An affectionate, if uncomfortably stagnant, portrait of moribund rural culture, Sleep Furiously is a tonal elegy to the “old ways,” a paean to the dignity of ritualized traditions that aims for poetic calmness, but more often smoothes its subjects into deliberately emblematic somnambulism. Bringing to mind antecedents as diverse as Dylan Thomas’s oneiric-dramatic verse, Sweetgrass‘s rippling sheep waves, and—in one or two scenes with eerily silent children—the matter-of-fact Gnosticism of The Wicker Man, director Gideon Koppel documents the activity of a small, quiet farming community in Whales teetering subtly on the cusp of modernity. Antiquarian agricultural procedures and linguistic homogeneity have been half-forsaken before the start of the movie’s essayistic timeline; Koppel meditates in fits and starts on how these shifts have signaled a corruption of the nobly straggling humility of the local character.
This “corruption,” however, has been anything but plangent. Our vague “tour guide” throughout the film is a yellow van that serves as a library-on-wheels. It makes house calls to schools, farms, and various members of the town’s oddball citizenry, and the way its driver recommends and encourages texts on specific individuals suggests that the impishness of Welsh hospitality can be as easily abetted as extinguished by technology. In fact, the observed cultural transitions, many of them industrial, appear to have been initiated mostly from within rather than imposed on the town by any steadily approaching sign of civilization (or suburbia); judging from the dialect distinctions among the population, one can assume that at some point in the not-too-distant past the townspeople began marrying outsiders, or at least allowed their land to become a bucolic sanctuary for the wearily contemporized. This gradual demographic realignment facilitates subterranean schisms between old and new that rest awkwardly and diagonally across generational lines.
The camera dotes, for example, on the town’s farmers threshing wheat, delivering livestock babies and training herder dogs—tasks suggestive of manual fetishism. Koppel succeeds at intriguing us with the “rawer” of these duties, making their messiness seem almost foreign: A man whose face we never see pulls an infant calf out of its mother and spreads hay across its glistening body in a moment that’s almost prosaically universal. By contrast, when observing the ubiquity of new harvesting equipment, the camera is forced into broad, less intimate wide shots. Machines can’t help but obstruct the relationship between Welsh pastoral tradition and its would-be practitioners, Koppel seems to argue, even as he anonymizes his (mostly silent) subjects by favoring them as bodies in space rather than personalities trapped in a gawky cultural dialectic. In another scene, a middle-aged woman—again, whom we never see past the elbow—prepares tea and cake for a mid-morning gathering with a variety of modern kitchen gadgetry, and the speed with which she cooks could be perceived as unemotional. But the appliances enhance the dexterity of her interaction with the fruits of her homestead’s harvest in a way that contradicts the film’s plaintively backward tone; it’s not clear what’s been lost by making culinary arts digital in more ways than one.
Koppel isn’t ignorant of the nuanced relationship between the past’s preciousness and the future’s aura of disposability. In one scene, an elderly gentleman explains the folly of an easily agitated cluster of street signs that swap directions during high gales; coherency and consistency are often sacrificed in this town for the dopey capriciousness of a charming status quo. But what Koppel sees as the death of a regional demeanor should be viewed as a transformation. A collection of time-lapsed sequences showing babies sleeping and waves lapping at green shorelines are determined to render this content as a “passing,” and the contemplative piano beneath the frequent landscape caresses is equally adamant that we mourn. Even the title, which suggests the raging toward the “good night” of Dylan Thomas’s most-anthologized poem, grafts solemn anger onto a people who are too fiercely good-natured and validated by their rural setting to convert to the 2.0 world entirely—in which case, must we shake our heads if inebriated teenagers take to the hills on occasion with glow sticks?
Sleep Furiously will be available at 12am ET on July 29th for 24 hours on Fandor.com.