Beware becoming overly attached to movies you haven’t seen yet. Beware investing too much hope in the idea of those movies; the head space you imagine.

A shot from Les Vampires (1915)

When I was a kid I found a book at the Salvation Army that contained the full script of Casablanca (1942), which I read and re-read for about two years before actually getting the chance to see the film. (Ah, the olden days, when local video stores sucked.) Sometimes I even read them aloud to myself — because, naturally, as a kid I had lots of time to cultivate my eccentric persona.

Having that kind of intensive familiarity with the dialogue made me disappointed by the film — I thought the actors breezed through those great lines too quickly, whereas I had been accustomed to letting the dialogue wash over me with slow, methodical pleasure. Even now I have a hard time with some of the best exchanges between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Renault (Claude Rains), because that expectation of a different pacing still nags in my memory:

Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. 
Rick: It was a combination of all three. 

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, re-creating scenes from Les Vampires

(Don’t worry: it only took a few more viewings before I fell in love with Casablanca just as it is.)

I should know better. But I still catch myself fantasizing about what a movie might be, long before I’ve seen it. It’s like going back to that 12-yr-old place, in which my imagination turns out to be far more active than that of some filmmakers.

An example: a few years ago I saw Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996), a film-within-a-film tale about a manic, hapless crew filming a remake of Les Vampires (1915). I’d never even heard of that latter title, but my serious disappointment in Assayas’ film made me all the more fixated on the early silent.

Now, I can watch Les Vampires any time I like — it’s streaming on archive.org — but isn’t it true that sometimes we prefer to let the idea of the film percolate in one’s mind for a while?

Sometimes I imagine that if I’m ever given the chance to create a film of my own, it will be a tribute to the films I imagined — the narratives and love stories and fantastic voyages and melodramas I constructed in my fervid imagination, just from those tidbits of trailers or stills I came across. It’ll be about phantoms, as if a mad alchemist decided to create gold from the crazy mixture of that final montage of kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso, a healthy dose of Guy Maddin’s psycho-sexual funhouse style (see here for JB’s great interview with Maddin), those partially decayed clips from silent film so beautifully laid out in Decasia, Christian Marclay‘s dedication to subtle segues, and perhaps a Pixar screenwriter or two.

Musidora (yes, Musidora) from Les Vampires

Fantomas of movies I haven’t seen. Maybe it’s bound to be disappointing, the way the Choose Your Own Adventure books held out all that promise and, most of the time, showed an even more awful lack of imagination than ordinary novels.

But still, doesn’t it seem appropriate that film should address its own phantoms, its unrealized plots?

 

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“Decasia”

10 April 2010

I got my love of film from one of my very odd great-uncles, a lovely man who always regretted the switch to talkies in the 30s.  “They just stood around all the time,” he said, contrasting them with the great action and adventure of the silent era.  Thus, it was a terrible thing during World War II when the only job he could get was in a factory, destroying reels of silent films to extract the silver nitrate for use in the war effort. 

Film scholars guess-stimate that 83% of films from the silent era have been lost forever — and it wasn’t just during the war that old silents were destroyed.  Many companies saw film as so transient that it could be jettisoned after it had left the theaters.  At one point, companies like Paramount and Universal dumped archives of films into the Pacific or blew up old reels for special effects on their sets.  Some of the flammable stock simply exploded on its own; or the celluloid has degraded so much that it’s hard to see what’s going on in the original scene.

That’s what makes Bill Morrison’s “Decasia: A Symphony in Decay” (2002) all the more eloquent.  He took reels of partially-degraded silent film stock and reproduced it in slow motion, tying together loosely-related scenes and backing it with a sometimes-dissonant score.  A boxer appears on one half of the image, throwing punches at what now seems to be an evolving extraterrestrial blob.  Scenes at an amusement park show a monstrous chaos that belches out the cars on a roller coaster.  Whirling dervishes twirl with their eyes closed and, to enhance our understanding of their religious transcendence, the men flash back and forth from positive to negative.  It’s utterly transfixing.

This is so worth watching.  You start out trying to see through the decay to the story onscreen; eventually you start watching the decay itself.  It tells us something larger than a story about film and loss: you can’t help but imagine new narratives emerging from it.  Take a look at a clip, at least.