Blog Post

Reflections on Morrison's Redefining the Object of Cinema: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Media Obsolescence

My ten-year old daughter Emma is watching a scene with me from Bill Morrison's short film What We Build. A symphony of sirens incessantly plays in the background as people navigate floods with brooms, rowboats, and horse-pulled carriages. Looking at a scene of a horse whose legs are disappearing in water, Emma turns to me and says, "That must be hard on the horses."

I thought to myself, well not only the horses but also the humans who were on the verge of losing what they had built. But Emma reminded me of how often we can view scenes from a singular and oftentimes human-centered perspective. When this footage was taken in the 1920s and 1930s, I wonder if anyone was thinking about the horses. Bill Morrison's "Redefining the Object of Cinema: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Media Obsolescence" got me thinking not only about the horses, but also about notions of loss and recovery, about media coming and going, and about rereading history from multiple vantage points.

Looking at and through the footage, I thought about the fragility of memories, some fading, others torn and all at risk of extinction. Practically, I think of the memories we store on media, as evidence, so to speak, of a past that is drifting away. My chest of photos and my outdated floppy disks come to mind. But so does my selective memory. Along with What We Build, Morrison offered two more films: The Mesmerist and The Film of Her, both of which grappled with recovering and uncovering the past. Like What We Build, these films remind readers that they are old and fragile.

At the start of The Mesmerist, we hear a pleasing instrumental and are told that the movie is a revision of Chadwick Pictures The Bells (1926), directed by James Young and adapted from Le Juif Polonaise, written by Alexandre Chatrian and Emile Erckmann. ("The Bells," by the way, can be found on YouTube in several parts.) The music is by Bill Frisell. And Bill Morrison directs the revision.

At the start of The Mesmerist, we see a man sleeping on a chair, a sepia image. The scene appears to be juxtaposed with another layer of film that shows movement. Sometimes this marking, this effect, looks like fingerprints, but it could be anything including aging. It is an intrusion and yet it is also a part of the story.

"Fair Day is Holiday in all the country round about," appear on the screen. We see a man with a top hat, the man who was sleeping when the film began. Following this are the words "The Mesmerist performs feats that would make the town wonder. --Boris Karloff."  An older more sinister man appears, the Mesmerist. The younger man, our protagonist, is in the crowd. The Mesmerist is doing his magic, lifting a hat off an overweight man's head, while the crowd laughs. He spins the man around. More laughter. And then the overweight man leaves in anger. The crowd is still laughing. Let me put you in a mesmeric sleep. I can make you tell any incident of your life, the Mesmerist says looking at our protagonist who is considering the request. The Mesmerist walks to him and says, "On the night of last Christmas, tell us what you did with the Polish Jew's body."

If in the second film, The Memory of Her, the emphasis is on remembering and preserving print film, the emphasis here is on the ways in which we choose to forgot. In The Mesmerist, the protagonist does not want to remember his sins. As the scene shifts, we learn how he murdered the Polish Jew after drinking with him. In a blue-screened storm, we hear the sound of drums and see dripping blood, an ax. A body is being dragged through the snow to a fire. But this memory, thanks to the Mesmerist and later to a fortuneteller, lives on and haunts him.

In the WAVE conversation Bill discussed how we "string together experiences from little snapshots that we take from moment to moment in order to create a reality we can live in." On some level, he continues, "we must do the same thing with history, find anecdotes that describe a reality. What I find intriguing about old forgotten footage is that much of it was not synthesized into our idea of an era."

I really appreciated these films as a meta-commentary on narrative renderings and how media, film in this case, does not only deliver the stoyr but is part of the story. Sometimes, the media artifact pulls us back to a story that was not in the forefront, whether it was the horses trekking through water or an awareness of a memory on its way to obsolescene.

65

2 comments

Patrick, this is beautiful! Have you ever seen Lyrical Nitrate, by Peter Delpeut? The entire film is comprised of fragments from nitrate film stock which was found in Jean Desmet's attic. He plays with speed and the clips themselves are from a wide variety of source materials -- the images begin to almost decompose over the course of the film. I've only seen it once, but it was extremely poetic and conscious of its own decay and inner contamination. When Bill says, we "string together experiences from little snapshots that we take from moment to moment in order to create a reality we can live in," this film really reflects that idea - an entirely new narrative and emotional space constructed of all these 'borrowed' fragments. The fragments, in turn, get a whole new life... 

I have to go back and read the Wave on this panel, but I'm also reminded by Derrida's Archive Fever, and the reminder that archive comes from both commencement and commandment. In the commencement of a new archive of things to be remembered, it is also the commandment that some things not be included - misremembered, forgotten, left behind, unarchived... well, until Google figures out a way, I suppose ;-P

Something in this panel is also striking me as relevant to the Tumblr and Ffffound phenomenon. This desire to gobble up, curate, orchestrate, reblog, cull, pull, sediment, juxtapose...all these endless images. Tumblr (or perhaps the cultural imperative that has made Tumblr and its ilk such a success) is like that old board game, the hungry hungry hippo, that just can't get enough images, re-curating them, re-blogging them, re-naming them, re-presenting them. But it strikes me that part of that imperative isn't just to relish in the interesting juxtapositions for the exact current moment, but with a strong drive to archive them in some appealing or appropriate or interesting manner. 

Thanks for your reflections on the panel. At this point, this is my comment on your reflection on the collective Wave on the video presentation on the films... well, we have our own little tumbleweed of thoughts!

100

Thanks Fiona for the good suggestions. I have not seen Lyrical Nitrate nor have I read Derrida's Archive Fever. I plan to get both.

You write, "But it strikes me that part of that imperative isn't just to relish in the interesting juxtapositions for the exact current moment, but with a strong drive to archive them in some appealing or appropriate or interesting manner." I agree. The drive to archive is not only (or should not only) be to make material accessible, searchable, etc. (all important goals), but also to recognize the inescapable politics and responsibility that accompany each representation. 

Happy Sunday and congratulations on a great conference. I love that I can go back to other sessions and conversations.  




 

 

79