In all honesty, just the title of The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is enough to clue us in that this is going to be a fairly presumptuous motion picture, even without knowing one single other thing about it. Is there a more pretentious punctuation mark, in this context, than a parenthesis? And the second thing most people know, if they know even just the two things about the film, is that The Works and Days (Nope, One Time Was Enough to Type Out the Whole Thing) is eight hours long,* which certainly doesn't make it seem less presumptuous.

So first, the good news: The Works and Days is an unexpectedly watchable film for something so exorbitantly long; among the most briskly-paced films in the over-four-hours club that I have ever seen, I'd go so far as to say. Which isn't to say it's not presumptuous; with a running time like that, it could never be anything else. And this feeling isn't softened by encountering basically anything that filmmakers C.W. Winter and Anders Edström have publicly said about it since its premiere at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival - though to their credit, they've fairly consistently suggested that they don't want you to hear any of those things before you see the movie, instead just taking it in on its own terms and worrying about their process and their authors' statements and whatnot afterwards.

And strictly on those terms, The Works and Days is at times a very wonderful thing, with none of the austerity or feeling that you've started watching it in part to prove that you're a tough badass, like you arguably get with Out 1 or Sátántangó, or some of the other ultra-long movies whose length feels in part like an act of deliberate hostility against the viewer. To me, at least, The Works and Days felt genuinely soothing and centering, a film that made me feel calm and relaxed and at times even meditative, which all helped to make every stretch of the film (it's explicitly broken into four parts and the last of these is clearly meant to be split again for a total of five; the segments range from about 75 minutes to over two hours) breeze by in a way that this much movie with this little story absolutely oughtn't breeze by. The point of comparison I kept thinking of was the very gloomy 4-hour An Elephant Sitting Still from 2018, where the running time is obviously meant to drag us down into a feeling of stilted misery; the running time in The Works and Days does exactly the opposite, feeling so full of stuff, all of it somehow fresh and new even after six or seven hours, that the impression we get is less of the endlessness of time than it fleetingness.

This is, again, not at all what I think Winter and Edström wanted; the running time of the film was selected in part because weight hours is a normal workday, and they wanted to evoke that sense of "this everyday grind is just your job" in the way that Shiojiri Tayoko, whose works and days these are, in the Shiotani Basin, just has to keep going on about her life. At which point it is convenient to talk content, because it's very simple but not in a straightforward way. Tayoko is Edström's grandmother-in-law, and every year he and his wife Mai return to the tiny farming community (47 inhabitants, according to the press material) in Kyoto Prefecture where the Shiojiri family lives. He and his artistic partner, Winter, decided that the lives of the Shiotani villagers were worthy of photographic commemoration, which resulted first in a book that included 23 years of photographs. This wasn't enough, so Edström and Winter then conceived of a fictionalised documentary, or a nonfiction drama, or however you want to put it, in which the inhabitants of Shiotani would play "themselves" working from a screenplay written starting in 2010, but mostly focused on Tayoko, playing herself; things went a little off the rails from there, for reasons the directors have specifically requested reviewers not to mention to people who haven't seen it. So I won't; anyway, I don't know if would have made me like the film more or less if I knew it myself. As I said, I don't know if the version of The Works and Days I experienced was exactly the one they meant for me to experience. But this is what happens with eight-hour experimental films; the viewer will take away their own response. But I was talking about how the thing was made: over 27 non-consecutive weeks in 2014-2016, after which it was edited by Winter for the next four years, shaping all of the footage into a study of 14 months, from autumn back around to autumn, somewhat mimicking the events of Tayoko's real life.

The reductive, but I am not therefore unsure if it's inaccurate, way to think of this is as a way to capture "the rhythms of real life", as Tayoko's daily activities over the course of an entire growing season are watched by Edström's camera with solemn artistry and stillness. The title "the works and days" comes from the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, who wrote a poem of that title that's essentially a lecture about the correct moral disposition of humans to the gods and the labor that must be done by farmer to ensure the function of an agrarian society. As that little anecodote about eight hours representing a white collar workday suggests, Winter & Edström's film is itself certainly about labor, though not at all in a lecturing way, nor in some kind of glistening "ah, the nobility of this poor longsuffering woman!" way. It simply takes farming labor for granted as something that is, and then watching it move slowly with the rhythms and cycles of nature. Probably the most noticeable aesthetic feature of the film, after its length, is its preponderance of Ozu-style "pillow shots", the isolated images that create a sense of place not through spatial continuity but by capturing essences - here is a clothesline, here is a tree, here is a shed, and so we no understand that we're in a location where all three of those things exist. The pillow shots in The Works and Days don't work quite the same way, in part because Winter, in his very adroit and clever cutting pattern, doesn't do much to distinguish "scenes" from "pillows"; the spaces where people sit and chat are themselves cut together with something like pillow shots themselves. Especially cunning is how he moves around crowd scenes, rarely treating them as group conversations, instead moving between shots anchored on the same speaker at different moments (especially in the first three hours). It creates a feeling that daily human life has the same rhythmic construction of nature, a sense of slowly, peacefully drawing in breath and then letting it out.

The film's explicit inspirations are Ozu (mentioned in dialogue) as well as Pedro Costa and James Benning (thanked in the credits), and all three of those people show up here, but never as direct translations. Ozu gives them pillow shots and the way that a domestic melodrama starts to slowly emerge from the unhurried material of everyday life; but the film isn't about melodrama. Costa gives them people in a community playing themselves in a loose fiction that's mostly just reality; but they (thankfully) don't borrow any of his political didacticism). Benning gives them duration as a strategy, but they're not following his static, almost imperceptibly slow style; indeed, the filmmakers are very anxious to make sure we understand that The Works and Days isn't "slow cinema" at all. And sure enough, it's not: it's long cinema, but the cutting speed keeps moving along crisply and the gradual shifts that are almost invisible over the course of a year feel much more abrupt and dramatic when it's been sped up this much. Edström, in his capacity as cinematographer, makes exemplary use of the changing quality of light across a year to make the film constantly seem like something new, always refreshing itself. That's another one of the ways this breaks away from most very long movies, in fact: it never, ever feels schematic. Every time it seems like the film is establishing a visual or narrative pattern, it turns out to break, or to have never been a pattern in the first place: the film is using wide shots rather than medium shots in a certain way until it isn't; it's using tracking shots outdoor at night to break apart "chapters" until it isn't. Just about the only persistent pattern is that Tayoko spends the whole movie reading from her diary, always narrating today's events in immediate reflection as wholly unrelated images play across the screen.

Even that's a sort of patternless pattern, since the image and sound never seem to line up, and this is true throughout The Works and Days: it has an extraordinary soundtrack, in which the sounds of the natural world rise up to deafening levels and then abruptly slice out, in which we hear one thing and see another, or see the thing we just heard but only after we start seeing something else. In a film whose experiments are generally laconic and easy, the aggressive use of sound is the one place where it really challenges what we're thinking and watching. And heck, even that's part of what makes the film seem so stimulating rather than sluggish and boring.

At the same time, it never actually feels distressing: the film's primary mode is of calming stillness, a way of centering yourself in the appreciation of Tayoko's slow movement through life as it crawls around her at a pretty slow pace itself. The Works and Days is a quietly reverent film, observing placidly and creating an endless succession of compositions that keep creating surprising new angles to look at the world. We spend eight hours in small place, and never get used to it; it always feels like something new must be done, and we're looking at it in a new way. And as a metaphor for a life that has been lived well and continues to be, that sense of constant new stimulation and delight is about as loving and kind a disposition for the film to take towards its subject as I can imagine.

*To be exact, eight hours and one minute, but I think it's fair to say that you're not likely to notice the difference in the moment of watching it.