big part of the work is in the edit, but you need images to edit from. I suppose it’s a bit like composing music. I like to use a lot of mundane pictures, repetitions, and sometimes, when it’s least expected, I might throw in a classically beautiful, harmonious one. I like when you can’t be sure what to expect.
Scope: When did you start shooting, and what was the shooting schedule like? The film is divided into chapters that correspond to the seasons, so was everything we see shot chronologically?
Winter: We began filming towards the end of 2014. The production lasted a total of 27 weeks over a period of 14 months. The filming was done in four separate rounds, which spanned five seasons. Just because that’s how long it took to feel that it was done.
As far as the composition goes, the film is very much not chronological. We began by shooting scenes that ended up becoming the end of Chapter 4 (of 5). And then from there, it’s all very temporally disordered. A lot of this is down to the fact that, even as the film is fiction, it isn’t made teleologically. We go into filming without a script and having very little idea what form the film will take.
Our films, among other things, are films about their own making. To the degree that it’s possible, a stripping away of motivated reasoning. A departure from the fiction mode of the pre-approved. A departure from the capital-driven model of the dominant film culture, with its elaborate and costly apparatuses resulting in eyes ever-nervously fixed on the ledgers. With two $900 cameras, a single microphone, and a crew of four, we can work cheaply and with more agility, with scenes written or outlined only the morning of or maybe the day before. With a topological reworking of the real into the fictional, an interest in repetition, and an interest in adaptive landscapes.
An adaptive landscape is something that is gone through over time: a set of evolutions marked by peaks of contingencies. And the way that we work is very much based on embracing contingency. This shouldn’t be confused with chance or improvisation. What we’re doing finds more sympathy maybe with someone like Nathalie Sarraute and her interest in tropisms, moves made due to external forces.
Contingency is a set of befallings. Contingere. Events that impose themselves, like black-swan events or other befallings at smaller scale. In the case of this film, deaths, storms, snakebites, etc.: the types of events that would disrupt or derail expensive productions with all their built-in costs and financial leveraging. (Perhaps our only leveraged move is taking an advance on common sense.) Our approach is more anti-fragile, and more to do with heuristics and tinkering. Of making in the field. Of defeasible ideas that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by our engagement with a place. Of deferring as many of the fiction decisions as possible to the last possible moment, while still allowing for rehearsal and the learning of lines. Something like the biologist Louis Agassiz’s spirit of discovering by getting the earth between one’s fingers, with a bit of Dewey’s art as experience. In addition to maybe being content with something like Keats’ notion of negative capability: “Not everything can be resolved.”
It’s an adaptive landscape that extends into the post-production as well. Peaks of problem solving and work. Just work. Getting hundreds of hours down to a 13-hour film, and then 13 down to eight. An endurance exercise that it seemed, if undertaken, might result in unpredictable by-products. Just as, in what is hopefully a less workmanlike way, this adaptive landscape extends into the viewing for the audience as well, yielding a film not merely to watch, but to go through.
So much of it is down to being willing to spend the time to work and wait and work, to forge some things, and to having the patience to wait for other things to come to us. When I speak to students, they will often fixate on the things that they can’t have or can’t do. What I try to encourage is a focus instead on what this sort of production can do that the larger productions, with all their built-in costs, can’t always do or maybe can’t do as well. One of these is accessing actual, real intimacy. Another is, by virtue of having little sunk cost, being able to just wait. To be patient. And just keep working. During filming I was reminded of an oft-cited Afghan proverb from the War on Terror, attributed to a Taliban fighter and directed at the coalition leadership: “You might have all the watches, but we have all the time.”
Scope: Was it difficult to convince Tayoko and the other actors, most of whom live in the same village (though there were some professional outsiders), to participate in the film? How much did they contribute?
Winter: The central family in the film is Anders’ extended family. Tayoko is Anders’ mother-in-law. One of our main actresses, Mai, is Anders’ daughter and my goddaughter, etc. This is a village that he has photographed regularly since 1993. From our first visit together in 2003, we felt that we could maybe one day make a film there. For 21 years prior to the filming, including during the nine years that he lived in Japan, Anders photographed so much of their lives—births, deaths, marriages, funerals, holidays, and in between, with much of this work being published. So by the time we got to filming, the family and many of the other villagers were quite used to seeing themselves in print publications. Tayoko also joined us in Sweden as a member of the crew of The Anchorage, so she had had the chance to see Ulla go through the process of being the lead actress. And she had seen The Anchorage at a screening in Tokyo. So when we approached her with an initial description of The Works and Days and asked if she would like to play the lead, it was familiar enough to her that she agreed. The rest of the family agreed as well because, understandably, I think it sounded interesting to them to be in a film. Though there was a second aspect as well. As is the case in rural Japan—and in other parts of the world—these sorts of villages are shrinking and even disappearing as younger generations are lured to the big cities. And so, in some way, they saw the film as the making of some sort of family heirloom: a document of a dying village, a dying way of life, and a waning collective economy. A film as a way of showing future generations a working model of what life for the family was once like.
For Tayoko, there was an added impetus. We entered into pre-production imagining that the film, in part, would be some sort of portrait of Tayoko and her husband, Junji. He had been diagnosed with a heart ailment and had been given one to two years to live. And so we imagined that some of what we would be filming would end up being their last months together. However, two weeks before we were to begin, Junji suddenly died. In the hours after receiving the news, it somehow felt that if we could just be there to film his wake and funeral, we could carry on filming from there. Which meant us rushing to Japan early with a partial crew and a partial kit, arriving about 15 minutes before the wake, getting into black suits, and getting straight to work. With these two days of ritual recorded, we took a down week to reflect and figure out a new way forward.
In these down days, Tayoko confided one aspect of her grieving. In the last year of Junji’s life, there had been tension and arguments in their marriage. The sort of thing that hadn’t much occurred since their first couple of years together. And Tayoko was remorseful that things had ended this way. But in those few days after his death, as she talked to Junji at the shrine set up for him in the house, the facts of her faith were revealed. She knew with certainty that Junji could still see and hear everything she was doing and saying: expressions of love and sorrow and apology. And, in seeing this, what would be the undergirding of the film was revealed. The film, at least in part, could, for Tayoko, be a second chance. A chance to go back, to relive the previous year, and to do the things she wished she’d done with Junji and to say the things she wished she’d said, knowing that he would be watching and listening. Tayoko was moved enough by this proposal that we agreed we’d weave these sorts of moments in throughout the film. To do this, we cast Hiroharu’s childhood friend, Iwahana, to play the role of Junji. And from there we got back to work.
One thing that we were aware of going in is that much of our fiction gets mistaken for documentary. And so a couple of our casting decisions were made to help disabuse the viewer of this sort of misreading. This led to the casting of the actor Ryo Kase, a friend of Anders’ from Tokyo, who we thought our sort of audience would recognize from films by Abbas Kiarostami, Hong Sangsoo, and Martin Scorsese. We felt his recurring presence would force an audience to question the nature of the filming and its construction. This was furthered by our casting of Motoki Masahiro, also a well-known actor and former pop star, who was kind enough to appear for free. We intended for his appearance as a recurring extra to serve as yet another clue to the fictional/artificial constructions of scenes that might be mistaken for merely found moments.
In terms of the actors’ contributions, this mostly falls to Tayoko. Much of what we filmed was a matter of asking her just to go about her day—her farmwork, housework, walks, or trips into town—and then turning those into fiction. And so, it was a back-and-forth of leading each other. Additionally, Tayoko’s writing appears in the film in the form her real-life diary entries. Several days were spent recording her reading from her diary, and many of these passages were then edited into some sort of bass line for the film.
Scope: You refer to the film as “a georgic in five books,” which I take it refers to Hesiod. Can you elaborate on this connection? I also understand that there are other references in the title; is one of those Hollis Frampton, whose found-footage farming film Works and Days (1969) also borrows a title from Hesiod?
Winter: Yes. The film’s title, The Works and Days, recalls the farmers’ manual poem of Hesiod from c. 700 BC, a pioneering work in a tradition of farmers’ manual poetry that includes Nicander’s Georgica, Marcus Terentius Varro’s Agricultural Topics in Three Books, and Virgil’s Georgics. Our movie describes the life of one farmer in a valley in rural Honshu. And while she is valourized by the film’s title, it was at the same time important to us that her life, a life dear to us personally, be rendered for the viewer as merely one life, any life—remarkably, if beautifully, unremarkable. With this in mind, the understated death poems written by Japanese haiku poets between 1734 and 1927 that title each of the film’s five chapters remind us that the death in the film, far from being some punctuation of dramaturgy, is but one of innumerable deaths over time on this particular island. The death of our friend, Junji, here fictionalized, is part of the everyday.
If we can think of wisdom as a set of experience-based heuristics, the film’s title is a reminder that, while we do describe the daily taskscape of a particular farmer, she is but one of untold farmers over millennia whose tasks accreted into the learnedness of habit. It’s a thread of extended time, a perspective of longue durée.
In thinking about cinema and duration, the conversation, thanks to Cinema 2, very often moves to Deleuze and then to Bergson, though it seems a neglected conversation is one that precedes all that. In 1875, Albert Lemoine offered a bridge between Bergson and the 1838 dissertation of Félix Ravaisson, Of Habit, and the essay of Pierre Maine de Biran, “The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking.” (Credit to Mark Sinclair, who wrote a lovely book on this.) In addition to being founders of a school of contingency, these writers, with their studies of habit, brought views on duration that, for us, seem to resonate with the work and wisdom of someone like Tayoko, as seen with our depictions of her farmwork, mochi-making, etc. These habits are handed down over countless generations, habits that form thinking, actions that often intermingle with the hard problem of consciousness. They aren’t the gestures of Bressonian models whose affects are winnowed down, by take after take after take, to x approaching zero. These are gestures of real labour, born of survival and necessity, passed down and then taken onboard as experience.
In making a film, one is manipulating time. Not just, in this case, an extended duration, but also small moments, single gestures, caesurae. And with this in mind, we can consider a return of “the works and days” as found in 1915 in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the first published poem of T.S. Eliot’s:
…And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea…
At one moment in the film, Hiroharu declares that he will skip breakfast in order to be able to catch the next bus to town. Tayoko questions this decision, but he insists. We then cut to Hiroharu, at the breakfast table, as Tayoko lifts and drops a piece of toast on his plate. It’s a reminder of all that can be contained even in a moment—multiple indecisions, visions, revisions—so that each frame of film can be seen as pregnant with possibility, with each cut, even in a longer shot, considered down to a single frame. It’s the works and days as thousands of years, as the experience of a lifetime seen on one’s hands, and as single moments.
Now of course we don’t think it’s necessary that a viewer of the film think through any of the above. But making over a lifetime has to include some sort of enjoyment. And for us it’s enjoyable to think through these sorts of things and fold them into a movie.
Back to your question, while we admire films by Hollis Frampton like (nostalgia) (1971) and Zorns Lemma (1970), his Works and Days never came to mind. For some reason though, we seem to keep happening into affinity with artists who, at one time or another, studied math: James Benning, Tony Conrad, Henry Flynt, Dennis Johnson, Bruce Nauman, and now Frampton. We’re not sure what that means.
Scope: What did the script look like? Were Anders’ photographs used as kind of storyboards?
Winter: We entered into the film without any sort of conventional script. And we’ve never used storyboards. If anything is written in advance, it’s more a set of scattershot notes and lists. Vague prompts and reminders: go shoot something by that one rock up in that ravine, spend some dawns on the fire road, walks, cooking, tilling, harvesting, etc. The writing happens bit by bit as we shoot. There were also many years of collecting oral history, gathering stories, and taking the time to let people tell them. Reworking them. Editing and altering them. Rehearsing them. Out of these bits and pieces, a fiction emerges or is moulded into shape.
Anders has taken thousands of photographs of this place over the years. And these work as prompts as well, though never as pointedly as a storyboard would. Again, they are just used as loose reminders of ways of looking. And they make for useful short cuts as we talk: a framing like that one shot of Hiroharu by the fire, light like that one picture in the back room, etc. Again, it’s a deferring of as many fiction decisions as possible until the last possible moment. The work is mostly done with the cameras and the microphone. Those are the tools. And we show up to work each day and use them to find things, with a small team who are onboard with a similar work ethic. It’s just spending day after day looking and listening as intently as we can muster for the longest work hours that we can sustain. We’re never quite sure when the production should end. It’s just an uncertain sense that maybe it’s done.
Scope: So you’ve got hundreds of hours of footage, and you want to make a durational film. How did you begin? Were there any overarching editing choices in terms of the balance between footage of nature and people, day and night, work and leisure, life and death?
Winter: At the outset of “By the Ocean of Time,” the opening section of Chapter VII of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the narrator asks and answers the following: “Can one tell—that is to say, narrate—time, time itself, as such, for its own sake? That would surely be an absurd undertaking. A story which read: ‘Time passed, it ran on, the time flowed onward’ and so forth—no one in his senses could consider that a narrative. It would be as if one held a single note or chord for a whole hour, and called it music.” From which we could cut to something like La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #7, a sparse staff with a lone perfect fifth whose notation appeals to the indeterminate: “To be held for a long time.”
The mid-20th century saw the proliferation of arrayed limit-point projects in music, art, and film, many of which descend from the early experiments of Young, Terry Jennings, and Dennis Johnson, born out of tinkering and conversation around a piano in Jennings’ parents’ living room in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. These experiments would carry on across town at UCLA, then at UC Berkeley, along the way bringing onboard lessons from Persian and Hindustani classical music, before surfacing in New York as full-fledged minimalism. Filter that stuff through Yoko Ono’s loft, and you end up with Warhol making films like Sleep (1964). Leading eventually to our favourite extended durational films of all time, Tony Conrad’s Yellow Movies. Which begat the likes of Benning, Chantal Akerman, Tehching Hsieh, and so on. Who themselves built up audience tolerances for work like Peter Watkins’ The Journey (1987) or Aleksandr Sokurov’s A Retrospection of Leningrad (1990). Or something thereabouts that’s close enough for our purposes here.
From which we could cut to the editing and composition of The Works and Days. From the outset, in knowing we would make a film at least several hours long, we had no interest in making some sort of forbidding modernist monolith, some perverse endurance test for a viewer to pass. To the contrary.
The lessons of cinematic structuralism, for example, have already been laid down. And they’re there for the re-viewing whenever one would like. We revisit them ourselves and as such feel no compulsion to recreate them. Similarly, this film is decidedly not slow cinema, a movement saddled with enough already-doneness that, upon starting pre-production in 2013, we felt was no longer available. The Works and Days, at an average shot length of 18 seconds, is a film that moves at a clip that would land roughly in the mid-range pacing of, say, Ernst Lubitsch’s or even Billy Wilder’s body of work. Nor, at the other end of things, is ours an exercise in wall-to-wall dramaturgy of the type that, for us, at such length, can tend to fatigue. Our aims instead were towards some other sort of density. A formal lightness of a kind, perhaps, in something like an Italo Calvino sense. The desire to work from a less crowded and less weighted-down space. It’s maybe a challenging lightness for some, but one that we hope extends some sort of generosity and freedom of movement to audiences hardy enough to be willing to invest much of a single day.
And so there’s something in the edit that takes onboard all of the above, that empathizes with the lessons of those 20th-century vanguards, but also appreciates reclamations and reapplications of the lessons of any number of classical projects. Editing that can be generous enough to know and value what Mann was getting at, while also caring about Young’s counterpoint. Or to greatly valuing the virtuosity of something like Manoel de Oliveira’s Amor de Perdiçao (1979) or Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin (1941), while having other inclinations to the asceticism of Michael Snow’s La région centrale (1971) or Straub/Huillet’s Trop tôt/Trop tard (1981). Again, all while bringing to bear our current personal concerns about photography, sound, composition, performance, and locating open terrain in the contemporary cinema landscape. To get back to Mann: “We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail—for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reason of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.” Something like that, but maybe less absolutist.
As far as the balances you mentioned, yeah, that’s all somehow in there too. But again, those are more born out of an ambivalence to dramaturgy. If a shot of a bush works, then fine. If a shot of a person works, then fine. One isn’t privileged over the other. So the land and the people get roughly equal billing. The spectre of Howard Hawks hung over the editing process: “A good movie is three good scenes and no bad ones,” multiplied to eight hours. There was a lot of mulling that one, usually between about 3:00 and 6:00 am while staring at the ceiling. And so you plow forward and do your best, boiling things down to something that feels like a finished movie. And eventually it seemed done.
Scope: Of course we have to talk about the sound. Months after watching, I still have the sound of cicadas in my head. How much is sync sound, and how much was field recording? Can you also talk about the soundscapes that are placed at the beginning of the chapters over black screens? And why you decided to include compositions from other musicians on the soundtrack?
Winter: The film is fiction. We’re not interested in purisms. This extends to the sound, which is very edited throughout. It’s an expressivist enterprise. The sound is built from hundreds of hours of recordings made in and around the shooting locations. It’s more salient in our film than in most because of an emphasis on its foregrounding. In the dominant fiction mode, sound is considered first and foremost as a means of capturing dialogue, with atmospheric sound usually relegated to secondary or even tertiary concern. Talking in our films, on the other hand, as in life, is sometimes heard well and other times not. Talking is just another feature of the soundscape. In our way of working, it’s sound from a mostly non-cinematic lineage. It has more of a relationship with Luigi Russolo or Luc Ferrari or Hildegard Westerkamp than with any films we might have thought of.
From there, it’s a matter of getting down to the fundamentals of a movie—images and sound—which Morgan Fisher described better than anyone with Picture and Sound Rushes (1974): picture with sound, picture with no sound, sound with no picture, and the null set. Those are the options, and you get to building from there. And so, the sound passages over black screens feel like a perfectly natural move—an extension of our musical interests and a way of retuning the ear to hear the film once pictures do reappear.
There are two types of music in the film. There is the jazz heard around the house that reflects the shared interests of us and Junji, acting as something like a soundtrack and as a window into Junji’s character, this man of few words. And then there is a selection mostly of drones of one type or another—the exceptions being some Tony Conrad home piano and a Graham Lambkin recording of some Greek bells—that are something more like a score.
While not always, of course, music is often used in films as some sort of a crutch to save a failing scene. Aware of this view, Huillet and Straub come along and make Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) and give us music nearly wall-to-wall—one of the great gestures of force and defiance in the history of film music. Our use of music stakes out some kind of imprecise polarity to this move: a use of music barely present. In many cases, almost invisible, such that often one cannot be certain whether music is being used at all: is that the score or just the air conditioner? Music designed to be present while disrupting the equanimity as little as possible.
At the same time, the music choices give clues to our authorship: choices to be considered as choices in and of themselves. One thing that annoys us is when a cinema raises the lights during the end credits. For our way of thinking, the end credits are as important as any scene in a film. In most cases, it’s the movie’s most self-reflexive shot. Credits reveal much about a film’s formal construction. About attention to things like typography. A window onto a way of working. God is in the footnotes, etc.
The sound editing is a process of forging. The recording, however, is more of an endurance exercise of patience. Of extreme work hours. Of time spent with an openness to befallings.
“If I want to mix a glass of sugar and water, I must, willy nilly, wait until the sugar melts…The time I have to wait is not mathematical time…it coincides with my impatience, that is to say, with a certain portion of my own duration, which I cannot protract or contract as I like. It is no longer something thought; it is something lived. It is no longer a relation; it is an absolute.” Bergson here describes a relationship to moments untethered from an internal locus of control. We could think of these as non-dramatic moments. Moments not of the agent but of the seer or the listener. Moments during which proaction has ceased, and one but waits.
This was a sort of waiting mirrored both on- and offscreen during the production. It was a shooting process marked out by rising at 4:30 am and going to bed at roughly 11:30 pm most days. Six days a week. Blanketing Tayoko’s waking hours. Much of the time was spent just looking and listening. Cameras off. Following her stirrings, her habits, her work, her non-work. At the ready for moments to record—moments that we could then build upon and alter, re-enact, rehearse, artificialize, hybridize, and/or corrupt.
And then, once recording, we allowed ourselves a giving-over to such moments: a full bus ride taken, a bell fully pealed, a song performed, a row hoed, and, perhaps the most Bergsonian of all, a roadside clock counted down to zero. These moments were sometimes edited down, other times left whole. In some cases, collections of the banal, accreted into descriptions of lives. And other times there appeared the wait-earned reward of something more. “The sublime is tied to realism by an underdetermination of words,” to borrow from Rancière. In those somethings-more, in moments unexpectedly enthralling, “the vicissitudes of life [would seem] unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory,” to borrow from Proust. Such as hearing the tymbalar call of a particular cicada, but one of a vast writhing multitude, in the cyan twilight after a swim in the Kanbayashi River. Its vespertine song distinctly unlike the others, more refulgent, more infloresced. A song like Bergson’s sugar cube spiralling in Proust’s tea.
Scope: Can you address the “Japaneseness” of the film? I recall you balking at any comparison of the film to Japanese cinema, but to me there seems to be a strong undercurrent of Shintoism, especially in the animated depiction of nature. And then we have the amazing scene with Tayoko and Junji in the temple in Kyoto, where Tayoko says, “It looks like the trees are speaking,” which accentuates the notion that gods, or the sacred, are everywhere.
Winter: I think we have been discouraging discussion of Japanese cinema because that could quickly become a shortcut to thinking. It’s like in the NFL, any time some new Pacific Islander enters the league, even if he’s some 5’6”, 120-pound extra-point specialist, the announcers will compare him to Seau or Polamalu. “You can really see Troy’s ferocity in the way he kicks those extra points.” Can you?
Our film is a film. And can better be thought of, we would propose, as being part of film more broadly. Going straight to Japanese film could serve as an anchoring bias or an availability heuristic that could encourage a narrowed reading. We arrived in Japan not through its cinema, but through personal relationships over time—family and friends. Even as we admire filmmakers like Ozu, Mizoguchi, Ogawa, Naruse, Shindo, Oshima, etc., we think one might get a more interesting reading on the film by seeing it more in relation to something like Pierre Huyghe’s Untilled or La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano or Braudel’s The Mediterranean, or so on.
In terms of Shintoism or spirituality more generally, our intention was never to make a spiritual film per se, even as we know that the film might fall into some people’s varying definitions of that word. To the degree which faith appears, we are interested in the factness of faith. These are beliefs that Tayoko holds. These are traditions that the family shares. These apparitions are intentional objects. And so they exist as such as some sort of brute presence. This is what occurs, in this place, with this family.
As far as the scene at Tenryu-ji, we chose this particular rock garden after a thorough search—in person, through online searches, and via Google Earth. Our aim was to find the least remarkable temple rock garden in Kyoto or thereabouts. Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though this is down to its historical significance, its architecture, and its very classically picturesque rear garden featuring a pond and a beautiful array of maples. The garden where we filmed is one that most visitors will simply pass through, without stopping, on the way to the “good” garden. But we prefer the garden where we filmed. Like the death poems that title each of the film’s chapters, it aspires to an understatedness. To an energy that, for us, has a longer half-life.
We saw this as a fitting location for a scene in which Tayoko, more than in any other, had the chance, via Junji’s stand-in, Iwahana, to tell Junji so much of what she wished she could have told him before he died. We wanted a location that could at once induce an outpouring while offering minimal interference. For her, this scene was an actual catharsis.