Scott Barley On Sleep Has Her House And The Thrill Of Darkness
“Film is an illusion, but hopefully an illusion that can speak a truth.”
Scott Barley has been named one of the most brilliant millennial filmmakers, and his experimental feature, Sleep Has Her House (2017), has garnered praises at international film festivals, including the prize for Best Film at the Brazilian experimental film festival, Fronteira. The film has also been featured in a number of critics’ polls of best films of 2017. We have spoken to Scott via email about Stan Brakhage and Béla Tarr – the filmmakers to whose films his own work has often been compared – about musicality, terror and cinema as an out-of-body experience.
Ela Bittencourt: Many of your films take place at the edges of vision, with a screen nearly pitch black. Can you talk about the importance of darkness?
Scott Barley: Darkness has always been a prerequisite to truly enter the world on the screen, and its importance in granting experiential resonance cannot be overstated. In the auditorium, the lights go down. We wait in a darkened room for a world of light to open up to us, and while our body may remain in our seat, the incorporeal essence in all of us wades toward the flickering light, haunting it, as it haunts us. Our souls invest, they search in curiosity and hunger in the images and sounds. Cinema is a symbiosis of haunts. We enter it as it enters us. To enter a film’s world is a very spectral thing. To truly submit to the cinema experience is like letting the waves of the ocean crash over you and not be afraid of drowning. To be in that darkness and let the film envelop and pervade us is the very definition of surrender. To give oneself up to the other.
The importance of darkness and the underexposed image also come from my desire to bring a tactility to vision – to go beyond figuration, beyond the object, and to feel the liminality between light and darkness itself as its own subject, to feel the weight of what is known and what is unknown.
Cinema’s strength can also be its weakness. With so much of cinema’s power coming from its unique distinction in the arts as a bastardization of two arts—image and sound—creating vivid audio-visual scenarios, often there isn’t enough room for the spectator to dream, to imagine, to question. Darkness, obfuscation—both visual and metaphorical—can assist in creating an environment where one’s imagination can coexist and harmonize with the film’s body, and create an utterly unique, polysemic experience for each individual, fulfilling that symbiosis.
Darkness is a texture, a veil, mystical, an immaterial hinterland. It is the backwoods from which everything enters and leaves. We have all at one time or another felt like we have at least for a moment seen something passing through beyond that veil, where we have stared into deep darkness—true darkness—and felt our optical nerve pushed to its limits, seeing strange lights emanating, dancing, from seemingly nothing, beyond the boundary of our vision, never quite sure if it is our eye or something else that is part of us, within us, yet unknown to us, permitting us a witness to it.
Darkness allows the mind’s eye to open, for our imagination to wander. It recalibrates and nurtures our relationship with our body, our senses, and the landscape beyond us. I want to create a world that makes the known feel unknown again, allowing that fragile, profoundly intense pulse of childlike curiosity that beats inside us to take hold once more. Darkness allows us to surrender ourselves to that mystery, that wonder, and to swim in it, and reclaim our profound and even paroxysmal relationship with ourselves and what lies beyond ourselves; to fearlessly drown it is infinite pool.
You take us outdoors, into the woods. It’s like you’re after a secret life. There’s certain Romanticism to it, beautiful yet terrifying.
I admire the Romantics a great deal. Jon Jost wrote to me recently, after seeing Sleep Has Her House, ruminating on whether there is something about Welsh thought, the Welsh landscape that fortifies this relationship with the awe and terror of the sublime. Despite being Welsh, and having lived in Wales all my life, it was not something I had considered before. I think it comes from something more universal, almost political but more abstract, a lamentation of humanity’s inane pursuit of severing the profound ties with nature. There is unquestionably a wicked arrogance, a heinous foolishness and idiocy in man that desires to conquer everything. I do not wish to make pellucid political statements or sermons, but my lamentation over our humanity’s folly runs deep through everything I make.
I also think there is little to no distinction between beauty and horror, awe or terror. They are so vicinal, so subjective; they are in a sense one and the same. I think that you feel the weight, the presence of the unknown. Perhaps that is what the sublime is: the unknown, the unfathomable, the unnameable, the unconquerable. What’s more beautiful and terrifying to the human ego than that?
I’m also thinking of the Romantics’ obsessions with death—and of your own admiration for Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971). Can you talk about the importance of that film—of Brakhage’s cinema—to your own thinking and work?
Brakhage’s films first enlightened me to the potential of the musicality of film. Just as music can have a rhythm, a melody, a verse and a chorus, the same applies to montage. It can be musical in its camera movement, tremulous or still in its use of repetition, and in the decision on when to cut.
I don’t think there is another film that has used silence as viscerally as The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. But I try to avoid analyzing the films that I hold dearest to me. I don’t want to explain them or to understand their power. I want them to continue to beguile me, wordlessly.
Pressing on the influences a bit, you’ve also mentioned that Bresson inspired your work with sound early on. Why Bresson?
Bresson was the master of using sound to affect and in tying shots together, which he did with such minimalism. He made it seem effortless. He inspires me with everything I do, not just with sound. His combination of sensitivity and lucidity is an inspiration. His elegance, a simplicity out of what is truly complex.
In my own films, I always film on location, record sound only for reference, and then dub everything in post-production. Whether it’s a silent film or not, I always go with my intuition on what feels right. I almost always compose music before the film is made, and use the music to work out when to transition to the next shot.
So many filmmakers undervalue the importance of sound in film, and of course, silence is a sound too. It’s not 80/20. It’s not even 50/50. Sound is certainly more important, because you could have the most beautiful images, but if the sound does not marry the image, the film does not truly come alive. A perfect marriage of sound and image can carry you to a different place. It can rock you to your core, make you convulse with paroxysmal joy or sadness. It can give be a spiritual out-of-body experience. I have had maybe two or three of those.
Could you describe one of them?
Werckmeister Harmonies by Béla Tarr was the most profound of these experiences. I don’t know how, but in the final shot of the film, I surrendered something within me. That’s what it felt like. Something was released, forced out of my chest, and I saw it rise, and I saw my body turn black, charred and withered, like a dead tree. Then I no longer had a body. I was nothing but this vision and these paroxysmal sensations I felt. I was staring at my true self outside of my body. There was this huge white light—mercurial and blindingly bright, and I felt so fragile. The force of this light was so physical upon me. I was a shell, a skeleton, in the presence of this unknowable, sublime white fire. I shook violently and cried for hours. I find it hard to talk about, because it was so violently powerful, upsetting, majestic, and extremely personal. Werckmeister Harmonies is my favorite film, but I will never watch it again.
I was in Rio de Janeiro when your film screened in the Festival Semana de Cinema, in a section curated by Brazilian critic and programmer Victor Guimarães, called Anacronias, meaning “out of time, in another time, displaced.” Do you also see your work this way?
I definitely feel out of place and time as a filmmaker, in all honesty. I certainly don’t feel that I belong to any consensus, group, or genre etc. And the films I make are certainly not for everyone. It can be lonesome. But I think that loneliness allows me to really focus on making what I feel inside rather than on what anybody else thinks. I actually don’t think I could make films if I didn’t feel that sense of loneliness. I have the privilege of not having to compromise, for which I feel very grateful. If something isn’t good enough, I only have myself to blame. I work and chip away at my film until it is done, and once it is done, it is no longer my film. The journey of making is more important than the final outcome for me. Once the film is done, it is only for the people who see it.
I will repeat the quote I’ve used before, by Emil Cioran, who said, “Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.” The same applies to filmmaking. And I would add, you put into your work what you would never even dare to confide to oneself, or even wish to fully understand. It is not a reveal, or a “pouring” of logic. It is nothing but a deluge of pure, unadulterated feeling. And pure feeling cannot and should not be translated into rational thought. I want to keep it that way, because it is what keeps drawing me back to filmmaking.
I work alone all the way through the filmmaking process, from idea to completion. I sit at my computer, editing my film only in complete darkness until the night nears sunrise. There is something about the night that awakens something within me that lies dormant during daytime. A creativity and enthusiasm, a sense of belonging, but what I feel I’m belonging to, I don’t know. I suppose it is a hope to make something that is deeply honest and intimate, to make something that renders me feeling vulnerable as a filmmaker. If I didn’t feel that vulnerability, I would give up.
In Rio we wondered about your specific process—and the cameras you used—for Sleep Has Her House.
I always begin a film almost like one would keep a diary. I have no idea, or even an agenda to make a film. I simply document. I shoot what attracts me, random things, animals, variances in light, the water, the stars; simply what draws me in on different days, different nights, in different places. Once I have built up a body of footage, I start to see connections. These pieces of footage could be taken months or even years apart, and miles apart too. I then invisibly stitch the different pieces of footage together into one larger shot or sequence. But these connections between different pieces of footage all happen organically.
Some sequences in Sleep Has Her House are comprised of up to sixty separate shots composited together. The film was shot on my iPhone 6. There are also some drawings composited into some shots that I did about six years ago in art school. Most of Sleep Has Her House was shot over the course of four separate days throughout late 2015 and 2016. There was one afternoon and evening of shooting in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, and three days of traveling and filming around West Scotland. The sunset sequence was filmed in Abertillery, Wales, which was then combined with footage that I had shot a while back in Italy of a storm. Between all of these random shooting days, there was around sixteen months of post-production. I composite and manipulate footage a lot. Post-production is where my films live or die. Film is an illusion, but hopefully an illusion that can speak a truth.