“The Sky Turns”

The Sky Turns is a 2003 documentary film by Mercedes Alvarez. The director revisits Aldealseñor in northern Spain, the village of her birth 30 years before, reduced now to 14 elderly residents. Alvarez’s well-crafted film places the village into the grand context of time, history, seasons and cycles. The countryside still reveals the relics of dinosaurs; it was the historic seat of ancient Numancia, where the Celtiberians resisted the Roman invaders until the end; the medieval castle was built by Arabs; technology and poverty left the village virtually abandoned save for the hearty few, including tenacious shepherds, but returns its ugly face in the erection of gigantic windmills to blot the hilltop vistas and speed electricity to the far-away cities.

A painter losing his eyesight is Alvarez’s metaphor for not just the village but for life itself. Each resident has become what the Spanish writer Azorin called the filosofo pequeño, the small, or humble philosopher, reflecting on life with a mix of stoicism and Unamuno’s tragic sense. They never speak loudly, never argue, are never in a hurry. They sun themselves in the plaza, where a 500-year old oak tree died, and itemize who still or no longer delivers food to the village: the bread man, the produce man, the fishmonger. A young couple drives their little car into the village square long enough to plaster posters for the upcoming election, music blaring discordantly from their rooftop speakers, and then zoom off, the silence palpably restored. A professor leads a tour group among the ruins of Roman villas, describing the history of the Celtiberians of Numancia. A hillside shepherd who seldom comes down to the village tells a companion that he was born among his flock and will die alone with it. The painter matter-of-factually studies the sky and the village landscapes with the aid of others’ eyes and a telescope’s lens of his own. The handful of men who are most closely followed by Alvarez look up at the night sky and reflect how for thousands of years people have stared at the same moon and stars.

The viewer appreciates the evocative images and stoic reportage of the filmmaker, neither sentimental nor giving in to sentiments of progress, hope, or social criticism. The sense of cycles is enhanced by scenes of spring flowers in fields, clear skies and green fields of summer with crickets chirping and winds blowing about, of autumn with heavy rains, darkening skies, and leafless tree, of winter snow, fireplaces, and echoing rooms casting dark shadows.

Juxtaposition reveals the sense of time: the old men tending the graveyard converse reflectively on how they thought they would be there long ago; dinosaur fossils and the projection of an imagined dinosaur is followed by gigantic modern cranes scarring the landscape to erect the menacing windmills; refurbishing of the ancient castle and tower as a tourist hotel, with the villagers remarking that it is for the rich, that no one will want to go there, and that a bathroom for each guestroom is excessive. At the film’s end, the painter works on a canvas for what may be his final painting, which is the final scene of the film.

Throughout the film, the sky turns, the wind in the clouds remains ubiquitous, and gives the film its structural metaphor. A hushed, reflective pace leads the viewer from scene to scene, negotiated by the seasons, like a set of tableau in a museum, except that the museum, however small, is a microcosm for life, for aesthetics, for the natural course of things.

An accompanying short film can be viewed before or after the feature. “Five Elements for a Universe: Ideas bout Landscape” helpfully reveals (or confirms, if viewed after the feature) some of the filmmaker’s aesthetic principles. The five elements are:

  1. “Something called ‘place’.”
    Cities all look alike, but the landscape of the countryside is the universe, a universe.
  2. “Things come from afar.”
    Memory, language, name, signs, all come from somewhere else. Even inhabitants, visitors, come from elsewhere. Living things walked here, and still do, and the landscape is eminently walkable, and can only be known by walking it.
  3. “Time always returns.”
    Leafless trees in fog, geese crying out, a lone dog barking, the wind blowing — all signs of autumn entering winter. But then spring returns, sunlight and birds, green fields and sunny brightness. Everything returns; it doesn’t go away, it just starts over. Everything is a beginning. “There is no progress; there is no history.” Only metamorphosis, transformation.
  4. “Words.”
    Words always return, telling the stories that have already been told and will always be repeated. This section has few words, but is primarily compositions of especially eloquent photos of the area’s past, and evocative images of the camera gazing at the landscape, the sky, and capturing the sounds of nature.
  5. “Silence is necessary.”
    Words are spoken, with intended meaning, but the true interpretation belongs in the silence that surrounds the words and the land. “Only in cities is silence feared. No one could stand that the endless river of information, images, and sounds should stop. Silence is necessary. This place, this universe, surrounded by silence when we gaze at it, shows us its indifference in the face of our small and great tragedies. It doesn’t change its course. Only memory resists the silence of nature. As long as someone remembers, everything comes back again. But memory requires silence.”

A room of one’s own

Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay/lecture A Room of One’s Own expresses a hard truth for women: talented women aspiring to write require money and space — not merely to write fiction, as Woolf’s lecture addressed, but to write, communicate, and enter intellectual and professional circles. That was so in 1929, and the issues have not been resolved a near century later.

“A women must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” Woolf states at the very outset of her lecture, for her immediate concern is the writing of fiction. Her immediate concern, too, is women of substance, of comfortable class and means, those who can even dream of writing, for the right of property and the recent gaining of suffrage Woolf knew were not enough. The rest of the lecture is a somewhat ponderous exhortation to women to enter other professions, engage in social needs and turn back the obscurity of enveloped talents and contributions of those many women who are “Shakespeare’s sister,” equally capable as her male counterparts but forgotten and denigrated by a male-dominant society.

The premise is that the acquisition of a room of one’s own eventually fosters cultivation of creative solitude, as well described by Anthony Storr, for example. But in itself, some money and a room of one’s own only approximates what Philip Koch calls the first of five virtues of solitude, with only the fifth yielding creativity. The first virtue is freedom. Koch quotes Petrarch, who praised solitude and silence first for the “leisure and freedom” that solitude affords, regardless of our particular talents. Wolff may have addressed her audience in terms of creativity, but the physical and social circumstances of one’s life and society are what make the setting for potential creativity. They are a prerequisite, as is what Koch calls freedom, autonomy.

Storr notes that even the creative person loses some drive in renouncing solitude for relationship with others. The stereotype of a Balzac, Hugo, Beethoven, or Wittgenstein is that of the creative genius struggling alone with the muse of art or thought, alone in a room or hut, nurturing the impulses and straining at the discipline. Does not every acknowledgement in a work of fiction or scholarship invariably allude to time stolen from another, from house-holding spouse or children? But these are conventions of creativity. What is lost because of relationship ties or obligations can only be surmised. At the same time, they can be grossly exaggerated, for the creative genius is often in spite of relationships — including relationships with alcohol or drugs — not because of them. Solitude does not prescribe either genius or creativity, not proscribe love and companionship.

Titans of solitude are not necessarily monsters of ego, although those who pursue their creative genius may be more likely or become that way. The hermits of history are as creative as anyone but not as egos, not as one who sees money and a room of one’s own as a reward, as marks of worldly talent. The writer, artist, composer, crafts a life situation to cultivate not creativity but a daemon, a drive, a desire, a grand haunting urge from within — those of the modern age for half of the room/money image, that is, for the money. And the daemon is not kind.

Solitude does not make or foil creativity, though it can abet or frustrate it. The creative are talented people, but probably average people who perhaps eke out of solitude and silence a meaning for themselves. Woolf overlooks this class and psychological factor, being primarily concerned with just the one class dominating all discourse but not all ethics. This class gives opprobrium to all creative efforts other than its own, especially women’s. Today, when egalitarianism of expression is celebrated by society, when the logical results are the technological plethora of self-published as well as mainstream bestselling mediocrities, one wonders what further contrivances money and a room can spawn.

How much better to understand the privilege of a room of one’s own as an opportunity not necessarily for creativity or communication with a fellow person in the world but as an exploration of self and meaning in a mad world and an ethereal, evanescent universe. There need be no more creativity than mere self-development. No one need know one way or another what our room or cell is for. A desire based ultimately on instinct to survive can be channeled in many ways, including its dissipation. A room, a cell, a hut, or the self’s unconscious, is a dwelling place that makes no demand beyond contentment and wonder.

Shitou, the 8th-century Chinese Chan master, wrote:

In my grass hut there is no worldly treasure.
I eat and sleep naturally and with ease.
Reeds were new when I made the hut.
When it gets torn I repair it with reeds.
The one who lives in the hut doesn’t come out.
But he does not belong to inside or outside.
He doesn’t live where ordinary people live.
He doesn’t care for what ordinary people care about.
Though the hut is small, it contains the whole universe …