Going Underground: Celluloid in the Digital Age
By Keva York
Well-dressed individuals sit in a theatre, chatting amongst themselves, seemingly oblivious to a patchy white expanse shimmying across the frame, rapidly expanding and contracting, intermittently whiting out the visages of certain audience members. The image, 100 years old, has been corrupted by time; the milky spectre an a posteriori infection of the celluloid.
In Dawson City: Frozen Time, filmmaker Bill Morrison takes as his raw materials a horde of 500 or so silent era films that lay buried in Yukon ice for 50 years, lost to the world until being uncovered by a construction worker in 1978. From this mass of film, in tandem with archival footage and photographs, Morrison assembles two intertwined historical narratives: that of fin-de-siècle Dawson City – the former heart of the Klondike Gold Rush, and the almost-final resting place of those film reels – and that of the birth of cinema. The startling tale of loss and discovery that underpins Dawson City serves as a reminder that a reel of film is not just the series of images one sees projected on a screen, but an artefact; a time capsule.
Celluloid again figures as a kind of buried treasure in Niles Atallah’s Rey (MIFF 2017). The film is based on the obscure (and thoroughly Herzogian) tale of Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, a French lawyer who travelled to remote Chile in the mid-nineteenth century, where he may or may not have united thousands of the native Mapuche and been crowned King of Araucania and Patagonia. Shooting on a combination of Super-8, 16mm, and 35mm, Atallah then buried certain reels in his backyard, leaving them there to deteriorate over the course of the next few years. This damaged footage is interpolated into the film, working in tandem with the variety of stocks to create a richly patinated bricolage, reminiscent of Guy Maddin’s textural experimentations.
Both Dawson City and Rey might be considered as examples of underground cinema, in a literal sense: in each case, film was buried and unearthed, in order that it might be reanimated, Lazarus-like. Of course, celluloid is now itself an underground medium, figuratively speaking – a suddenly boutique format, and an expensive one at that, its use reserved for special occasions. As digital capture and projection technologies continue to reshape film – the medium and the industry – in their own image, celluloid becomes freighted with a special poignancy, endemic to endangered species of any kind.
The decline of celluloid as a means of production and projection has opened a space (in the critical sphere as well as amongst filmmakers) for a re-articulation of its essential properties: an affirmation of medium specificity.
From around the turn of the century, the term “film” has operated at an increasing distance from its original referent. Today, it is essentially a metaphor, having been almost entirely divorced from the material from which its name derives. The decline of celluloid as a means of production and projection has opened a space (in the critical sphere as well as amongst filmmakers) for a re-articulation of its essential properties: an affirmation of medium specificity. In Dawson City and in Rey, this manifests as an engagement with the sheer physicality of celluloid: its status as object, in addition to the way in which the projected frame bears the indexical traces of the film stock’s condition; its grain.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)
In Rey, Atallah places the materiality of film in service of his narrative, using the variance in the quality of the stock as a means of representing the vulnerability and mutability of memory. “Time and neglect have eroded the memory of this man,” reads an opening title card – most obviously in reference to the disappearance of de Tounen’s exploits from the annals of history. This erosion is rendered literal in the intermittent irruption of the celluloid; the combination of different gauges of film suggestive of a cobbled-together narrative, provisional rather than definitive. This title card can be understood on two levels, however: it speaks equally to the erosion of de Tounens’ mind – his own memory.
The narrative unfolds largely in flashbacks, as de Tounens defends his title to the Chilean officials who have captured him and put him on trial for high treason. His account of his journey to meet a Mapuche chief, along with his guide, Rosales, is accompanied by rather idyllic shots of them traversing the lush terrain on horseback. The colour palette is cool and soft; the ambiance, serene. When Rosales is brought in to testify, however, his story deviates in parts from that of de Tounens: events are replayed but inflected by difference, and 16mm is used in place of the 35mm treatment his employer’s version received. Instability creeps into the narrative, underscored by the change in film grain.
It becomes clear that the only kingdom over which De Tounen has dominion is the one that exists in his memory, which is as eroded as the celluloid upon which his tale is imprinted.
The flashback sequences that illustrate his testimony are increasingly beset with visual aberrancies, suggestive of a malfunctioning subjectivity. When de Tounens tells of being elected as King by the Mapuche, the accompanying footage – of him addressing his would-be ministers – is marked by electric-hued streaks and pocks, the image itself washed out. The frame intermittently freezes. The audio buzzes harshly. Mouldy splotches of lavender and brown engulf the mise en scène, abstraction threatening to obliterate the narrative. It becomes clear that the only kingdom over which De Tounen has dominion is the one that exists in his memory, which is as eroded as the celluloid upon which his tale is imprinted.
Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002)
Like Rey, and like Dawson City, Morrison’s best known feature Decasia is a celebration of the physicality of film. However, where Dawson City investigates an instance of accidental preservation, Morrison’s engagement with the medium in this earlier work is more in line with Rey, insofar as it is concerned with the inevitability of decay. Released in 2002 – right around the beginning of the end for 35mm – Decasia is composed of damaged and degraded fragments of numerous films from the first half of the twentieth century, (ironically) strung together in a loose creation narrative. The rotting emulsion produced in these films an array of surprising, psychedelic distortions: Morrison recognised that these distortions generated new narratives, even as the old ones perished. In Decasia, the marks of decay register as both meaningful presence and obfuscating lack – the materiality of film most tangible in the spectacle of its deterioration, the medium coming alive as it is buried, whether in the ground or in history.
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