Time and the Axe: A Review of Anna Grimshaw’s Mr. Coperthwaite

For contemporary viewers of documentary, Anna Grimshaw’s four-part series Mr. Coperthwaite: A Life in the Maine Woods, is a lesson in patience. Part 1, “Spring in Dickinson’s Reach,” opens with a quote from poet Philip Larkin: “Time is the echo of an axe within a wood.” Grimshaw, with her quiet, handheld camerawork and gentle editing, reminds us of the flexibility of time in cinema and the generosity required of both filmmaker and viewer to simply watch actions as they unfold, rather than suturing events into neat bundles of activity, compressed for a specific outcome or meaning.

Grimshaw never interrogates William S. Coperthwaite (1930–2013) with anything other than her camera, and she cuts his motions as gently as an oar slicing through water. Other interlocutors do enter the frame, and Coperthwaite’s interactions with these individuals, as well as his peaceful and purposeful activities when they are not around, help to shape our appreciation for the man and the films. This isn’t to say that Coperthwaite is silent. He constantly talks and sings, but not necessarily to the camera or the woman behind it—one has the sense that his monologues would go on without the camera there. About fifteen minutes into Part 1, a young man comes to visit. Bill, as the film’s protagonist is called, greets him happily despite not really being sure who he is. The younger man, Joshua, is clearly checking in on Bill, bringing him groceries and looking at him with admiration and a little worry. The interaction throws Bill’s age into relief and he suddenly appears very old, a mentor to Joshua and to the other students and acolytes who cross his path throughout Part 1. “Spring in Dickinson’s Reach” ends with these men using handheld cameras and phones to snap photos of Bill as he works, a scene that seems radically incongruous after over an hour without any sign of electricity in the frame.

Part 2, “A Summer Task,” features Bill and a friend, Steve, spending some time felling trees and building the foundation for a footbridge across a creek. The process involves felling two tall trees, removing their bark, and then dragging them to the location—all without the use of equipment more modern than a pulley. Whereas in “Spring” Bill’s facility with obscure and interesting hand tools is demonstrated to a handful of eager acolytes, here it is just him and a friend doing what looks to be very difficult labor with rudimentary, but entirely effective tools. “Spring in Dickinson’s Reach” is about helping a new generation find their way in the world, while “A Summer Task” shows how friendship is explored and expanded through shared activity.

Part 3, “Autumn’s Work,” shows Bill preparing for winter, chopping the seemingly endless piles of wood that will be needed to survive. He works alone to prepare an enormous felled tree near his yurt, although at one point he turns and addresses the camera/Anna directly to ask for help. The camera doesn’t cut automatically, but pans to the sawhorse and watches Bill as he puts up his saw. We are left to ponder whether or not Anna helped. The felled tree, we discover, is about the same age as Bill—eighty years old—an odd foreshadowing to what the curious viewer will learn outside the frame: this film was made in the last year of William Coperthwaite’s life. Although Bill has addressed Anna in the three or so hours leading up to the moment I am describing, this is the first time we really get a sense of Bill needing her. While it is never spelled out in the narrative diegesis, Anna and Bill are neighbors in the small northern town of Machiasport, Maine, and Anna visited Bill's yurt with her partner many times before she suggested spending a year making a film together. Anna walked and worked with Bill over the years of their friendship and, in particular, during the year this series was made. It is not difficult to imagine that her style of filmmaking for this project emerged out of these moments prior to the ones we see.

William Coperthwaite, though by no means solitary, is a loner. While he is a fascinating subject cinematically, he is a curious choice for an anthropologist. Anthropology, on one account, is a discipline that looks at culture or what people do together. So what can we make of more than four hours of film of a man who has spent his life deep in the Maine woods? After all, it is as an individual that Bill has rejected industrialization, modernization, and conventional family and social relationships. Yet, as I have already hinted, there is much to learn from these negations, both at the level of the director's cinematic style and in the lifestyle of the series’s protagonist. In a moment when all the world seems atwitter with surround-sound audio and immersive experience, represented in films like Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2012) or Pancho Velez and Stephanie Spray’s Manakanamana (2013), we find no sonorous bell ringing or viscera in Mr. Coperthwaite. This observation is not to belittle the former style, but to argue that anthropological cinema ought to have no style that does not befit its subject. For cinema to be ethnographic, its form must always follow function, must always have the purpose of making the viewer experience the world of its subject. For William S. Coperthwaite, that is a quiet, solitary—but not lonely—world. It is a world in which he tends people, animals, and plants in his roles as gardener, teacher, student, and poet. We see as much in Part 4 of the series, “Winter Days.” Here, over twenty minutes are spent with a family (two adults and two children) who seem well-acquainted with Bill and his proclivities. They enjoy a drawn-out journey through Bill’s copious stacks of books on the etymology of porridge, historically, socially, and poetically. What we eat, the scene proposes, is what we read is who we are.

Grimshaw reflects this sensibility as documentarian. In Bill’s words, “a good axe is pure poetry,” and so too is a good cut. Instead of approaching editing as montage or sound as collage, Grimshaw’s connections seem organic and (like Bill’s tools) employed with careful consideration for their utility. She fades in and out of scenes sparingly, more often cutting directly between scenes that are thematically related, even if it is clearly a different day at the same time of year. (At one point, Bill’s outfit changes between cuts of him reading in the very same spot in his home.) These cuts between different times/spaces stand out, not because they are jarring but because they actually create temporal and spatial continuity. As we learn throughout the seasons of the series, Coperthwaite’s days are set to the rhythm of his clock, one that is measured not in minutes and hours, but in doings and reflections, actions and pauses. Grimshaw gives us a highly personal and handmade life in which poetry, natural and manmade, is Bill’s constant companion. From Lewis Carroll, he reads:

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose—
What made you so awfully clever?

William S. Coperthwaite, master yurt builder and maker of wooden bowls and spoons, died in a car crash during a storm in 2013. His was the only vehicle involved and one wonders at how a man so adept at controlling the smallest of instruments could have possibly lost control of a car.

Channeling themes of American philosophers and poets and capturing a remarkable master class on preindustrial carpentry, Grimshaw’s suite of films is appropriate for all kinds of educational purposes, both within the social sciences and beyond. This reviewer can even imagine giving it to her special-effects-loving, surround-sound-worshipping film students to illustrate the value of film technique in storytelling.


The Mr. Coperthwaite series is available from Berkeley Media LLC, Suite 626, 2600 Tenth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710. You can visit the Berkeley Media website for details.