Absence is not emptiness. When others aren’t looking, we aren’t looking either, but we’re still here just as much. Filmmaker Ashish Pant has a mind for absence in Byron Jones, a nonverbal oral history of the space between what “happens.”
The film navigates the dark matter of our everyday; sleeping, meals, the getting dressed but not the going anywhere. Improvising stasis is a monumental task that the movie’s main focus, Bill Weeden, achieves in the title role; his nothing is always a supremely active state, of gestures and tics and unselfconscious mannerisms and unpredictable reactions and inner life floating in the sea of recollection behind his eyes.
In the moments we’re looking in the mirror, showering, defecating, arranging our clothes, we don’t “know” anything more than that about ourselves but completely understand who we are, and in this entirely wordless film we learn who Byron Jones is by sensing his mood and anticipating his reactions. Weeden himself was given no advance knowledge of the film’s narrative, shooting in sequence and being handed a part of the script (consisting of incident and activity, no conventional story) shortly before enacting each scene.
He grew to know this personality just as we do over the course of about an hour and three quarters. Time is measured precisely like that, while cycling into one grand composition in which the space from bedroom to sitting room to kitchen is more important than the duration between moments.
Jones is solitary in a literal sense; we don’t see him ever speak to his occasionally glimpsed home health aide though they take meals together, and otherwise we see no soul but him; presumably retired, apparently widowed or never attached, though we know nothing of what choices he has made. All of us are as solitary, figuratively, in our conception of ourselves, we just don’t feel that that solitude is worth watching — we seldom look into it rather than out from it, but in Byron Jones, it is worthy of note.
Pant packs and thickens time into the movie’s scenes, for an animate still-life painting of how we push our way through daily existence. We see Jones, seemingly well in control of his faculties and destiny, dress up; for nobody, as far as we can tell, but not for nothing; attending to himself, he is the opposite of invisible.
We are as aware of time passing slowly as we are absorbed in its particulars, but Byron Jones is not a Warholian endurance test, daring you not to laugh; it is only funny when it means to be, as in an extended struggle between Jones and the vacuum-sealed contents of a SPAM can, or with a rogue home corn-popper. Later on, with lifeforce, with vigorous anger, one day when the aide is late, Jones dancingly attacks a paisley rug with a vacuum cleaner in an act that looks like the wiping clean of a mandala.
The mystic, existential referent applies; Byron Jones is like a Koyaanisqatsi inverted, in which the title character’s simple, crucial existence is at the hub of the wheel of the world. We are animals; we rest, eat, take in air and warmth and water; we sustain ourselves, and the moments in which we do these things are flowing into us, not “moving on.” We see scenes of Byron going out, and scenes of him returning, but nothing of the in-between. But he doesn’t go in circles; he completes them.