The Sky Turns

03/25/2012

Spain / 2004 / Spanish

Directed by Mercedes Álvarez

Still from 'The Sky Turns'The painter stands at his vacant canvas, in a studio in the city, mapping, with his fingertips, where the lines will go. He peers closely at a color palette, straining to discern the differences in pigment. It could be that this man painting a specific moment in time, inimitable and not to be replaced. Or perhaps he is rendering, across the canvas, the most elemental and immutable attributes of this scene, this landscape – which is to say, the camouflage of the Eternal that overlays its gray and wispy lines inherently.

For The Sky Turns, a documentary she directed and narrated, Mercedes Álvarez revisits, after an absence of many years, Aldealseñor, her natal town in Northern Spain. It is a place that would be on its way to becoming devoid of people altogether, with the graveyard having the only expanding residency. If not for the luxury hotels being planned, this historical place would become but a fading imprint. She watches the changing light, passing clouds, and elderly inhabitants of the town, revisiting her childhood there with a kind of mystified affinity that makes her hardly a visitor, and yet not a local. What we experience through her is all based in memory, which itself is an incarnation peculiar to the present.

“Something has disappeared or is going to appear,” she says, the camera looking deeply into the picture of two boys standing before a lake. The perspective is quite flat, so it is hard to tell if the water is far below them or if it extends outward to a horizon beyond the frame. Indeed, the lake could function as the sky, or at the very least its visibly evaporating source. Her hometown seems to always exist in that same sort of indistinct place, a slipstream of becoming, neither over nor fully begun.

Álvarez follows Azketa, an almost entirely blind artist, whose process (like the way he gets around the village) has become mainly tactile, as he creates a painting. It is fascinating to watch as he feels the dimensions of the canvas, recreating a landscape whose bounds he walks and knows by feeling, memory, and descriptions by his friends. In staccato brush strokes he renders the opaque cast, sfumato sky, and drained hues as though tracing out the topography of a dream, one so readily present that it fairly courses out through his fingertips.

Still from 'The Sky Turns'In some ways the place seems as suspended in time as her memories of it, but there is no denying that she is also perfectly suited for sensing its gradual decomposition. Like Gideon Koppel’s Sleep Furiously (2008), it paints a portrait of an aging community, but imbues it with a genuine and sympathetic vitality. This is a different kind of ethnography, one with an immeasurably personal connection, all its weight, sadness, and glimmers of spirit refracted through the filmmaker’s experience, past and present. Her visual connection is largely responsible for her choices in rendering the village – its spots of color, dancing and elapsing throughout the days, seasons, and centuries, are something she knows by heart. The path of the light onscreen seems more like her own recitation of it than a natural phenomenon.

The interviews, fragmented intimately (as conversations tend to be) show an innate connection to the people’s lives and thought processes. At the same time the filmmaker remains something of an outsider, separated by these people by the forces that brought her away in the first place and having grown up from across a gulf of time. In some ways this is reconciling the place with her memories of it, which, far from static, seem to have a life and evolution of their own. At the same time she is reconciling feelings from childhood with the inexorable motion of atrophy and death. This place of piled stones, a sort of collage to begin with, falls gradually and quietly back into the disorder of the Earth’s churning crust.

This could have been more of a personal travelogue through time, with photos and vivid recollections worked into it, but Álvarez quite deliberately stays away from those devices. The memories are particular to her, and she prefers to relate and recreate them mainly by way of present images of the place, and her experience of it after having returned. Because that is the reality, comprising these living pictures (and the silence invaded by the bleats or barks of animals), things both forgotten and longed for, the present dependent on echoes of the past but at the same time nothing beyond itself. The shafts of sunlight broaching the palace’s hallway, the swaying of bare branches, even the swish of wind turbines – solid things and part of the moment – cannot be projected backwards or forwards in time. Nor can the impressions of things – the bellow of the ancient Iberian horn or the shape of the cloud’s shadows on the grass – be caught in one place or time. Concrete and not concrete, fleeting and permanent – the place is composed of these things converging, only to separate out again into memory, like scattered marbles of glass.

She was the last person born in the village. The old woman, who was present at Álvarez’s birth, comes and goes from her house, a silhouette in fog or twilight. The memories, from when Álvarez lived there, seem frozen in certain moments or feelings, preserved and undiluted by her thirty year absence. The fog brings back memories of the day her family left. She works backwards from there, recalling the specific instances that arise effortlessly like spring-water from the locations where they occurred.

Still from 'The Sky Turns'“This, for me, is the strangest landscape in the world.” It was also the only landscape she saw for the first years of her life. The gently undulating scenery – squashed flat by a low and precarious sky, with the curious holm oak sprouting up from nowhere – is always remote, seen as the backdrop off in the distance, the way that Álvarez saw it from her childhood home. At the same time it is something very close, telescoped almost, the convergence-point of her emotional roots. Across a hillside that is at once shadow-draped and illuminated by bubbles of sunlight are the sharp, solid tones of an atmosphere rife with expectancy. The sky is a constant force; everything that happens on the land seems to begin with the sky. Interestingly the images work better overall not as a reflection on impermanence – a notion that could easily be divined from seemingly any available corner here – but the opposite, as echoes of what does last, what spirits or auras suffuse the brittle land and the people scattered throughout it.

The two elderly gravediggers’ discussion, where one of them recounts seeing the skull of his long-dead uncle, is a perfect meditation on mortality; there is only the slightest note of nostalgia in their voices as their conversation ambles from job logistics on to headstones and then to the nearby plum tree, but it is as touchingly unsentimental as one would expect them to be. One could not script better words for old men to be exchanging in the waning light of day, walking home from tending to the graveyard. They are just one example in this village of people dutifully tending to collective memory, keeping it safe and dignified under leaves. While there are no doubt points in history that many there feel are best forgotten, there is always a quaint reverence for the remains of times gone by, and everyone seems so intimately connected with their place that they all act as custodians of those who now lie buried.

There is a pertinent legend that appears in the film of how the people of Castallares were in constant fear of the sky falling on them. Perhaps that came about metaphorically from being occupied by Rome so long ago, threatened with violence, and displaced to nearby communities. In a convulsion this could all go away. Two men walk through the fields, ruminating on the destruction of the Celtiberian people, now just ruined stone cottages, and comparing it to nowadays, as the slow ruin brought on by modernity is once again turning the place forgotten. She talks about the town of Numancia “waiting to be buried” even as the Roman nobility built their villas. Perhaps her own village has been awaiting its own burial beneath the soil, even as lifetimes have elapsed in its fields, crossed by the inevitability of being upturned centuries later by a farmer’s plough. Even after the people have gone, moved away or passed on, the fragile curvature of the land is not safe to rest on its own; Álvarez keeps returning to the construction of wind turbines on the serene hills. In the face of Scipio’s strength, the people of Numancia burned their own city, killing themselves with it. While the same elective destruction would not be seen today, there does seem an air of resignation to being dissolved into the new terrains of progress. The turbines are hardly as imposing as Romans, but they hold all the eery gravitas and inevitability of an oncoming army.

There is a story concerning the ghost of a little girl who couldn’t laugh, residing in an old castle. Two old ladies walk through the dark, abandoned palace, discussing the legend and reminiscing about the heyday of the place. (The film has several such moments, by no means actualities, that nonetheless soak in the quiet rhythms of the town). The palace is possibly the crux around which the village developed, so it has a certain prehistoric aura as well as providing the lore that permeates the people’s’ consciousness. They have their own parables, no doubt thick with successive permutations, that act as conduits for both wisdom and whimsy. Embedded in the earth we see dinosaur footprints that an old woman describes as from “before the flood” (a bit of an understatement). They are part of her childhood; she used to play among them. Álvarez finds personal continuity with these old folks – even though she left the place at some point in her life, she also experienced childhood there, just as they did. And perhaps her father, were he not resting in the earth below them, would be among this pleasant, wistful group.

Still from 'The Sky Turns'We are guided across a field, which to Álvarez, is the act of passing through thousands of years, from shepherd’s huts of indeterminate age, to prehistoric foundations of human habitation, to spots where dinosaurs once dwelt. In her way of thinking about it, time is just that malleable, that one can traverse centuries as easily as ambling the length of a country road. However she acknowledges that the history housed therein, among the grass and ruins, is only as lasting as the minds of the people who hold onto it. Once they are gone, so is the history that extended within their purview, as it only remains present for those who can see it. It may be that Álvarez is an archaeologist of sorts, coming back and reviving things that only exist for people who want to see them. But at the same time it is bound up in personal experience, as the soil releases moments from her own life along with the stone artifacts from her predecessors.

Three elders discuss current politics (the allied invasion of Iraq), but history is compressed in their views, coming back to World War II and memories of Franco. Planes introduce their own clouds, thin and straight lines that hang in the air much longer than the cumulonimbi. A Moroccan shepherd stands, with his flock, by a stone hut once inhabited by Spanish peasants. He is part of a back-and-forth tide of migration and conquest that will ebb from Iberia just as it flows onto Africa, and then vice versa.

The growing darkness of the painter’s world is then compared to a great, dead elm, its branches long ago removed. Its life after death, which is to say its continuing presence, has been a process of becoming more open to the external world, deteriorating from the inside until it is a shell, appearing more like an igneous rock formation than a once-living organism. Like the outlines of ruins, it is a fortress that has been opened up to the elements. Perhaps the painter’s world is such an externalizing journey, as he works ever harder to form a picture of the outside world, to open up and devote his remaining senses, in a way giving them to nature.

The holm oak is variously a memory, a blemish, a meadow spectre, but never the mighty, ancient tree it no doubt is close up. An empty square echoes with the voices of people, crowds turning out to praise Franco, muted and kept by the passage of time, but somehow still there, as long as there are people who remember them. It can, in a manner of speaking, go no further than the places where the people fall and lay to rest. Just how eminent is that? So-called milestones are kept alive by mortal, imperfect people who can only turn over thoughts and memories in their minds as their bodies grow decrepit, and their houses become robed in lichen. The conquests, the palaces, the rallies, aren’t so great that their significance survives beyond its human keepers. The two old men trudge up the hill, reflecting on the transience of life. Their voices fade into the surrounding hum.

“Pello Azketa waited for the moment when things appear.” His art is dying within him, still present (like the dead elm) but with a narrowing outlet that will soon vanish. His business is waiting, measuring carefully. Like amidst lifting fog, the form and presence of things are revealed to someone, like Azketa or Álvarez, who are willing to study the process in its entirety. Some day, however, this landscape of childhood, maturity, and burial will have sublimated altogether, lost in the enveloping atmosphere that once announced the dawn.

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