“The lurid colour, the long, irregular, convulsive sound, the ghastly shapes of flaming and heaving cloud, are all as true and faithful in their appeal to our instinct of danger, as the moaning or wailing of the human voice itself is to our instinct of pity. It is not a reasonable calculating terror which they awake in us; it is no matter that we count distance by seconds, and measure probability by averages. That shadow of the thundercloud will still do its work upon our hearts, and we shall watch it passing away as if we stood upon the threshing-floor of Araunah.”
This description of a first-hand encounter with a great thunderstorm by Victorian art theorist John Ruskin in The Stones of Venice exemplifies the “terrible sublime”. Ruskin identifies this experience as reflecting a modern crisis of faith. This terrifying and awe-inspiring event is a part of what Ruskin sees as the natural world’s divided divine order: “the love of God, and the fear of sin, and its companion—Death.” It is similar notions of the sublime with which the landscape work by J.M.W. Turner engages: a nature so awesome in power and so ineffable in impact that it not only dwarfs humans in terms of literal scale but also notions of value, with Man being shown as a mere speck in natural systems outside of his control.
The terrible sublime, though bound up with Victorian philosophy, is a crucial influence and formal characteristic of Scott Barley’s debut feature Sleep Has Her House, which will have its theatrical Canadian premiere at Vancity Theatre on Sunday night (September 24). Sleep Has Her House documents two days in a nondescript forest range. We begin in abstract close-up of a waterfall, only recognizable after the camera fully retracts. Here we see the lake, trees, and mountains that the frame will subdivide throughout this region’s remaining life. As day breaks and the camera flutters somewhere in the clouds above, and the door to heaven is ajar for a final brief instance, we know judgement is on its way. All there is to do now is wait for the lightning and fire to come down.
Barley, an installation artist and filmmaker from Wales, has more in common with the long-dead Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th-century Romantic landscape painter, than any contemporary avant-gardist. Sleep Has Her House is a 90-minute landscape film of minor movements and subtle changes; it’s at times so still, so tranquil the screen begins to resemble a projected painting. Then a stream will flow, a gust of wind will blow across the trees. But Sleep’s mostly unoccupied vistas—no humans, a few scattered animals—are entirely staggering in their audio-visual scope, not unified or mappable to the viewer, but always greater than we can see, more terrifying than what we can hear. Friedrich would often place meagre humans or their ruins in the foreground of a far greater natural backdrop. That is not necessary here; this is a film that by sheer aesthetic magnitudes dwarfs its spectator in every possible way.
From its inception, cinema has had a complicated relationship with painting, and it remains rare for a contemporary film to resurrect or even allude to a deceased artistic project from the 1800s. As just about any history of late 19th and early 20th century painting will tell you, the invention of photography was among the art form’s greatest liberators. No longer required for documentational purposes but free to explore more abstract styles, early modernist painters abandoned single-point perspective and all the verisimilitude that came with it. In the early days of cinema, on the other hand, some did their meticulous best to replicate the canvas on the silver screen with often awkward results. Mechanical reproduction by itself could not be art, so by turning cinema into moving paintings, silent filmmakers sought to legitimize the medium through analogy to a supposedly higher form of expression.
Barley is obviously not the first cineaste to update or adopt the conventions of a certain mode of painting. The filmmaker that immediately comes to mind is Andrei Tarkovsky, who not only made a film about a painter (Andrei Rublev ), but who frequently included lengthy interludes of paintings in his work. Tarkovsky was less interested in replicating the visual style of a painting than capturing its essence, adopting its ideas using uniquely cinematic means. In Solaris (1972) for example, during what is the film’s emotional apex, Tarkovsky fragments Pieter Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow and pans across the painting’s multi-narrative surface. Hunters is both the metaphor and the method: a visual illustration of the unknowable lives in the private cabins of the film’s space station setting, and a conscious attempt by Tarkovsky to align his work with the stature of Bruegel’s.
A more recent example, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997) does the opposite and attempts to copy conventions of the picturesque using landscape-flattening lenses. As the eponymous characters move from one natural backdrop to the next, Sokurov transforms a mechanical reproduction into something that is on the verge of abstraction. Nature becomes dominant and the characters are left opaque afterthoughts.
Barley’s method is closer to Sokurov’s than Tarkovsky’s; he is not merely adopting the philosophy of a mode of painting, but distilling its form through the centrifuge of another medium. At the film’s opening, we’re presented with a verse that may as well have been written by Ruskin himself: “The shadows of screams climb beyond the hills. It has happened before. But this will be the last time.” Sleep Has Her House is a strange, contradictory amalgam; Barley is finding the terrible sublime not through a life-altering encounter with a thunderstorm or even an imagination of it through oil on canvas, but through grand footage shot on nothing less than an iPhone. With no words and no characters, Sleep Has Her House seeps down into the deepest crevices of our collective soul, engaging a fear spiritual in its disposition. This is a visual and aural language of the apocalypse, a crisis of faith in its purest, most elemental form.
Scott Barley's Sleep Has Her House screens as part of Art House Theatre Day at the Vancity Theatre on Sunday (September 24)