“Sleep Furiously”, a luminous documentary with music by Aphex Twin about life in Trefeurig, a tiny Welsh farming village, opens tomorrow at the Cinema Village in New York. It derives its title from the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” that was composed by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 Syntactic Structures as an example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical. Since “Sleep Furiously” is an exercise in cinéma vérité (but one that contains elements of magical realism), you don’t have a narrator explaining at the outset what Chomsky’s words have to do with the film, but it is not hard to figure out that Trefeurig is a place where logical expectations of how rural folks behave is discarded and lovingly so.
Before we see anything on the screen in “Sleep Furiously”, we hear a clanging bell. After a moment or two, we see its origin: a man in an 18th century red uniform walking down a country road ringing a bell, for what purpose we do not really know and which is never explained. The image and the sound are sufficient to delight the audience, including someone like me who is rational-minded to a fault.
Soon afterwards, we find ourselves in the back of what we used to call a Bookmobile when I was growing up in my own tiny rural village in the fifties with the librarian-driver advising a borrower about which books are worth taking out but all in the Welsh language. The film is subtitled when the subjects speak Welsh but when they use English, a language that is encroaching irresistibly, it is almost as difficult to follow. The obsolescence of Welsh like just about everything in this quaint village is something that will leave nobody impoverished materially but the spiritual and psychological loss would be immeasurable.
If you have seen “Babe”, you will get an idea of the kind of community that “Sleep Furiously” celebrates. Like the hero of this fictional film that teaches his pig to herd sheep, the residents of Trefeurig are not the kinds of people to embrace modernity for its own sake. They too use dogs to herd sheep, just the way it has been done for centuries. While it is not as well-known as “Pig”, the Korean documentary “Old Partner” is another affectionate treatment of resistance to modernization, in this case a husband and wife farming team who continue to use an ox for plowing and transportation.
In one of the most memorable scenes in “Sleep Furiously”, a man stands at a street sign by a crossroads in the village, reciting his own poem about how the wind often blows the steel signs about, making them useless. When they were wooden, they resisted the wind, leading him to wish that someone would “plant a nice old wooden one, at least it could be trusted.”
Trefeurig is located in the same general area as the villages celebrated by Dylan Thomas who surely would have appreciated the poem about the untrustworthy steel sign. When I was an undergraduate, I used to love to read Dylan Thomas who was much more fashionable than he is today. I especially loved “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” that not only evokes the charm of places like Trefeurig but my own village in the Catskill Mountains. Lines like this still send shivers down my back:
Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
If these words move you, then do make a point of going to see “Sleep Furiously”.
For those who are outside of New York, I invite you to watch it at Fandor.com starting at 12am ET on July 29th for 24 hours along with the online exclusive companion featurette, A Sketchbook for the Library Van, also by director Gideon Koppel, who grew up in Trefeurig as the son of Jewish parents who sought refuge from Nazism in Wales. The companion film is about the traveling librarian I wrote about above.