From Malick to Barley: My Journey With ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘Sleep Has Her House’

As far back as 1986, I was aware of the profound impact that the art of cinema had on me. As a child with cerebral palsy, stumbling around on two leg braces, it was hard to find my footing in a world that I hadn’t yet begun to understand. But one thing that I did understand was that the darkened room in the library and the flickering images cast onto a tattered screen from a worn out projector transported me. I felt safe and comforted. One afternoon, a screening of Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon and Tom Davenport’s Hansel and Gretel: An Appalachian Version planted the seeds of passion in me that would ultimately bloom into an unapologetic love of cinema.

As I grew older, my taste evolved. I discovered world cinema and indie film on Bravo, back before “Real Housewives” stole that particular channels integrity. I would go to school and struggle, the victim of ceaseless bullying and ridicule, and I stopped applying myself academically. I looked forward to the glow of the television and the escape that it provided. I also knew that film was what I wanted to do in life. It consumed me. I would hear a piece of classical music, and I would create movie scenes in my head. My thought life became entirely cinematic. I began to write short stories as a way of getting these thoughts out. A few years later, my teacher, Linda Holder, suggested that I write film reviews for the school paper. By doing so, she had handed me the key to a whole other world. I did that for a time before I graduated, but it left an imprint on me. I knew that I loved writing about movies, but most importantly, I wanted to make them. My life had a purpose. This was my goal. I decided then and there that I would stubbornly adhere to that goal. But I would face many obstacles before then.

The Tree of Life

Fast forward to 2011. So much had transpired. College, an internship at a film production company, an intense and lifelong battle with depression that had worsened, and in the midst of it all, a spiritual deconstruction and a gradual separation from the church community that I grew up in. I was learning to unpack the poisonous theological ideas that the evangelical church had poured into me throughout my life. They were hindering my progress and my will to live, so they had to go. But it was hell. These things were suffocating me despite my efforts to snuff them out, and I didn’t want to live anymore. I was crying out to God, and I felt his silence. I finally told God that if he wanted me, he knew where to find me.

And on one particular day, during a screening of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, he found me.

I went with my mentor at the time, Christopher Rose. Chris and I share an obsession with Rainer Maria Rilke and art cinema, and we had really been looking forward to this film. The lights go down, the film begins. I’m being bombarded with this beautiful collage, an ethereal tapestry of music, words and images, and it is speaking directly to the center of my soul. The journey of this kid, caught in the battle of nature versus grace, speaking to God out loud, admonishing Him, asking the scary questions that we all ask our makers. Seeing God respond to a mother’s cry of grief with images of creation, evolution, destruction, and reconstruction over the strains of “Lacrimosa” — God saw me during all of it. As Chris and I wept during the epilogue of The Tree of Life – which presents a vision of the world renewed, the past and present flowing and colliding into one another, redemption abounding, waves crashing, water cascading down glorious mountains into an all-encompassing literal ocean of grace – it was more than I could bear, and yet I couldn’t get enough.

I knew then that I wanted to live. I knew that a work of art had literally saved my life. All suicidal ideations left my mind for a time, and though they would return later, I found new ways of coping with them. During its run at Hollywood 20 in Greenville, SC, I saw the film seven times. God met me in my church, and my true church has always been the cinema.

Sleep Has Her House

In 2017, I connected with filmmaker, Scott Barley, on social media. A prominent figure in the experimental film and slow cinema movement, I’d heard about his work through film sites and other film-related pages, but I had never experienced any of it for myself. Around the time, I started seeing the poster art for this feature-length debut, Sleep Has Her House. The image on the poster intrigued me immediately with its hazy rustic aesthetic, and one night, I rented the film from his website.

The film begins with a title card which demands that you turn your volume up and watch the film in “complete darkness”. I hastily get up to shut out the lights and crank up my sound bar. I settle in, sort of afraid of what I’m about to see, but in a good way.

The first shot of the film is of two horses standing in what looks, to my eyes, like the middle of a field in the dead of night. The image is covered in swaths of thick grain that give a sense of the uncanny to everything that you see on the screen. The digital grain takes on a life of its own. It instantly becomes an integral part of this otherworld that Scott has created. In fact, words like “digital” become immaterial in the sense that everything that you are seeing seems organic in the context of this work of art. The film was shot completely on a dated iPhone, but your mind is not making that distinction as you watch the film. You’re not aware of how the film was shot and on what device. It’s as if the film was born from the very fabric of the earth. Every element of this film is exactly as it should be. If you were to apply DNR to the film, it would have no soul. It is an unfortunate habit of those of us in the film community to pick apart a film as we are watching it. As Sleep Has Her House was unfolding in front of me, this was the last thing that consumed my mind. I had already been transported.

And then I was hit with the second title card:

The shadows of screams climb beyond the hills.
It has happened before.
But this will be the last time.
The last few sense it, withdrawing deep into the forest.
They cry out into the black, as the shadows pass away, into the ground.

With these enigmatic words that burrowed into my psyche the minute that I read them, Scott sent me on a journey into the unknown – a statement which sounds like a huge cliche until you actually experience the film. As the film proceeds, the world is presented to us anew in all of its beauty, horror, and mystery – the grain dancing around the images, infusing them, distorting them.

These images are alive.

Scott’s process involves a good bit of layering and superimposition – images upon images upon images, mixed media turned in on itself, the unknowable made manifest right before our eyes in a tormented arrangement of ones and zeroes. Yes, that is a waterfall in a five minute static shot, but it’s so much more than that. As the series of images pass before our eyes, the world seems familiar, yet alien. We linger on a river during sunset, the night sky covered in stars, the depths of the forest where we can make out the carcass of a deer, and perhaps we see an owl. Each static shot tethers us to these frames for a prolonged period of time, and they are at once beautiful and absolutely terrifying. In the back of my mind, I keep thinking of these words: “The shadows of screams climb beyond the hills. It has happened before. But this will be the last time…”

The shadows of screams.

They pass away.

Into the ground.

Those words spinning around in my head, words that have found their way into every bit of dancing grain on the screen, permeating these moving pictures. I can’t move. The sun is setting over the river. A long moment of darkness. And then the lightening on the horizon. It dances across the sky in momentary flashes for a time, illuminating the surrounding area. And then, all hell breaks loose.

It’s one of the most iconic storm sequences in the history of cinema.

It starts slowly before it builds into a terrifying frenzy of wind, rain, and lastly, fire. The world is set ablaze. It feels as though the earth is going to split wide open and swallow everything whole. The intensity is almost unbearable. My heart rate increases. I’m nearly in a panic. The storm rages on and on. Scott’s camera is relentlessly committed to capturing this distressing fit of Mother Nature in its entirety. The trees in the forest bend and sway under the submission of the forceful winds. I’m sitting here wondering how is this even possible? How did Scott survive this? This tempest goes on for several minutes. I’m very aware of how I’m feeling at the moment. I’m watching this film during a period of depression, and I’m thinking that the storm in my head is nothing compared to the storm on the screen right now.

Finally, lightening strikes a tree, which is engulfed in flames on the instant.

And then, the calm before the strobe.

The finale of Sleep Has Her House consists of a unique strobe effect in the middle of what seems to be a black hole. Scott’s gorgeous drone guides us through this portal, and if you give in to it, you will actually get the sensation of weightlessness, like your entire self is being pulled towards and into the screen. Right as it lulls you into a trance, the film ends. We cut to black. I’ve got tears in my eyes. I haven’t merely watched a film, I’ve had a life-altering experience. I’m a different person than I was ninety glorious minutes ago.

The next day, I sent Scott a voice message in his Facebook inbox. I thanked him for his creation, trying my best to encourage him to keep making films. Telling him that Sleep Has Her House is truly one of the best films that I have ever seen, and thanking him again. To my surprise, he responded shortly thereafter. What began after that was a lovely correspondence. We’d message one another back and forth, talking about art, cinema, music, and life. I became comfortable with Scott, who I soon realized was one of the kindest and gentlest humans that I’d ever met.

One evening, the depression was so bad that I could barely get through the day. I had been preparing to shoot my first feature film, The Awakening of Lilith, and I had become overwhelmed. Scott and I had been messaging, and I told him about my struggle. I felt it was okay to open up. Something told me that it was fine, and so I let it all out. Scott’s response is one that I have never forgotten. I have saved the voice message and have returned to it time and time again. Scott said this to me:

“My mother always used to say to me, ‘When in hell, keep on walking’. And it seems like such a simple thing to say but it is just so true. Because there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just that some tunnels are longer than others. I’ve always believed that true art is about taking your inner chaos, your inner pain, and rearranging it into something beautiful – almost as if each flower was a vessel of pain, and you arrange it in a vase or in a beautiful garden, and that is your expression of that pain. And I think you’re doing that with your own work. You just need to let that garden grow and continue to flourish. Let the sun in. Water it, feed it. And don’t be afraid of feeling down. You know, everybody does. Just feel it, and channel it into all the great things that you’re doing.”

Scott’s film and the words that he spoke into my life that day became part of the foundation that has kept me going since 2011, when Malick made his own unique impact on my life and on my art. Only I can’t reach out to Malick. I would if I could, but I can’t. In Scott Barley, I have found a brother. Someone who crafted this beautiful piece that shook me and gave me hope, who became a part of my life and one of the closest individuals in my circle of friends. I consider Scott to be family. Whether he knows it or not, the power of his work cannot be denied. The same could be said for his short films – Womb and Hinterlands, in particular.

Scott is currently working on his second feature film entitled, The Sea Behind Her Head. It is number one on my list of most anticipated films. Terrence Malick is working on his next feature, The Way of the Wind, with no release date in sight, as of yet.

In 2021, I finally completed my first feature film, The Awakening of Lilith, which I feel was a miraculous culmination of my entire journey with cinema up to this point. I set the goal long ago, and with the love and heartfelt generosity of both my biological and adopted film family, I was able to accomplish it. The Awakening of Lilith is a labor of love. It is a film born from my struggles with darkness and grief, and it is also a testament to my healing. Healing that would not have been possible without my god, my family, the cinema of Terrence Malick, and my friend and brother, Scott.

When in hell, keep on walking.

The Tree of Life is available to buy and/or rent from all major streaming services and retailers. You can purchase the digital copy of Sleep Has Her House here at ScottBarley.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s