Festival director Peter Treherne explores the influence of weather on three films screened at SFF 2019.
I’m writing this in February 2020, four months on from the Slow Film Festival. That is the caveat. What follows is not a detailed account but an examination of fragments that were retained by my sieve of a mind: a brief instance of fire in a pinewood; a fogged windowpane beaded with water; high seas off Iceland. Why, when I settle down to the task of writing, do these fragments spring to mind and jostle for my attention?
In August 2019 the Slow Film Festival programmers sat down to whittle away the long list and, as if of its own accord, a theme of landscape emerged. This is unsurprising. Slow Cinema has long been associated with landscape, whether that be the post-industrial wastelands of Wang Bing, or the miserable bricks and mud of Béla Tarr’s fallen communism, or the dense jungles of resistance in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Thailand. But now that I consider the three image fragments of pinewoods, windowpanes and seas, I cannot say with certainty that they are landscapes. Four months on from the festival something more particular has surfaced. These three images are atmospheres, and not just atmospheres of mood but atmospheres of specific meteorological events that commingle matter and duration. They are weather films not landscape films.
Such a distinction might seem pedantic but it highlights how often we mindlessly merge weather and landscape. If landscape is the static ideal claimed by Emerson, or the scenography for human narration, or the spatial playground of abstraction, then weather is durational contingency. For the filmmaker this is agony. The script is written, the actors are scheduled, the equipment is hired, and then it rains or it does not rain. It snows or it is unseasonably hot. Many films avoid the gamble by shooting in studios with Tungsten lights or with grids of pipes that can release a shower with the turn of a tap. But for any who strays into the art of plein air you must come with a backup plan. Weather exists as that extreme exemplar of the endless negotiation between the agency of the filmmaker and the contingency of the material reality that the camera records.
What then of these three fleeting fragments of pinewoods, high seas and condensation? They come from three SFF 2019 films: Sleep Has Her House (2017), Nordic Grammar (2019) and Notes From A Journey (2019), made respectively by Scott Barley, Kaspar Peters and Daniel & Clara. Considering these films together, a supernatural element is evident. Perpetual mizzle clouds the Neolithic remains of Avebury and Silbury Hill in Notes From A Journey, and Nordic Grammar and Sleep Has Her House are swept away by apocalyptic storms. To put it another way, all three films depend upon constructed, supra-natural weather events to tell a narrative. As an aside, I have always been perplexed when people describe Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her House as non-narrative. For me it is strikingly consecutive: a storm broods on the horizon, then breaks upon the mountains and eventually clears. And this breaking storm is conjured through choice moments of nature that are stitched together in edit and sound design. The ephemeral qualities of the weather, that particular colour of sunset upon Silbury Hill in Notes From A Journey, or the special howl of wind in Nordic Grammar, or Barley’s swaying pine trees, were captured from reality and then reinterpreted by artistic vision into distinct ideas. For Notes From A Journey the haze or moisture becomes a symbol of the uncanny, in Nordic Grammar the storm is a psychological extension of the protagonist’s cultural dissolution and rootlessness, while Barley’s tempest might symbolise the final destruction, but also recapitulation through the embodied spectator, of the anthropocene.
These symbolic and metaphoric readings do not, however, account for the power of those three special fragments of burning pinewoods, high seas and fogged windowpanes. Each is an example not of the artist’s agency, but the anterior agency of weather. Notes From A Journey knowingly opens itself to the singular, chaotic invasions of weather by keeping close to the journal or diary format. Each entry is an irreproducible instance of time when light, moisture and wind fill a landscape just so, and make the same static Avebury of standing stones different again and again. The glaucous evening and sickly grass might render ideas and metaphors but only after their precise colours and densities are observed, and once we have exhausted the possibilities of meaning we return again to the mystery of the materials with which these thoughts were formed. The uncanny in Notes From A Journey, then, can be found not in the mythic standing stones but in the constant dance between Daniel & Clara’s imaginings and the resilient agency of weather. What the artists might hope to find is not quite seen because the mist is too thick, or the sun too bright. Exemplary of this to and fro is that opaque window where beads of moisture run briefly translucent. Daniel & Clara are breathing in that room with their camera, and their breath condenses against the cold panel of glass where frozen morning presses outside: cinema as window must constantly negotiate that divide between intention and chance, between matter and idea.
In the case of Sleep Has Her House, Scott Barley’s technique of collage brings together footage shot months apart and layers it like a palimpsest in the single frame. So he constructs his storm. A fire, perhaps a humble fire built in a grate, burns through an image of pine trees swaying in the wind. Together they approximate an idea of conflagration. Yet despite the approximation, the two sources remain resolutely separate. This is why Scott Barley can show the shot for only an instance. Kept longer and the storm would fracture under the pressure of the collage.
Kaspar Peters’ storm in Nordic Grammar is rendered as a map, and then a map aflame, and then a set of waves blown into white crests. But we have seen those waves before. Their precise shape is instantly recognisable. Earlier in the narrative a solitary woman observed this rough sea as she journeyed to Iceland on a ferry. Our mind wanders into the past and the chronology of fiction stutters to a standstill. The reality of those waves has not only overwhelmed the narrative, it has destroyed and reemphasised the cinematic quest to manipulate the real.
Why am I fascinated by these moments where the design of the filmmaker fails under the pressure of reality? It is not because I think the films are failures (in fact I think the films are richer for these faults) but because landscape has been made singular. Meteorology, as the irreproducible coincidence of matter, movement and duration, turns landscape into event where an endless play of consequence occurs. Our three films are testament to this and they function and fail according to the coincidence or conflict between their world vision and the world itself. This idea cascades through the rest of the SFF 2019 selection. In The Sky On Location (1982), Babette Mangolte ruminates over the transience of landscape. She witnesses a dance between the history of representation, the politics of place, the shapes of land and the durations of seasons and days. Meltse Van Coillie’s elephantfish (2018) is as much about the perpetual reshaping of the flat horizon line by sea vapours as it is about the dream generator of cinema. Bartosz Reetz’ The Stop (2018) reaches profounder levels for the shift (was it planned or was it chance?) from the sunlight of adolescence to city mists.
Four months on from the third edition of the Slow Film Festival, then, I claim we programmed weather films and not landscape films. There is nothing revolutionary in this distinction, but the emphasis is useful, if only to highlight that constant oscillation between agency and contingency and to rethink the function of landscape within cinema. We are already preparing for the next edition of the Slow Film Festival and I look forward to the 2020 programming process, but I also eagerly anticipate that post-festival period where the unintentional themes of the festival will emerge. Reflecting upon weather I also think again about our decision to change from a summer to an autumn festival. Somewhere there is a recording of a 2018 Q&A with filmmaker Jonas Bak and in the background a fat yellow light slides like butter over the fields. For 2019 we walked along muddy footpaths with an entirely different yellow, more like an anaemic Walkers crisp, glued to the sky. I wonder what weather conditions we will have for the 24th and 25th of October 2020. I must remember to get blankets for the Concert Hall, and discuss heating options with the other venues, but for all I know we will have an Indian Summer this year.
Peter Treherne is an experimental filmmaker and moving image artist, and director of the Slow Film Festival.
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