Monday, 15 August 2016
The Aesthetics of Restraint: Sleep Furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2008)
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2009, with a version of this piece also appearing in 'Borderland Despatches' in the summer 2009 issue of Vertigo - Volume 4, Number 3)
Gideon Koppel’s land in Sleep Furiously lies west of here, but its world is familiar: village shows, calendars from agricultural machinery suppliers, plastic barrels halved for sheep feed, rolls of blue alkathene water pipe propped against a wall, farm supplier’s clothing and workboots, tractors and sheep. I recognise too the relationship the filmmaker has to his place, a relationship born of a certain respectful restraint.
Wool sacks loaded on its trailer, a land rover squeaks and rattles its way down the track, watched by the sheepdog who sees it on its way round the curves. The dog continues watching as the sound of the land behind the nearby sheep and birds becomes an immense silence, and a violet-grey haze begins to obscure the tree plantation on the far hill. It watches until the vehicle curves out of shot, and, quite satisfied that that job is now done, turns and trots back towards us, as if it has decided how long that particular scene should last.
Generous in its allowance of natural rhythms, this is a typical scene, and any film made with the tacit agreement of its animals is a testament to its ability to enter fully into the moment of its filming. Sleep Furiously was honestly taken – animals are alive and wary to stealth and subterfuge – in static shots and without cunning. Another dog, neck lowered in curiosity, watches us as we listen to a villager reciting a poem about a useless signpost whose pointers now swing confusingly free, a cow watches us watching a young man sitting on a bale, braiding a lead, while another cow has tender care and dumb mercy in its eyes as she licks her newborn calf dry. This film belongs to the animals and the landscape as much as it does to humans. There is no surprise in this. This is an incomer’s film (even if born in a place one can be a lifelong incomer) cautious of giving offence, taking refuge in an aesthetic born of exquisite reticence, and noting mundane and usually overlooked textures – breeze block kennels in concrete yards, rain dropping from a clothes line – and actions, such as a shearer replacing a comb on his sheep shears, a farmer shaking out straw bedding in a winter barn, or tracing arcs and serpentine curves in winter sheep feed, patterns discernible only from a distance.
Koppel says that Sleep Furiously is, in one sense, a film for Dylan Thomas, and especially his ‘Play for Voices’, Under Milk Wood, which was in his thoughts at the beginning of the project. At first glance this seems unlikely – I imagine a widow, polite as a teacup, claiming kinship with a roistering, sensual old uncle, full of stories of drinking, women and the sea, and offering him a slice of Victoria sandwich at four in the afternoon. The comparison is worth pursuing though. Thomas is a poet of characters’ dreams and unexpressed desires. His exhortation is to come closer, and closer still, until we wander like a shade through the fecund, intermingled lives of the inhabitants of Llareggub, close enough to feel the breath that gives voice to their words. In Sleep Furiously we remain distanced from the dreams of the community; this is a film of the waking hours.
At the end of Quite Early One Morning, an early treatment of the theme of the dream lives of the inhabitants of a sleeping town, Thomas wrote, ‘Thus some of the voices of a cliff-perched town at the far end of Wales moved out of sleep and darkness into the new-born, ancient, and ageless morning, moved and were lost’. It is this sense of loss that sends a quieting haze through the film. Instead, it is a film of polite exchanges and actions. From the very beginning it is a study of hands at work: around a table at school children sculpt clay heads (using a garlic press for the hair), while other hands hold books, birth calves and piglets, whistle a sheepdog, lay out produce, conduct a choir, write, repair furniture, butter bread, pick blackcurrants, bake a cake for tea or for a show.
(And here an aside. Anyone who has been to a village show will know that, although some of the traditional competitive categories may seem quirky – ‘25 raspberries on a tea plate’ comes to mind – one should never underestimate how seriously such competitions are taken. 2002 I think it was, and a cold, damp Spring had delayed the blooming on many flowers. Consequently, there were only two entries in the ‘6 Sweet Pea Stems in a Vase’ category in a nearby show. One entrant had placed 5 tall, large and beautiful blooms in a vase; the other 6 smaller, raggedy ones. The latter took first prize, while the former was merely given a card marked N.A.S. – Not As Stated. My friend, new to this particular world, was horrified by the judges’ meanness.)
The shade of another Thomas – RS – haunts Sleep Furiously. I imagine him aghast but unsurprised at the temerity of the enterprise, lamenting bitterly that it has come to this. Yet his presence is acknowledged. I think of his poem, The Small Window, from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968):
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 final scene before the credits places us in an uninhabited house that carries the traces of its previous occupants still. We look out of a cobwebbed window as the curtains twitch in a time-lapsed flurry, and dusk begins to settle in the house.
As I write, a biting east wind, blowing now for three days straight, is drying the earth and hardening its crust – though the moles push up through still – blowing between the stones of the house and chilling the walls. A milky frozen light hides the mountains and leaches all colour from the hill grass.
The very final shot in Sleep Furiously, after all the credits have come and gone, is an old tree in leaf, tousled by the breeze. Earlier, we have heard John Jones the library van driver, arriving every third Tuesday in the month, say, as he stands below bustled trees on a blowy Spring day, ‘I called the house awelon – the breeze’. This breeze is the constant, defining sound of the film, a breeze that is indifferent and rejuvenating, a bringer of change, rain and renewal. (For RS Thomas this could well be the cold wind of the world (in Invasion on the Farm, from his 1956 collection, Song at the Year’s Turning) blowing around Iago Prytherch since his farm gate was left open).
One of the final scenes sees a farmer collecting a ewe and her two lambs to take them back to shelter in the trailer behind his quad. With the view of the camera static, the action of crooking the ewe’s leg and the pickup of the lamb happens offscreen. As much as these actions, this film is about what remains in shot – the sunlight that glistens in dew on the early spring grass, the dead hill bracken beyond the gate, and the slight heat haze that rises from the earth, promising warmth and life to come.