Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Edge Of Cinema: Experimental Cinema Log #5 - Light is Calling

[After a month's hiatus, the continuing series focussing on snapshots of experimental cinema starts up again. Apologies for the time it took to get this up and running again, it's been a busy month].

LIGHT IS CALLING (Bill Morrison; USA; 2004)
[8 mins]

Light is Calling was released two years after Decasia, Morrison’s masterwork of recombined decaying film stock, and it can be considered as a capsule-sized appendage to the older film. Unlike the collation of assorted nitrate fragments that shape Decasia, Light is Calling is a decaying narrative composed entirely from the decaying stock of one film, James Young's The Bells, made in 1926.
Morrison sculpted not one but two films from a decaying copy of The Bells, having also made The Mesmerist a year earlier. Both of these films hone the issues of cinematic mortality that Decasia alluded to by zeroing in on one finite, singular decaying source and offering a positive and creative solution to the future decline of legible cinema by carving two narratives from the one text. Both films wear the hallmarks of the metaphors that circulate around archiving – mortality, the need to ameliorate instability and fragility, the hope of regeneration, the past's relation to the present.

Whereas The Mesmerist is a testament to the power of recombining previously used footage to create a new narrative, Light Is Calling is a furious, disorienting, swirling sea of bubbles, boils, fissures, and pockmarks. The Mesmerist has a sheen of decay that adds texture to the narrative, whereas Light Is Calling takes mortality to an extreme. There is so much obliteration of the image in this eight-minute film that it seems to suggest an imagining of cinema as already dead. The decay creates constant mist swirls, suggesting a haunted film, attempting to project itself from the archival grave. The title alone suggests as much – Light is Calling, as if the light of cinema is calling from its distant past.

What is fascinating about Light is Calling is how the decay becomes the central component not just of the film’s form but also of its narrative content. The decay helps to reinvent and revive the old film, concocting an entirely new narrative, and perhaps heralding the beginning of future decay-narratives. It becomes a character, a monstrous entity that pushes the story forward.

Through a miasmatic haze of constantly churning decay, a simple story occurs in fragmentary glimpses. A woman is trapped inside a morass of celluloidal mist, being constantly buffeted and pummeled by this sea of nitrate-decay. It is as if she is trying to survive the death of the film, like a drowning swimmer waving in the surf. Meanwhile, a group of cavalrymen search ceaselessly, travelling forested paths attempting both to find the woman and to find a way out of the decaying film. The leader of the cavalrymen finds the woman, and in a remarkable moment reaches into the boiling haze and pulls the woman out. They ride off together, decay-mist still surrounding and attacking them, to find a new life for themselves outside of their world of nitrate.

Thus, Light is Calling gauges a feeling of triumph rather than melancholy for the plight of decaying film. Rather than the doomed legacy that beholds the future of decaying nitrate film, Light is Calling shows it to be filled with potential for renewed, vigorous experimental beginnings, and thus this film is a clarion call for nitrate’s victorious survival in new forms.

The film can be viewed here.

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