37 Years/Standard Gauge: Film As Substance

Last December, Annexinema presented a themed programme of screenings linked to the history of film at Hucknall’s disused Byron Cinema, which occupies the floor above a busy bingo hall. One of the films included was a haunting silent short from the archives of ATV Today showing the process of Refining Silver From Television and Cinema Film. Made in 1967 for a news feature, the footage now exists in the Media Archive for Central England (MACE) minus the voiceovers that would have accompanied it on its original broadcast.

As the screening programme notes described it, the film shows: “…large amounts of scrap film being collected and shovelled into a furnace. The resulting ashes are then processed for their silver content which is shown in both molten and bullion forms. The facility appears to be destroying a lot of 35mm film as well as television material (BBC and Rediffusion tins are visible)…”. Not only haunting in itself, Refining Silver From Television and Cinema Film also renders the medium of film startlingly physical and elemental. As the strips of silver nitrate burn, become liquid metals poured into moulds and are finally stacked as solid silver ingots, there’s a very literal kind of alchemy at work.

This alchemical sense of images as physical presences, film as a kind of technological ghost-generating apparatus and light as something frozen in time were all on my mind anyway, after finding a box of negative plates at the Cattle Market in Nottingham a week or two ago: the contents of the small box have already become the cue for a cycle of written pieces under the title Black Glass, which will no doubt be added here soon, once the texts are completed.

The reflections on the physicality of light prompted by those plates (in negative, streetlamps show as black solids in the bright darkness, for instance) and the odd sensations always triggered by images of long-gone buildings and people seemed to find echoes in two of this week’s events: Robert Squirrell‘s 37 Years (2010), a film made entirely from borrowed sound that features no images, and Morgan Fisher‘s Standard Gauge (1984), in which random strips of salvaged 35mm film are presented as stills on a lightbox and have their meanings decoded by Fisher’s voiceover.

Squirrell’s piece – presented in The Space on Wednesday evening – certainly has presence, despite the absence of visuals. Sitting in the dim light in front of a blank screen, footsteps circle us, giggles and low breathing emerge from corners of the auditorium, showers and rain spatter the floors by the exits and everything from the clunk and hum of machinery to full-pitched battles swirl in the empty air. There were some clues as to the sources of Squirrell’s palette of sounds: that 37 Years refers to the winners of the Academy Awards category for sound editing over that period of time. From these Squirrell has omitted all music and recognisable speech and instead focused on more atmospheric and concrete elements of the soundworlds of his chosen films.

Knowing this framing device there’s a tendency to try and guess what some of the sounds might be: is that distant boom the sound of the Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park or something from James Cameron’s Titanic, as the liner finally meets its iceberg in mid-Atlantic? Are those the enchanted armies of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, the Normandy troops of Saving Private Ryan, the woad-smeared warriors of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart or some combination of all three we hear clashing in battle within a few feet of us? What about those clunking machines? Could they be the jackplugs going into the bodies of the rebels entering The Matrix or the doors and controls of the military spacecraft in Aliens?

The total effect is of a perpetually mobile sonic experience, and if the inability to completely black out the space made it difficult (at first) to quite focus and fully enter the soundscape, it was a problem solved by closing the eyes. As revving motorcycles segued into echoing footsteps, footsteps into a voice humming in the shower, which themselves led into the creak of an opening door, terrified breathing, gunshots, thunder and rainstorms, an opaque narrative seemed to be unfolding. Like the visual images generated by Jack Goldstein’s records in the gallery upstairs, 37 Years generated its own visual iconography from sonic cues and Squirrell’s collage made for a vivid experience, as though the ghosts of absent films were roaming the auditorium like a gang of unruly poltergeists. 

A very different take on the ghosts of film were at play in Morgan Fisher’s Standard Gauge, which was introduced by the man himself the following night. Fisher had a laconic delivery that seemed half Warhol (answering one question on his use of structuralist procedures with “Gee, can you ask me something that doesn’t require me to think quite so hard?”) and half Jacques Tati (one memorable moment saw him confuse himself by entangling his notes with a microphone, then generating squalls of feedback with the words “I seem to have put my hand in my pocket and caused a calamity”) which made for a sometimes illuminating, sometimes rambling talk. Then again, it seemed this mix of folksy mannerisms and self-confessed literalism was all part of the Fisher persona, and the voice-over he adds to Standard Gauge – a sort of show and tell gathering of tiny strips of discarded film – follows a similarly extended rambling pattern as he moves from anecdotes to historical background, reflections on the fine detail of film sprockets to thoughts about the meaning of the images the films contain.

One strip shows the Hindenburg before its crash, another some fragment of a Roger Corman movie called Student Nurses in which Fisher played a bit part while working on set as an editor. As each strip of film is moved by hand across the surface of a lightbox – a negative version of the 20th Century Fox logo, count-downs and colour balance frames, strips showing the words ‘scene missing’ or ‘image here’ designed for insertion into incomplete rushes, sponsorship titles added to TV shows and the rest – we become increasingly conscious of the way that moving images are being presented as stills so their secretive devices are brought into the light and held in plain view.

Especially affecting is Fisher’s unveiling of a series of anonymous women in brightly patterned dresses surrounded by patches of colour, present only for the benefit of  technicians assigned to check the accuracy of skin tones and colour balances on processed films: like the Test Card girls on British TV, these womens’ marginal status seemed in some ways like an unconscious confession by the industry that had put them into the invisible corners of its films: more ghosts, perhaps, and a code signifying rather more than the straightforward technical information they were originally recruited to convey.

Fisher himself emphasised the memento mori nature of the medium, as film preserves the dead and the past in a way that ultimately seems to create a new species of technological haunting – long-dead actors still playing their roles, fighting, falling in love and making quips with undiminished gusto, or ordinary people glimpsed in newsreels, twenty or seventy or eighty years on from their burials.  Jack Goldstein, he noted, was fascinated by the ability of film and audio to capture death itself, something Fisher realised film does all the time, as in footage of disasters and accidents: in every WW2 or Vietnam newsreel showing a plane being shot down or ship sunk, we are seeing an instant of death.

Of course, the ultimate statement on the subject of film as physical substance and memento mori remains Bill Morrison’s extraordinary Decasia (2002)  in which the natural deterioration of nitrate film stock is foregrounded in a series of altered and metamorphosised images with a truly unsettling quality – the ghosts implied by film are themselves haunted by their own inevitable decay, generating images of a beauty rarely seen in cinema. As with Stan Brakhage‘s tendency to paint, scratch and otherwise work directly onto film, frame by frame, Morrison’s Decasia makes the physical substance of celluloid itself tangible in a way that is like nothing else I can think of.

Fisher’s Standard Gauge is more literal and straightforward than Morrison’s film, but by placing his snippets of 35mm film onto a lightbox and moving them around by hand he creates a similar emphasis on the physical presence of film – the frames as objects rather than screened images. Which returns my thoughts to Refining Silver From Television and Cinema Film, in which the raw substance of Morrison’s Decasia and Fisher’s Hindenburg newsreels undergoes a decisive material transformation: from film into ashes, fire and metal; from ghost and image into irrefutable solid form. Some of this will almost certainly find its way into Black Glass.



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