Tuesday, 26 January 2016

A Film for Winter: A Humble Life (Alexander Sokurov, 1997)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)

As I begin to write this, misty feelers of fog are creeping into our valley which is still clear and frosty from the night. We live high up, and below us the land is hidden, the air thick with white. It is still, entirely still, the only movement in the garden the flicking of yew boughs as blackbirds peck at the red berries. The Black Mountains, all but the rounding of Waun Fach, are in fog. Around the house, the grass is frosted white, the apple trees are frosted, the gorse and the bracken on the hill are frosted. That we would have fog today was apparent last night when, although the night was clear, the smell of the air changed, as the breeze from the east became metallic under the starry sky. Now, the fog wraiths begins to settle in the valley. I look up again and the air has greyed and thickened, the sun now a white disc in a blue-grey halo.

I begin like this because of a film I watched late last night. I discovered it by chance – there is no mention on the cover of the DVD that it even exists on the disc. Finding a bonus film by a director is a treat; finding one unmentioned on the packaging that is even longer than the main feature is a real bonus. The film is called A Humble Life. It was made in Japan in 1997 by Alexandr Sokurov, and it's an extra on Artificial Eye’s DVD of his film Mother and Son.

In the film, Sokurov shares a living space with an old woman, Umeno Matshueshi, who lives alone in an old house, 130 years old we are told, in the village of Aska in the mountains of the Nara Prefecture in Japan. For a short while he shares with us the textures, sounds and rhythm of her life as she sits, makes fire, eats and sews a mourning kimono. She agreed that Sokurov could stay near her all the time. He says, ‘all the hours and minutes which I was allowed to spend in her old house, she let me sit near her. I needed it to see enough of her, to my heart's content.’

‘I can remember well enough,’ says Sokurov, ‘how everything became interesting: walls, utensils, wind, light, sounds – all her life’. As well as a short time spent in her company, the film is an extended appreciation of the textures and sounds of her life: the earthen floors and smoke-blackened ceilings, the matting and the paper screens. At one point the camera lingers over the pale worn wood of the front step, its grain now ridged like blown sand dunes; the perspective changes and these become mountains, while the splits running through the valley in the centre are the slow gougings of a glacier.

I think of  Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s words, from his meditation on the Japanese sense of beauty, In Praise of Shadows, where he says, ‘we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colours and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.’ No object in the film better shows this particular sensibility than the mirror whose growth of bacterial bloom and patina is so extensive that it resembles an image of the earth seen from the air.

Now the white air has brightened. Soon there are rays of sun through the window, its light illuminating the dripping winter leaves. Now a slow river of fog drifts westward through the valley, as the low sun gives even the sheep on the hill opposite long shadows that fall away beneath them. Across the hill, someone is fencing in the fog, his sledgehammer ringing ever more clearly as the stake hits hard ground. A while later, there is the tack tack tack of staples fixing wire. I need to be outside. The film recalls me to small pleasures and the wonder to be found in the textures of aged objects. In the greenhouse there are clay pots into which I will plant my hyacinths.

Arriving in twilight at the house, Sokurov could not sleep for the blowing of the wind. We hear this wind throughout the film, through leaves and through distant trees; we hear the sound of rain, and then, more intimate sounds, familiar from Mother and Son – the haunting, dated notes of a parlour piano, a guttering candle, the creak of footsteps on wood, the draw of a fire and the the crackle of burning twigs, the drawing of a screen, the stroke of fingers across floor matting, the bubble of water in an iron kettle on a fire. We hear night birds and thunder, the turning of paper, bells and frogs, the pull of thread through fabric, the sound of snow falling on a carp pond.

The images in A Humble Life are often shown behind mists that drift through the film as if to give it its own magical patina of memory. By chance I came across the following lines about the Japanese landscape by Lafcadio Hearn, which give this context: ‘Only the general lines of the land, the general aspects of its nature, the general character of the seasons remains fixed. Even the very beauty of the landscapes is largely illusive, –a beauty of shifting colours and moving mists. Only he to whom the landscapes are familiar can know how their mountain vapours make mockery of real changes which have been, and ghostly predictions of other changes yet to be, in the history of the archipelago.’

The fog thickened through the afternoon. Just before dusk it briefly cleared and as it rolled back it revealed the ground in tree shadow that had remained frosty through the day. It looked like the fog itself had left the ground white.

The last words in the film are given to Umeno Matshueshi, who wanted to mark Sokurov's parting by reading her poetry to him in the main room of her house by candlelight. It is the first time we have heard her soft, sure voice. She reads:

ten years have passed
since I lost my husband
still the pain and bitterness
are in my heart like thorns
it finds consolation in late autumn quietness
a bamboo pipe is heard

and then:

somehow unnoticed
the crickets stopped singing
snowstorm is coming

If, like me, the winter was starting to infiltrate you with its dank grey gloom, then this film may be helpful. Not by providing any shallow sensation or temporary artificial escapism, but through showing the need for the acceptance of living accordingly through certain seasons and times, and living at a depth that accepts and works with the seasons’ sounds and textures instead of denying them. Near the beginning of his film, Sokurov says, ‘My soul seemed to be in search of beauty and kindness, otherwise, for what did I deserve this gift, this encounter?’

I found myself at peace after watching his film, a form of contentment in its December guise.

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