Friday, August 19, 2011

Sleep Furiously

SLEEP FURIOUSLY                B                   
Great Britain  (94 mi)  2008  d:  Gideon Koppel

In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
With looking. Have a care;
The wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd
A small window dirty it
With their breathing, though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.

The Small Window, by R.S. Thomas, from Selected Poems, 1946-1968, published in 1973

It is only when I sense the end of things that I find the courage to speak, the courage, but not the words.    —anonymous

It’s hard to know why a film like this, which is obviously a well-made and seriously thought out documentary, takes 3 years or more to cross the Atlantic, as a British DVD has been available for over a year, yet it is just now finding an American theatrical audience.  While much of the intimate details may escape the initial viewer, as no one is introduced and nothing is ever explained, instead there’s simply a natural flow of events that are caught on camera, all centering around a small farming community in Wales called Trefeurig.  Here we witness the birth of several livestock animals, a woman walking her dog along the winding roads, sheep shearing and a sheep auction, or herder dogs bringing back home the sheep in the early evening, the barking of the dogs heard first before small forms can be seen coming over a faraway hill.  But lest anyone think this is a pastoral reverie, we also have kitchen scenes baking a cake, while there are also scenes requiring subtitles due to the Welsh language they’re speaking, of elderly people discussing their concerns now that the local school has closed, or views of a school bus converted to a traveling library on wheels that makes monthly visits to seniors, where the librarian picks out books he thinks they’d like, or takes notes about their collective interests.  What you don’t see here are computers or cell phones, no one is ever watching television, though there is one house where we see a TV, but it’s not turned on.  No one even listens to the radio.  There is simply no evidence of modernity anywhere to be seen, where what we see resembles the way life was lived going back half a century or more. 

The closest the film comes to a storyline is the recurring on-the-road motif of the library on wheels, as the elderly people he visits continually chatter away in small talk, absorbed in the minutia of their own lives, though it’s hard to say this holds much interest across the ocean, and this film is extremely chatty, where much of it isn’t even subtitled, but is just the sound of voices droning on.  But the film is also beautifully meditative, using a static camera, filling the screen with the green rolling hills, perhaps a solitary tree viewed through various seasons, or a carefully composed single line of sheep forming at the top of the screen, while slowly, another line forms on the bottom, where the viewer waits for them to intersect.  If you are a Kiarostami aficionado and recall the final shots of his Earthquake Trilogy which seemingly last forever, each one telling their own story, Koppel will likely disappoint, as he doesn’t hold his shots long enough.  The outstanding music used in the film is from Aphex Twin, an Irish born musician with two Welsh parents, the creator of extremely atmospheric piano or electronic music, often sounding hypnotizing, but in perfect harmony with the images onscreen.  Again, despite the haunting beauty of the music, this director is prone to making jarring edits, ensuring there are no seamless transitions here.  It’s only afterwards, if we’re curious enough to find out, that we discover these are shots of the director’s mother, though she is never named, but she’s the one walking the dog, and one of the familiar settings is his own family farm, where his parents found refuge escaping the Holocaust half a century ago.  The title of the film, a provocative phrase suggesting words with opposite energy, comes from a nonsensical phrase that also has perfect grammar from Noam Chomsky in his 1957 Syntactic Structures:  “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”  Trefeurig apparently is a place where one should not have pre-conceived notions about how people are supposed to live.  They just do.    

The film was initially shot by the director on Super 16 mm without using artificial light, so the idea of darkness creeping in is a prevailing theme in nearly every shot.  Often the natural colors appear washed out from the mist or cloud cover, or even in sunlit shots people may appear to be standing in the shade.  There is simply an exquisite seasonal change when the entire hillside is snow covered, offering a kind of visual poetry in silhouettes, where only the branches can be seen in barren trees.  Not everything filmed is beautiful, where we may examine old rusted out objects sitting in a pile waiting to be auctioned, or a filthy window with old curtains and plenty of dust gathering on the windowsill.  What becomes clear after awhile is that this way of life is seasonal as well, where only four parishioners are seen at one point in a near empty church service, but they are still singing the hymns, where this picture of old world values will live out its course, replaced by something new.  Perhaps the sequence of the film is unlike the rest, a night shot where unseen spectators are shooting off fireworks and holding sparklers and dayglo wands in their hands, where the colors blur in fast speed motion, giving this a dizzyingly experimental feel, perhaps an expression of the unseen next generation.  Everything this film cherishes may be gone by the next generation, the quiet kindness between neighbors, the helpfulness offered in one another's personal struggles, the utter isolation from the rest of the world, where reading books may be the only social contact many of them have for weeks on end.  But there’s also the livestock continually replenishing itself at a much faster rate than humans, where except for a fast speed shot of a baby sleeping at night, few, if any, children are seen except in photos.  Instead it’s a portrait of the elderly living in a world that hasn’t changed at all during their lifetimes, but will likely be far different once they’re gone.  Not only are the people dying, but their community is dying as well.  In the end, families will be forced to sell their farms.  The film is an intensely personal time capsule of the director’s family, expressing a way of life where the ramifications beautifully unfold through mesmerizing music and images.  If viewed only as a travelogue, an essay without words, this beguiling film would still appear haunting.  After the final credits end, which contains perhaps the most sublime music in the entire film, there is a final still shot of the image of a recurring tree, stunning, now, in glorious color.

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