Like the great Jean-Marie Straub, Scott Barley creates striking images by returning us to the basics of cinema, the natural world, but abstracting it through profilmic means by reducing the landscape to pure, basic forms. The sky at night becomes a grid of uneven white points like a pin board; an abstract, grainy image of trees, green hued, are obscured into strikes of painterly lines; the sunset, seen through clouds, is stained with a natural purple tint that makes the image look as unreal as the skies in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; a deep-focus landscape shot slowly becomes obscured by a patch of fog in the foreground. After a few beats, Barley tends to then situate these abstractions within a clearer sense of space and time. Barley, an installation artist and filmmaker from Newport, South Wales, has gained ecstatic admiration for his short films within certain cinephiliac circles, and makes his feature debut with the exhilarating Sleep Has Her House. The film begins with a characteristic bit of misdirection: a static frame, the view consumed by shadows, the locus of the image a jagged streak of turquoise bisecting the composition like a stroke of paint. The following two shots, also static, further and further outward, revealing to us that we’ve been looking at a neutral view of a sloping waterfall. The landscape we were introduced to as an impressionistic wash of pure color is now given specific shape and form.
The entirety of Barley’s astonishing feature is built on a fascinating push-pull between digital clarity and pictorial abstraction. For the most part, Barley constructs his lengthy, deep-focus compositions with a static HD camera, capturing landscapes that are almost jarring in their motionlessness—the only source of motion is often the lightly undulating ripples of water or the shifting hues of the sky, which at times leads the viewer to question whether they’re looking at a still or a moving image. Barley foregrounds the centrality of the natural elements to shaping the image, adding texture and dimension and determining pacing. Removed from any degree of linear forward motion, Barley’s lo-fi cinema readily recalls actuality cinema, but the overall effect is far from documentary. Unlike a filmmaker like James Benning—to whom Barley has been compared—this filmmaking doesn’t so much seem to be calling for a return to the basic properties of nature to form a resistance against modernity in cinema practices as to suggest how painterly abstractions can be created through the simplest of means. Barley crafts images that are extremely sensual in their materialism but minimal in every other sense. Although each works in isolation, when placed in succession they take on an intense emotional weight, layer upon layer of painterly compositions in a rich tapestry of gentle motion.
Although Barley incorporates many techniques traditionally associated with the documentary into his filmmaking techniques—natural light, real world locations, minimal post-production effects—his films are far from ethnographic. For one, despite rigorously surveying a specific, restricted space, his images are spatially vague: there’s rarely any clear sense of how one shot spatially relates to the next, and we’re left with an uncertainty regarding the geography of the landscape as a whole. The film’s landscapes are removed from any temporal markers, almost seeming to exist outside of time, creating an odd mesh with the ultra-modern digital technology used to craft these shots. Not so much an exploration of space as an exploration of the properties of the digital image, the land rendered hyper-real, almost resembling the surface of some lost planet. A land that looks abandoned, forgotten, drained of life.
Barley’s filmmaking seems to be essentially apolitical, surveying the natural world with a paradoxical combination of awe and a muted sense of fear, as if recognizing not only the minuscule scale on man in the face of the elements, but also the sway nature holds over the cinematic image itself. This takes over in the final stretch of Sleep Has Her House , which sees the initially tranquil tenor Barley's montage being replaced by a sense of destruction, as a storm is portrayed with the grandeur of a rapture. The screen is plunged into darkness, periodically illuminated by lightening like impromptu strobe lighting effects. This is also the first time life is introduced into Barley ’s mise en scène, in an extended close-up of a horse’s eye reacting to the destruction, captured with a haphazard, lightly drifting, uncharacteristically handheld shot. The images are increasingly consumed by dark negative space, with the eye being drawn to a few salient details pushed into a small section of the screen.
If Sleep Has Her House at first calls to mind the expressionist landscapes of Peter Hutton, Victor Sjöström and, yes, Straub, the formal apocalypse of its final act recalls the smeary digital cacophony of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan, and Sleep Has Her House similarly foregrounds the forceful capacities of DV cameras. By removing his filmmaking from any traditional sense of narrative, character, and, even temporal/spatial unity, Barley invites us to see the world—and the cinematic image—anew Sleep Has Her House is a vital reminder that the most potent visual abstractions can be created through something as simple as the shifting colour of the sky reflected in water, and the most jarring shock can come from a change in lens.