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 My chest of photos and my outdated floppy disks come to mind.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.