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.
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.