Intertitle of the Week: The Decalcomaniac

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This image comes from THE MESMERIST, a short film by Bill “DECASIA” Morrison, which takes a sequence from a silent film, THE BELLS, and isolates it, slowing it down to allow us to appreciate the terrifying beauty of the nitrate decomposition that’s eating the print alive. Imagine that white flicking and sparking all over the frame, while the image itself warps and billows as if projected on a sheet somebody’s pummeling from behind.

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Fortunately, better prints of THE BELLS exist, so I’ll be able to check out this early appearance by Boris Karloff as a Caligari-esque fairground hypnotist. It’s his first vaguely horror-movie role. I’m also interested because the film is based on a story by Erckman and Chatrian, whose work I researched when I was making my movie CLARIMONDE, which was based on a story by Hanns Heinz Ewers, but also drew on related work by Theophile Gautier and the writing team of E & C, who were a sort of conjoined latterday ETA Hoffman, only not so brilliant.

Morrison’s other film from THE BELLS is called LIGHT IS CALLING, and it’s even lovelier and more tragic.

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I was wondering what these images reminded me of — experimental films send my thoughts flitting about, whereas narrative works tether my brain to the unfolding events — and I thought of Max Ernst’s painting Europe After the Rain, a sort of apocalyptic vista of psychedelic distortion, created by a technique Ernst called decalcomania: you’ve probably used the approach at nursery school without hearing the big word. Simply paint one sheet of paper thickly with different hues, press another on top of it, then peel them apart, to create beautiful abstract patterns.

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And of course, that’s how Morrison’s work is created too. As the nitrate stock deteriorates, the surface turns to jam, and the whole reel gets gummed up. As the film is unspooled, the celluloid strips aways from itself, exactly like those sheets of paper when you were four, and with similar results. THE BELLS peeled.

The way the sepia tinting oozes like marmalade and assumes myriad hues made me think of a print by Turner of ships at sea that hung framed in our house when I was a kid, a golden mist through which shapes loomed in abstracted outline. Equally, I was reminded of Andres Serrano’s ludicrously controversial work, Piss Christ, in which an image of the Crucifixion glows dimly through obscuring golden clouds of urine.

I also thought of Ralph Steadman’s Paranoids, Polaroid images mutilated with a blunt instrument as the image is still developing, squashing and stretching facial features to turn likenesses into unlikenesses, actualité caricatures. I was never able to get that to work, although I did  have my Polaroid taken by a ghost once. Beat that, Steadman.

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4 Responses to “Intertitle of the Week: The Decalcomaniac”

  1. What puzzles me is this: how does one project images when the matter from which they come is turning to marmalade? Wouldn’t this gummy mass gum up the works inside the projector? The images you’ve chosen look as though they’ve been made with encaustic, melted wax mixed with pigment. That said, they look ravishing, the last image is incredible, just out of this world, truly.

  2. The answer is, they DO gum up the works. When a bunch of Buster Keaton films were rescued by Raymond Rohauer, he took them to get them transferred and one of them was so badly decayed it wrecked the equipment.

    Maybe after a while the stuff hardens again, or maybe you can dry it out before you transfer it. But waiting around is risky because when the stuff’s unhealthy it can combust, or just crumble to dust. “Nitrate won’t wait,” as the archivists say.

    Recommend these movies, or Decasia, strongly. There’s something at once beautiful, sad, and frightening about the images. I have a VHS of a badly damaged, incomplete print of a Clara Bow-Dorothy Arzner comedy, and it’s quite distressing when, in the middle of a romantic scene, strange globules invade and eat Buddy Rogers’ face.

  3. Those are interesting photos, my wife and myself have been in the antique businessmand we come across may photos behind glass that when exposed to moisture also make some pretty interesting patterns on the photos.

  4. Cool! Nature is the best abstract artist.

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