Like a Dream that Vanishes
screened at a number of high-profile international festivals, bringing Barbara Sternberg renewed recognition. Like several other important Canadian avant-garde films –
such as Jack Chambers’ The Hart of London
(1970) and Philip Hoffman’s passing through/torn formations
(1987), for example –
it is a difficult work to sum up, offering neither a neat structure nor a single underlying idea. However, sections from an interview with the philosopher John Davies, shot the year before he died, provide a kind of conceptual anchor to which the film repeatedly returns. Davies speaks about the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume’s ideas on miracles and God, and about Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. His final words in the film could be taken as its credo: “The world isn’t a very tidy place. Nature is not very tidy –
it’s thought to be, but in fact, it’s pretty messy.”
Sternberg intercuts these interview fragments with fleeting images taken from everyday life — fall leaves, a teenager’s party, flowing water, children at a playground — all shot in the filmmaker’s characteristic handheld camera style. The imagery often shifts between clear representations and the materiality of the film plane, with flaring camera-roll ends and sections of pure colour and light.
What unites Sternberg’s disparate material is a concern with the temporality of all existence, a preoccupation not so much with death as with the fleetingness of every moment of experience. The themes of the film are closely tied to fundamental aspects of cinema: the image perpetually vanishes, only to be replaced, instantaneously, by another image.