Originally published by Film International, June 2019.
Notes From a Journey is an engaging and transformative feature-length study of travel by filmmakers Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais. The film presents travel not as a mere change of scenery or a chance to sample the amusingly exotic, but as a way of getting to know a place deeply, through direct sensory experience, coupled with focussed attention. The film is based on a trip Fawcett and Pais made around the English countryside, especially to the sites of neolithic earthworks at Avebury. They reshaped the footage from the trip into a genre-defying form, part formal landscape study, part investigation into the nature of sensory experience, and partly a magical attempt, through the medium of video, to connect with neolithic people, and the spiritual forces which they channeled with their monumental re-sculpting of the landscape.
The film opens with footage of a stereotypically idyllic English countryside dotted with sheep, shot from the window of a moving car, but the filmmakers have amped up the colors, so that the green and gold of the hills and the red of the barns are glowing and vivid. Soon these images are replaced by ghostly landscapes of winter trees, barely discernible in palest gray, superimposed onto color fields, sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes pure black or pure white. These monochromatic images powerfully combine the muted affect of the the low contrast images with the highly charged energy which comes from the color. Thus, they produce the effect that something very quiet and subtle is a gateway to strong, powerful energies.
These ghostly images are paired with a soundtrack which likewise is muted and nuanced, often blending pulsating, minimalist music with ambient sounds such as footsteps or windshield wipers, and not necessarily related directly to the contents or editing rhythm of the images. As the changes in sounds couple and decouple from the changes in imagery, they heighten our awareness of sound, and its effect on our perception of images. When you listen to a crackling fire while looking at a puddle, you both see and hear more acutely than when the crackling is paired with the image of a fireplace.
Throughout the film, we see sequences of a man and a woman (the two filmmakers), usually in the darkened room of a hotel, tinted a deep blue. These almost static shots show them either staring into the the darkened room, listening to or watching the stillness of the night, or dreaming and meditating with their eyes closed.
We see the woman, lying on the bed in the dark and staring up at the ceiling. The room is so dark that, presumably, she sees the ceiling with the same shadowy, indistinct outlines that we have been seeing in the film’s monochromatic shots. Her focussed, silent attention, trained on stillness and nuance, mirrors the way that we are watching the film. The man, on the other hand, is shown lying in bed with his eyes closed, his focus inward. The relationship between these two journeys, the outward and the inward, is the focus of the film, but this subject is addressed poetically, wordlessly, indirectly.
Many sections emphasize the tactile: such as the rapid-fire barrages of still images, first of moss-covered rocks, then ivy, then twigs. We see the filmmakers’ hands, caressing and exploring an image of the sky, or the image of an old house and garden. The implication is that they make movies in order to give images the same immediate and tactile presence as a caress. They may be using their hands to sense the so-called “ley lines,” the underground currents of energy which align the earthworks. In one magical sequence, the man lies asleep, and the woman’s hand comes into the frame, gently touching his ear. The music swells, and the man’s eyes open wide. The human contact has awakened his sense of hearing, and connected his inner world to the world around him.
In the latter part of the film, this awakened hearing becomes increasingly important. The couple are shown with headphones, listening to a kind of crackling noise, like the cosmic background radiation. They take notes and mark maps as they listen; their investigation is closing in on the essence of the place. We see a night sky, crossed by meteors. The subject of their investigation is not just Avebury, but the site’s place, and their own place, in the larger universe.
An ancient mound and a stone circle become the center of their investigation. We see the mound, at night, accompanied by the utterly wild cry of an animal or perhaps a person in agony. We see the sun rising over the mound. The couple, having kept vigil through the night on their headphones, listening to both the stars and the wilderness, finally arrive at their breakthrough. The woman has been studying a collection of photos of the stones, and she arranges the pictures in a large circle on the bed. This is clearly an insight into their secrets, since this is how the stones are arranged in the earthwork itself. We hear a sound clip from the film Gone to Earth, a 1950 film which is about a woman who feels connected to England’s pagan roots. Wild flashes of light rapidly illuminate the landscape, as the hidden energy is finally unleashed.
In the film’s tranquil denouement, we see underwater shots of fish, swimming through a stream which is near the mound. It is as if the filmmakers’ investigation has given them the ability to see beyond the realm of the human, and enter into the realm of the fish. Their rapt attention, their close listening, watching, and touching, has given them access to new worlds. The film’s structure, with its slow pace, nearly invisible monochromatic images and whispered soundtrack, have given us the same opportunity to tune up our minds and our senses to the point where we, too, can make contact with hidden worlds. The frequent intervals of black frames or silence provide the viewer with the space for meditation and reflection. It’s a spectacularly sophisticated way to use the art of moving images to widen our consciousness and awareness, enabling us to connect with the places we visit on our own journeys in a much deeper way than merely staring out the window of a moving car.