How strange, I thought, sitting in the darkened auditorium of our local art house movie theater. Here I am, watching a film capturing the world around me—my immediate environs, the people who are now, in terms of proximity, though not, generally, of propinquity, my neighbors. Looking on once again brought home just how removed I am from the lives and experiences of the people shown on the screen, insisting instead on reliving my recent trip to New York, city and state.
That one of them is a friend, and that the film’s director is her son, only added to the sensation of not being truly part of the networks of people among whom I now happen to reside, that I seem to be less part of the land than our terrier, Montague, leaping through the fields.
The film was Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously (2007), one of the official selections screening at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. You might call it a documentary; but it really is more precisely a document, meaning that no documentarian vision is imposed on what we are being shown. While the images of rural life in Wales are reminiscent of Humphrey Jennings’s aforementioned Silent Village, Sleep Furiously does not extract a message from what it examines, other than articulating an apparent respect for the life depicted. It captures what some argue to be endangered; it preserves what some fear to be fading. Beyond that, however, the film does not so much as construct a syntactic unit from the words it permits us to overhear.
The seeming randomness of Sleep Furiously (whose title is derived from Noam Chomsky’s famous grammatical yet nonsensical sentence) invites us to study each moment, each figure in the landscape as so many nouns and verbs. It is an encyclopedia of a place, not a social commentary.
The camera is mostly static. It is the people, the landscape and the living things in it that are in motion; and it is this movement within the frame that compels us to keep watching: a library van creeping up and down narrow countryside lanes, people busy at their day’s work, farm animals giving birth, raindrops gliding along a washing line. We are encouraged to look at snapshots, rather than judge or ponder the judgment of a curator who, by comparing and setting aside, is out to assign a definite space to each artifact with the intention of fixing a meaning beyond that each shot may either have intrinsically or hold for us, the individual spectators. Instead, the people we meet speak for themselves without posing or being imposed upon.
Freed from the burden of being representative types, mere manifestations of a director’s position of manifesto, the individuals we meet come alive; and however insignificant they might be to the world at large, their words and image become memorable. It is the lens and the microphone that communicate and let communicate, that extend the hidden community in which they dwell.
For once, I got to see the life in the cottages and farms all around me, disconnected as I remain from most of them and they from me. And, next time I see our friend, I can tell her: hey, I never knew that about you—that you put a dead owl into your freezer and mailed it off to a taxidermist; that you renewed your library copy of Glorious Cakes; that you introduce children to the art of pottery; or that you place stones upon your husband’s grave . . .
I sensed that, beneath the syntax those who look on or judge without bothering to look construct out of our lives, we are all word made flesh. Most of us aspire to being nouns, to being somebodies, while others are adjectives, enriching or changing the lives of those on whom they depend for their own meaning.
The lucky ones are verbs: those who make, who mean, who matter without being mere complements of someone else’s sentence. Unless we are prepared to remain a question answerable to others—Happy? Misfit? Either . . . or?—we had better work at being and creating. Try! Continue! Change! That, not simply syntactically speaking, is imperative!