The Evocativeness of Decomposing Film: Watch the 1926 Hollywood Movie The Bells Become the Experimental 2004 Short Film, Light Is Calling

We think of movies as last­ing for­ev­er. And since we can pull up videos of films from 50, 80, even 100 years ago, why should­n’t we? But as every­one who dives deep into this his­to­ry of cin­e­ma knows, the fur­ther back in time you go, the more movies are “lost,” whol­ly or par­tial­ly. In the case of the lat­ter, bits and pieces remain of film — actu­al, phys­i­cal film — but often they’ve been poor­ly pre­served and thus have bad­ly degrad­ed. Still, they have val­ue, and not just to cin­e­ma schol­ars. The thir­ty-year-long career of film­mak­er Bill Mor­ri­son, for instance, demon­strates just how evoca­tive­ly film at the end of its life can be put to artis­tic use.

“Cre­at­ed using a decom­pos­ing 35mm print of the crime dra­ma The Bells (1926), the exper­i­men­tal short Light Is Call­ing (2004) depicts a dreamy encounter between a sol­dier and a mys­te­ri­ous woman,” says Aeon. “With images that reveal them­selves only to dis­tort and dis­ap­pear into the decay­ing amber-tint­ed nitrate,” Mor­ri­son “invites view­ers to med­i­tate on the fleet­ing nature of all things phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al, while a min­i­mal­is­tic vio­lin score suf­fus­es the cen­tu­ry-old images with a wist­ful, haunt­ing beau­ty.” Light Is Call­ing would have one kind of poignan­cy if The Bells were a lost film, but since you can watch it in full just below — and with a decent­ly kept-up image, by the stan­dards of mid-1920s movies — it has quite anoth­er.

Like many pic­tures of the silent era, The Bells was adapt­ed from a stage play, in this case Alexan­dre Cha­tri­an and Emile Erck­man­n’s Le Juif Polon­ais. Orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in 1867, the play was turned into an opera before it was turned into a film — which first hap­pened in 1911 in Aus­tralia, then in 1913 and 1918 in Amer­i­ca, then in 1928 in a British-Bel­gian co-pro­duc­tion. This 1926 Hol­ly­wood ver­sion, which fea­tures such big names of the day as Boris Karloff and Lionel Bar­ry­more, came as Le Juif Polon­ais’ fifth film adap­ta­tion, but not its last: two more, made in Britain and Aus­tralia, would fol­low in the 1930s. The mate­r­i­al of the sto­ry, altered and altered again through gen­er­a­tions of use, feels suit­able indeed for Light Is Call­ing, whose thor­ough­ly dam­aged images make us imag­ine the inten­tions of the orig­i­nal, each in our own way.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Beau­ty of Degrad­ed Art: Why We Like Scratchy Vinyl, Grainy Film, Wob­bly VHS & Oth­er Ana­log-Media Imper­fec­tion

What the First Movies Real­ly Looked Like: Dis­cov­er the IMAX Films of the 1890s

The Ear­li­est Known Motion Pic­ture, 1888’s Round­hay Gar­den Scene, Restored with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

Watch Alain Resnais’ Short, Evoca­tive Film on the Nation­al Library of France (1956)

See What David Lynch Can Do With a 100-Year-Old Cam­era and 52 Sec­onds of Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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