Archive for Bill Morrison

The Sunday Intertitle: Your sins shall find you out

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2018 by dcairns

The reassuring smile of Boris Karloff

Weird coincidences. We have a great view of the moon from our front window, in the early evening. During the full moon, we had a double bill of John Carpenter’s THE FOG, which turned out to take place during the full moon, a fact we had forgotten (fun, and I hadn’t seen it since the days of my school film society) and PRINCE OF DARKNESS (not so hot), whose very first shot is the full moon.

Last night, looking for a spooky silent film to cull an intertitle from, I plumped for THE BELLS (James Young, 1926). Which turned out to have a much more disturbing contemporary relevance. I sort of thought I knew the story from having watched Bill Morrison’s THE MESMERIST, which is based around decayed fragments of the movie, but I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that the plot (by fantasy writers Erckman-Chatrian, a sort of second-string ETA Hoffmann), centres on the murder of a Jewish traveler. The film’s attempt to find sympathy for the guilt-tormented murderer played by Lionel Barrymore fell on somewhat deaf ears, since I was preoccupied with thoughts of the anti-semitic terror attack in Pittsburgh.

The film attempts to enlist compassion for Barrymore from the start, even though he’s attempting to ingratiate his way into political office by giving away free beer. When this leads his finances to a desperate state, he murders the traveler on New Year’s Eve in order to steal the money belt full of gold the guy rather injudiciously shows off. Now, Barrymore has been depicted explicitly as NOT anti-semitic, as he welcomes the traveler at his inn when others are more hostile. But that sort of kindness only goes so far. With my sensibilities perhaps heightened by the day’s tragic and horrible news story, I couldn’t escape feeling that while Barrymore doesn’t hate the Polish Jew for who he is, he is able to see his way to murdering the guy because he’s Not One Of Us.

So I’m afraid I couldn’t really get behind his quest for redemption.

But my, it’s a beautifully made movie. And features an early exploitation of Boris Karloff’s unique physiognomy. And Barrymore is good. There’s also an early iteration of that trick with filters made famous by Mamoulian in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (and also used in SHIT! THE OCTOPUS!), where Lady Macbeth-style phantom bloodstains appear and disappear on Lionel’s hands, all in one shot (revealed and concealed by a red filter. If you ever carried a Coke can into a dark room and watched half the design disappear when the red light made the red and white parts of the can look the same, you’ve seen this rather uncanny effect in action).

 

But a creeping discomfort about the film’s attitudes remains, and the intercession of a plaster Virgin doesn’t alleviate it.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Decasia Minor

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , on November 11, 2012 by dcairns

Nitrate decomposition, as seen in Bill Morrison’s beautiful THE MESMERIST, which is composed of clips, in various stages of decay, from THE BELLS, starring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff.

Here, it looks like the intertitle has been printed on a microscope slide, as if the text were a paramecium’s speech bubble.

Nitrate decomposition is much on  my mind, as we’re attempting to simulate it in my documentary, partly as a transitional device — we can have one shot melt into another — partly to blend together different kinds of footage (35mm from the teens, twenties, thirties and forties, digital video from the twenty-first century) — partly, if necessary, to censor some footage — so we have to look closely at what the footage is made of, in order to reconstruct it.

This particular film uses big white Rorschachian bubble-clusters quite a lot. When frozen, they sometimes have a crustacean shape to them, and their whiteness is that of the white whale, the colour of nature when everything else is stripped away.

Then there’s also the Jack Kirby anti-matter black frogspawn, which is pretty rare but always scary and exciting when it comes crawling into the frame, clustering on the actor’s faces as if to consume them like the neg-scratch monsters in THE FLESH EATERS. Some of this is a product of the decalcomania effect, Max Ernst’s name for what you get when you apply thick paint to a surface, squash it under another surface, then peel the two apart. The same thing happens to celluloid when the film loses its stability and the image turns to jam, squished together in a reel of film. Unreel the film and all these abstract patterns are created as the film peels away from itself.

The buckling and warping of the print causes mobile blurring of focus, since the film will wibble-wobble on its way through the projector, the distance between lamp and image changing irregularly. And then there’s the squash and stretch on the image itself, as it gets distorted, fun-house mirror fashion, by the shrinking and expansion of the film strip.

We’re less interested in fake scratches, which you see all the time in phony reconstructions, but we may deploy some awkward hot-splice jump cuts, with accompanying (but just out-of-synch) soundtrack glitches.

Nothing so beautiful happens when digital information decays, and in fact you very quickly get something that can’t be viewed at all. So it’s arguable that film is superior to digital, even when it goes wrong.

Citizens of Decasia

Posted in FILM with tags , , on February 17, 2010 by dcairns

Bill Morrison’s DECASIA is a wonderful thing, to me anyway — a kind of thaumaturgical travelogue of an unknown, unknowable kingdom, a melting world of nitrate decomposition. Morrison’s film, which belongs to that form which, perhaps fittingly, has no satisfactory name — call it avant-garde, experimental, non-narrative or abstract — and is composed of extracts from various silent-era films, both drama and documentary, which are in the advanced stages of decay.

Parts of DECASIA remind me of a strange, abstract nightmare I had recurrently as a child — some vast annihilating force was coming to destroy the world — it started at the top of our garden and rolled towards our house, engulfing or obliterating everything before it. But what was it? I woke in terror, but quite unable to identify the source of the fear.

Perhaps TIME? Perhaps these images fascinate because they are a photochemical analogue of our own eventual extinction?

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