Archive for The Bells

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: When Buster Met Boris

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on October 23, 2011 by dcairns

Screened Keaton’s THE GENERAL for students, along with clips of Chaplin, Lloyd, Langdon, Charley Bowers and of course good old Raymond Griffith. And this time, projecting my Kino DVD on the big screen, I noticed something new –

That’s Boris frickin’ Karloff there, as a northern general! Front left.

I’m not the first to spot this: the IMDb has him down as “unconfirmed”, but after watching him carefully, I was pretty much convinced. Not only does the northern general have Boris Karloff’s face, but at one point he makes a Boris Karloff face. You know, one of those faces Boris makes when he’s acting. He has several.

That makes THE GENERAL the 11th film Boris made in 1926, including also THE BELLS, where he’s a sinister mesmerist. I find it apt that the great monster makes his one noted appearance in a silent comedy burning the hero’s elbow with a cigar.

Louise Brooks noted that one shot of Buster hiding under the table in this scene was so beautiful it took her breath away. She lost the ability to laugh for a good ten minutes, so awe-struck was she. “Why didn’t he cut the shot?” she wondered. But in fact, as Richard Lester pointed out, what makes THE GENERAL “a masterpiece of economy” is that you can’t remove a single shot without the sequence collapsing, nor a sequence without the story collapsing. What this means, of course, is that if a single shot had failed, Keaton would have no film. But then, he was working in an age when, if a shot didn’t come out right, you could just go back and do it again: everybody was under contract, so all it would cost you is raw stock and petrol.

Unless you want to do something like THIS –

Intertitle of the Week: The Decalcomaniac

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2009 by dcairns

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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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