By Steven G. Kellman
Before sarin, napalm, and Agent Orange, before industrialized societies began to notice they were fouling their nests with toxic waste, DuPont used to promise consumers: "Better living through chemistry." The electric toothbrush, the Edsel, and New Coke testify to scientistic faith that empirical research will improve the details of daily life. Kitchen Stories is a droll drama about the desperate inaccuracies of efficiency experts.
During the 1950s, the Swedish Home Research Institute attempted to come up with recommendations for making ordinary activities more efficient. After studying the unnecessary steps that housewives take while performing routine domestic chores, it decides to investigate the patterns that unmarried men in rural Norway follow as they move about their kitchens. A squad of surveyors drives across the border and sets up operations in a small Norwegian farming community. A researcher is assigned to camp beside the house of every bachelor. The mission: to record every movement that the occupant makes in his kitchen over the course of several weeks. Seated in an elevated chair that resembles the perch of a tennis umpire, the observer is supposed to conduct his work in total silence, making minimal personal contact with the man observed.
Folke (Norstrom) is assigned to observe Isak (Calmeyer), a gruff old farmer who agreed to be surveyed only because subjects of the study were promised a horse in exchange for their cooperation. However, the recompense turns out to be only an equine figurine, and Isak balks, refusing to allow Folke into his house. Eventually relenting, Isak is nevertheless a sulky subject who resents the presence of the intruder in his household. He exacts sly revenge on Folke by doing all his cooking in the room above the kitchen, spying on his Swedish spy through a hole drilled in the floor. He even reverses roles with Folke by making his own notations in the researcher's ledger. As the distinctions between observer and observed blur, Isak and Folke begin to communicate with each other, and, in flagrant violation of research protocols, become friends.
In the opening sequence, when the screening of a demonstration documentary about the work of the Swedish Home Research Institute is abruptly halted by mechanical failure, someone gripes: "Swedish piece of shit." Kitchen Stories is enlivened by intra-Scandinavian gibes. Driving from Sweden, where driving used to be on the left side of the road, to Norway, where it is on the right, Folke complains that Norwegians must be crazy to be traveling the wrong way. His paycheck is delayed because the sybaritic director of the entire research operation is off in Finland, carousing. When Isak, whose nation fought the Nazis, is unable to get any reaction out of his Swedish surveyor except an impassive professional stare, he quips: "You were neutral observers during the war, too."
Kitchen Stories challenges its viewer's own privileged position as neutral observer. Is it desirable and even possible to make oneself the invisible spectator of someone else's life? Does the very act of observation alter what is being observed? These are heavy questions to lay out on the frail table that Kitchen Stories sets. But in the strained interaction between Swedish Folke and Norwegian Isak, the film questions our individual responsibility toward what we see around us. If a tree falls in a forest, it just might fall on me. •