Tuesday, December 9, 2008
The preservation and appreciation of old films is specifically tied to the concept of what's been forgotten. This is not just a nostalgic attempt to regain, or at least relive, some fading past that has been discarded by the modern Now. There seems to be a fetish to discover (sometimes literally unearth) some old or bitched-up reels of cast-aside films that were forgotten, discarded or abused. The more bitched up the better.
Physical decay asserts itself upon each showing of a film. Each run through a projector harms and leaves its traces on a print, subtly or catastrophically. These remnants of having lived a full projected life, these battle scars, are the marks of a survivor.
These ruined traces are evidence of films having been released and shipped to theatres, shown 3 or 6 times a day for who knows how many dozens or hundreds of patrons. These young and impressionable (perhaps) audience members will remember the films decades later when they encounter them on late night t.v. in their retirement. They may even remember a jarring cut, when two pieces had to be spliced together to repair an unknown previous break.
That edit will become part of the cultural memory. The analog remnant of that print's misfortune becomes encoded in hundreds of people for the next 50 years.
The age of new media has turned away from visible and unpredictable wear on its moving images. Spots and blemishes are erased and replaced by computerized tonal modularities (unless a retro-hip director wants to re-create an "old film" look by putting digital scratches on his music video). The suturing of image cut to image, the artifice creating a narrative foreground text and background texture, is more seamless than ever. Now we don't see the construction (or deconstruction) of the artifact before us - the dinosaurs and fake Humphreys are so believable we stop and mediate on the amazingness of the non-real materials ("materiel"). The virtual suture.
The "perfection" creates a cognitive dissonance more jarring and uncanny than any Hitchcock rear-projection or Eisenstein montage edit. There's something to be said for all the errors and scratches, the physical plasticness of film. It's mechanically produced and reproduced. The embodiment of realism defies its very nature.
It does not stand in witness to actual dinosaurs, poised for le plan americain. Film's an index to reality, not reality itself. The information contained between (yes between) the cut from long shot to close says more than Fincher's perfectly rendered 360 teacup-zooms.
A new (ironically) aesthetic has reappropriated the analog plastic surface of film in all its imperfections. Tarantino's and Rodriquez's "Grindhouse" not only embraces the low-tech production techniques of a fading industrial-corporate business model, it actually physically mars the surface of the film as a reverential remnant homage to the physicality of the prints as they took on wear and damage on their way to ruin.
Tarantino reportedly took his interpositive out to the parking lot and ran it behind a motorcycle. Rodriquez used the latest digital tools to create his damage.
The film as artistic object is what creates a transcendence. Films are artifacts from the past. Remainders. Further philosophical manifestations (or do I mean "physical mediations"?) of the decay of film are seen in Bill Morrison's "Decasia" (2002) and Peter Delpeut's "Lyrical Nitrate" (1991), two full-length compilations that take pieces of old decaying nitrate film and edit them together to create a new, aggressively atrophied narrative of ghost images related only by the sheer beauty of their photo-chemical deterioration of images, right before our eyes.
The ruin is fading evidence of another time, lost forever but suggested by broken and crumbling artifacts. Run through a machine that is in itself becoming obsolete. For an aging audience that will one day also be ruined and dust.