Jordan Cronk on C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Works and Days (2020)
WRITTEN CIRCA 700 BC, the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days is an 828-line poem that doubles as a sort of farmers’ almanac in which the author instructs his brother on the physical and moral imperatives of agrarian living. Less didactic but equally epic, C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) takes up the title and major themes of Hesiod’s verse for its own comprehensive look at a vanishing way of life in a small mountain village of forty-seven people in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. Running 480 minutes, the film is structured by the cadences of life, labor, and the environment alike: Over the course of five seasons, Winter and Edström present a portrait of a female vegetable farmer, her dying husband, and an extended group of friends and family whose shared sense of integrity, tradition, and perseverance slowly reveals itself as something uncommonly poignant, even profound.
No mere observational account, The Works and Days is a highly collaborative and deceptively constructed fiction. Longtime creative partners, Winter—a CalArts graduate who studied under Thom Andersen, James Benning, and Allan Sekula and now lectures at Oxford—and Edström—a Swedish photographer whose work has been widely published and exhibited internationally—have spent two decades exploring an unusual form of hybrid cinema that combines elements of narrative, documentary, and sound art. Like The Works and Days, their only previous feature, The Anchorage (2009), drew as much on the landscape as it did the lives of its inhabitants. Shot in Sweden’s Stockholm Archipelago, it depicts Edström’s real-life mother in a fictionalized reconstruction of a story she told the filmmakers about a mysterious hunter who set up camp near her home. With its roughhewn 16-mm images, threadbare plotting, and largely solitary protagonist, the work stands at the nexus of the new millennium’s experiments in ethnography (e.g. the films of Ben Rivers and Lisandro Alonso) and the ongoing proliferation of creative nonfiction across multiple modes of arthouse filmmaking.
The Works and Days may point the way forward further still. Across five chapters, the film—which includes three intermissions, giving it the shape of a nine-to-five workday—follows Edström’s mother-in-law, Tayoko, as she harvests and gathers daikon, Japanese spinach, and winter squash from the family’s farmland while also tending to her daily domestic duties. In these passages, labor is depicted with routine tranquility. Here, the ordinary achieves monumentality through dedication—on the part of the filmmakers, certainly, who spent fourteen months filming on location in Shiotani, but most especially on the part of Tayoko, one of many villagers (in Shiotani, if not across greater Japan) performing mundane tasks to keep their households in order and provide for their families. In lesser hands, her life of hardship, including the death of her husband, Junji, could have been used as a device to elicit pity, or worse, to exploit. Instead, Winter and Edström utilize Tayoko’s circumstances as a framework through which to mount a loose retelling of their subject’s recent past that could potentially act for her as a productive form of bereavement.
In voiceover passages adapted from her own diaries, Tayoko speaks at various intervals of life’s more prosaic details: of food and farming, early mornings and the changing seasons. At one point toward the end of the first chapter, a visit to Junji’s doctor results in a worrying blood test. “He was eating too many crackers, bananas, and cookies,” she calmly recites, the words now heavy with all they could not predict. As Junji’s health declines, the narrative narrows in focus, shifting from boisterous scenes of drinking and camaraderie to private moments of reflection and commiseration. In the film’s most devastating scene, Tayaoko and Junji (played here as throughout by Kaoru Iwahana) visit a temple in Kyoto, where they lovingly reminisce about their courtship and marriage while seated in a rock garden. “It looks like the trees are speaking,” Tayoko observes as their conversation slowly grows quiet.
More than any other, this scene exemplifies what Winter has called the film’s “topological reworking of the real into the fictional.” And while the integration of the two is indeed thorough, the use of subtle narrative breaches and distanciation techniques—such as a montage of photographs (also published in an accompanying 756-page monograph) of the village and its residents taken years prior by Edström, or a dialogue-free scene set in a car in which an entire conversation between Tayoko’s brother and a friend about a WWII soldier and his dead father plays out in subtitles—accentuate the constructedness of the enterprise. (Attentive viewers will likewise note the appearance of Japanese actors Ryo Kase and Motoki Masahiro in small roles, as well as the presence of Winter and Edström in a few of the dinner scenes.) It’s to its makers’ credit that none of these strategies disrupt the film’s elegiac tone, and instead add to its power and beauty as both an aesthetic object and a piece of dramatic storytelling.
Long but never exhausting, The Works and Days moves at a unique tempo for an eight-hour film. Largely forgoing the long take in favor of a more rhythmic infrastructure reminiscent of Pedro Costa, Straub-Huillet, and Heinz Emigholz—filmmakers who approach duration through editing rather than the profilmic event—the film calibrates time though alternately intimate and expansive compositions that breathe in subtle syncopation with the natural world. (Winter estimates that the film’s average shot length is eighteen seconds.) On the soundtrack, subtle drone pieces by Tony Conrad, Folke Rabe, and Alvin Lucier (among other giants of the avant-garde music canon) form a collage of subatomic frequencies, while extended passages of field recordings mark the beginning of each chapter, playing out against the imageless void of a black screen. In its very design, The Works and Days advocates not for a medium of convenience and disposability, but one of shared experience and lasting rewards.
The Works and Days opens July 16 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.