By Gareth Evans

considerations-on-peter-todds-1.jpgAn Office Worker Thinks of Their Love, and Home

"Let us praise the mutilated world…"  – Adam Zagajewski

On Peter Todd’s An Office Worker Thinks of Their Love, and Home

Watching Peter Todd’s new film, a three minute reflection on the varied cycles of daily life, in what have been described as ‘interesting times’, it is hard to ignore the heightened, exterior significance granted the images, an outcome the filmmaker, known for the long gestation of his deeply personal work, could not necessarily have foreseen at the outset of the project.

Continuing in the vein of his earlier For You, Todd here develops that work’s silent observation and meditation on the local, the environmentally familiar, within the frame of an archetypal routine and with his trademark white-pad texts signalling the pivotal sentiments anchoring the piece. The journey revealed is deceptively simple, charting the movement from the filmmaker’s garden to his city centre office employment (as information officer at the BFI, its frontage seen) and then back, via the underground and a written declaration of emotional attentions, to his evening house.

A description such as the one offered does nothing, however, to convey the richness of this passage as Todd presents it. One’s own mundane circuit is often so internalised, that it takes the visualisation of another’s (or indeed its written analysis; think of novelist Nicholson Baker’s precise prose epiphanies of the everyday) to let us see our own afresh. To be benignly jolted, calmly encouraged to reconsider the possible immanence of awe, is one of the recurrent effects of Todd’s work in this vein.

And it is this quality that is most magnified by the current crisis – whether in the political, social or environmental spheres – and its attendant mindsets of fear, mistrust and the closing of ranks. Todd’s work reveals, in an understated and quietly profound way, what is at stake and what is under threat of erasure but also most significantly perhaps, the source of the values that should be defended.

So, from the domestic to the streets and back again, we are shown zones of (seeming) security, clear of (present) danger, where one can walk or sit, (reasonably) confident in the knowledge that death will not rain from the air in a shower of missiles, nor blossom from the earth via a misplaced step, a mine detonated, a glinting, clustered munition handled for examination by a curious child.

If such a reading seems overly extended when faced with the film in question, consider that it is no longer so easy to view the (often) depopulated public and private spaces Todd observes as merely the manifestations of a particular aesthetic preference, sensibility or tradition, personal or otherwise. These spaces are, perhaps inevitably now, endowed with a latent off-screen presence, with a sense of gathering incident or the after-ripple of event that can no longer be ignored.

In light of this, and the contexts alluded to above, lines from US, Peter Brook’s provocative 1966 theatre work about the Vietnam War, seem especially relevant in revealing how such spaces, partly by our own actions elsewhere, have become these locations of threat. Attacking British indifference to distant suffering, Glenda Jackson declared, “I would like to see an English dog playing on an English lawn with part of a burned hand. I would like to see a gas grenade go off at an English flower show…”

The strength of Todd’s film however, is that while the work can sustain this atmospheric reading, it is not defined by it. That is to say, it offers such spaces up as repositories of positive, almost innocent, exchange as much as zones of threat and imminent collapse. The shared urban is a site where community can (and most often does) interact productively and harmoniously and where it can occasionally demonstrate great conviction and foresight (witness the unprecedented worldwide marches for peace this 15th February).

Similarly, the domestic is not offered, blinkered and insular, as a sealed location to be defended through uncaring ignorance of, or hostility to, the world beyond, but rather as a fecund part of the network whereby the balance of the good is nurtured and, alongside its public cousin, as the repository of positions (respect, consideration, mutual interdependence and belonging) that can beneficially be acted upon. We live in the world we live in. Think like Blake and one can arrive anywhere; work on any scale, attentive always to the heaven in a wild flower.

It is entirely fitting therefore; that the film opens with the space that most embodies such attitudes. The shaping intelligence – fluid, collaborative, open – that creates a garden is at the centre of the work and the ethics of fruitful engagement it supports. Like the greatest music (shall we consider the river that is Bach) where there is an ordering of sound (and silence) but also a final degree of submission before its larger workings, so with a garden a similar creative tussle ensues, between the human and more. Where the organic meets the formally intended, an organised beauty results. However, the maintenance of wonder at the working of the daily is crucial. What can be lost must first be noticed. A reduction (removal) of the degrees of separation: Only connect.

Of course. And not hard, it would seem, when the garden offered is such an oasis of colour, fertility and calm as that presented in the opening shots. A suburban Eden, a locus of welcome immersion (its filming a homage to the late Orcadian artist film-maker and poet of the local universal, Margaret Tait: surely all filmmakers must be gardeners: they share the nursing of light from seeding dark). Here is the full, sensual palette, alongside which the denatured streets appear hopelessly under-hued.

That is not to say there is no arrangement in either the garden or its framing on film, simply that both compositions obey a different geometry, governed more by desire and its ‘unreasonable’ satisfactions than paper ruling. Thus, when set alongside the lineage of architecture and the street, a fuller picture of patterned potentials becomes apparent and offered.

The roads, avenues and transport networks that carry Todd (and by association ourselves as viewers and expected participants in the similar) from his private realm outwards are initially seen in the sequence, due to the use of a fixed camera, as states rather than processes. In this way they work on the same plane as the garden: it is not yet conceived as a moment in a cycle of growth, decay and renewal. So the street is first offered as a place where identity can exist, almost without consequence (that we know, from the arguments above and from our own experience and perception that this is resolutely not the case, need not unhelpfully impact on the quality of still life in the images). This state (or stasis…) is without value judgement. At this point we could make no absolute argument for Todd’s locational preference in either direction. Instinctual attraction to one or the other environment comes from the audience and is not yet coded in the work.

This equilibrium of attention is upset when the words ‘thinking of you’ appear (handwritten on a large white sketch pad) on screen and on the road’s asphalt. Suddenly intention and an ‘elsewhere’ is introduced. The road becomes at once a process, a vehicle by which Todd might be transported home, and by implication also to his lover. However, what follows – the compacting to the phrase ‘of you’ and its prompt repetition in ink and chalk on various walls – does not simply reiterate the thought and provide ‘milestones’ almost, registers of the emotion’s ongoing presence and increase in intensity on the return journey (an accumulation conveyed by the rapid edit and changes in environmental surface).

Instead, it ruptures the binary established. The phrase’s appearance on city centre exteriors seems to attach its sentiment to the surfaces themselves, in other words, to the city in its public form (and by extension to Todd’s job, his un-private self). His yearning becomes more open and embracing, a celebration of the entire sweep of his daily life and not just its evening focus. Here, the ‘times’ again play a prompting role. In periods of great uncertainty, one is given to valuing the threads of stability that course through the weave of the days, even if they might occasionally prove tedious or unvaried. However, the declaration is not an unthinking acceptance of one’s lot but rather an affirmative expression of inclusive appreciation, a step into complexity and away from polarities (which, under serious scrutiny, seldom remain convincing).

This shift into interwoven argument is signalled by the camera’s motion, tracking through passengers in an underground concourse. It is interesting to note here that the silence of the film makes this concentrated and normally off-putting location bearable, placing it briefly ‘out of time’ and allowing consideration of its details and nuances in a way that the actual space, with its frantic assemblies, rarely does.

This underworld routing and subsequent re-emergence is followed, as productively as one might hope, with the image, still as a photograph, of light smeared across an interior wall above a wooden chair. It is an ecstatic picture, of submission almost, that worships at the altar of the medium itself and demonstrates the ‘phenomenal’ pleasure of simply observing light and its enabling of things fully to be themselves.

The eye is then taken by this gleam, now dappled on the wooden floor, now filling a window that looks brightly from the interior dark onto the garden (standing, in a zen of amplification, for the world). Todd’s domestic ideal is not one cut off from larger concerns; rather it is engaged and porous (with light as the primary carrier of this feeling). The window stands like the entrance to a temple or sacred chamber (one without limits), a threshold that might be crossed for the getting of wisdom. The film knows where the enduring commitment must lie; not separated but together, under the shared roof of stars.

Through the window then, to a tree darkening in three shots; a corner tree probably for Todd – being his outlook – beyond value (think of how fellow London filmmaker John Smith has endowed trees with similar grace and importance; their wanton felling constituting a breach of the moral order). The tree allows the earth to be lived upon. It is also an index of mind, of branching imagination and greening possibility. Shade, shelter, natural architecture, the larger home; branching and rooted, both the present ‘real’ and aspiration (bridging ground and sky). Shaping air.

And providing the penultimate image (as Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo has written, ‘alone at the heart of the earth, pierced by a ray of sun, and suddenly it is evening’). Twilight, what the French call ‘entre chien et loup’, and if we don’t hear any lupine howls, the final shot, of shrubs in gathering dusk, nevertheless suggests that for Todd, the work just seen and now ended was assembled ultimately from an almost marine depth, from the prerogatives not of an un- but rather a differently configured consciousness, one of swell and drift, of currents working beyond the purely rational.

Indeed, despite its seeming simplicity of approach and linear trajectory, the film’s rhythms are more those of the body at work and rest, in contemplation and motion; breathing steadily then quickening towards the ‘you’. Tellingly, the lover remains unseen, a gift to the viewer in their own way to complete.

However, Todd is also expressing thanks. For the piece is simultaneously an expression of gratitude, foremost for a life and an affection, for the worth of describing them and also for the means to be able to do so. Film again proves itself capable of delivering wonder and mystery and the complexity of being, in a celluloid haiku of one line, not three.

And if a sense of mortality is the bedrock of all cinema (as the reels run their inexorable course), it is fuelled by, and flowers with, a ceaseless yearning. A yearning to remove the distance between things, to edge ever closer to the kernel of the subject, to what matters in mind and matter. To the world and to another, for the sake of self and other. And it is, of course, underpinned by the inevitable loss, by time in action, which makes those brief proximities that much more keenly felt.

Given all this, if Todd’s film was somehow the only moving image sequence to survive from our times, it could still stand as index of an enduring priority of the species, a need in no small measure caught by Raymond Carver in his Late Fragment:

And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved upon the earth.

Gareth Evans is a writer and independent film programmer.

An Office Worker... tours as part of the artists' film programme Film Poems 4: Messages, screening at Arnolfini, Bristol on 28th September, then at Riverside Studios London, Phoenix Leicester and other venues to be announced. It is available for hire from LUX (; tel. 020 7503 3980) and Light Cone (Paris) (; 0033 (0)1 46 59 01 53). See back cover for full text of the poem by Adam Zagajewski.