In Which I Talk About Death Too Much

Cinema raises the dead. No other medium does that. Photographs, painting and sculpture can show us what someone looked like, music can tell us what they sounded like, but no other medium can make them live again. Every day, people that have been dead 60, 80, or 100 years walk and talk before the eyes of the living. From Lillian Gish and Humphrey Bogart to Heath Ledger, anyone with a Netflix account can see these people, who they’ve never met, just like they’re alive in this very moment.

Maybe that’s why Frankenstein is such a popular story in cinema. One of the most frequent subjects of film, as an art, is escaping time and its nasty cousin, death. From Resnais’ Melo to Coppola’s The Conversation, films that deal with attempts to escape death or preserve life in the face of the inevitable often show how futile this quest is. Every story ends the same way. Frankenstein is the purest expression of this. A man raises the dead, defeats the nemesis that no one can defeat, only to create a monster.

Bill Morrison is the Dr. Frankenstein of cinema. Most famous for Decasia (of which Errol Morris said “This may be the greatest movie ever made”) and Film of Her, Morrison has spent the last 20 years stitching together parts of decaying films, unrestored, to create beautiful collages of deterioration. He brings dead movies back to life, in many cases movies long past the point of restoration. Instead of monsters, though, Morrison has created some of the most fascinating, beautiful non-narrative films I’ve ever seen.

If 2010’s Spark of Being is any indication, Morrison himself buys into the comparison with Frankenstein. In the film, he uses pieces of films in various states of disrepair to recreate Frankenstein. Like Lewis Klahr’s Altair, there’s not so much a plot as there is a mood, but Morrison creates a loose structure using chapter titles from Mary Shelley’s novel which, along with our familiarity with the story, lends it some semblance of a storyline.

Spark of Being begins with images of life in its most basic form. Microphotographed footage of squirming cells and other single-celled organisms are soundtracked by a jazz-fusion score composed by trumpeter Dave Douglas. These images give way to the ocean, and our first chapter, “The Captain’s Story,” made up of footage from various arctic expeditions. The only life we see in this place is the sailors aboard the ship breaking through the ice, but we know that microbial life is teeming just below the surface of everything. Even here, riding over the ice on a dog sled, the doctor, the man who wanted to escape death, cannot escape life.

The jazz score is an important part of Morrison’s film. Many of his films are commissioned by or collaborations with musical artists, most frequently jazz musicians and minimalist composers. Jazz seems to be the most suitable music for Morrison’s work. Improvisation in film usually refers to actors making up their lines as they go along, like in Blake Edward’s The Party. Morrison’s films feel improvised in a different way. The deterioration of the film he uses in his collage takes on a life of its own. It’s beautiful, but it’s accidentally beautiful. Morrison is as much an editor as he is a director. What he does is closer to choosing the best take of a song than to composing it. Jazz, the most improvisational genre of music, fits Spark of Being better than any traditional score.

The next chapter, “The Traveler’s Story,” begins with the image of candle being placed into a phantasmagoria, and the lens being fitted in front of it. What’s projected through this lens is a fetus. The phantasmagoria was cinema in its fetal form. Before photography, before Muybridge, before Edison and the Lumieres, the phantasmagoria was the first step toward the greatest artform of the 20th century. From this still image of a fetus projected on a wall, the traveler’s story progresses to a baby, a child, a preteen, and finally shot looking out the window of a train as it leaves the station.

The next two chapters, “A Promising Student” and “The Doctor’s Creation,” present us with our first looks at the deterioration with which Morrison is so often identified. “A Promising Student” begins with footage from films on biology. The music takes on a more artificial tone (Dave Douglas’s band includes DJ Olive, who provides much of the music for this chapter). The chapter ends with footage of dead birds on decomposing film. It is the start of the doctor’s obsession with death. “The Doctor’s Creation” starts where “A Promising Student” leaves off, but instead of dead birds, we’re shown dead bodies being dragged through the mud of a warzone: the doctor’s models. The highlight of this section is a long, clear image of the titular spark of being. Electricity dances around the screen as a jazzy. patternless line. It recalls another non-narrative film, Len Lye’s 1958 animation, Free Radicals:

The free radicals sequence is followed by an explosion. The screen is filled with crystalline deterioration, constantly moving and changing, before a moment of quiet, dread-filled silent footage of destroyed lab.

One of the recurring themes in Spark of Being is the differences and relationships between learning and seeing. The preteen in “The Traveler’s Story” is shown learning from flashcards, and the image is followed immediately by the train pulling out of the station, which, in this context, is young Victor Frankenstein leaving his small village home to actually see the world. Later, four sections from the point of view of the creature are titled “The Creature Watches,” “The Creature’s Education,” “Observations of Familial Love,” and “Observations of Romantic Love.” As opposed to the doctor, who learns in more traditional ways, the creature’s education is a fragmented observation of the world with his own eyes. He does not experiment, read, or interact. He watches with a terrified distance through a lens of decay.

The four chapters from the creature’s point of view are the creative climax of the film, to my mind. Each of them are composed entirely of decaying footage. They are jumbled, fragmentary, and confusing. In “The Creature’s Education,” Morrison jars us with rock music, blasts of color, pieces of random text and images of insects swarming flashing through the storm of decomposition. Just when we’ve come to accept the style of Morrison’s film, we’re all of a sudden in a very different world than we were before.

As “The Creature’s Education” and the chapters that follow progress, the images begin to make more sense. “The Creature’s Education” ends with the image of a blonde girl playing basketball, and then a slow-motion shot of a basketball going through the hoop. For anyone who’s read Frankenstein, this will recall the little girl playing with the flower, who the monster, not understanding the game, drowns in the lake. We’re watching the creature’s logic, the gears of his mind working, in this scene. “Observations of Familial Life” shows footage of families, but it’s somehow unclear what sort of unit this family is. They all seem to be in different places in the world. There doesn’t seem to be any order. They are a family because they’re associated in his eyes.

The last chapter of this section, “Observations of Romantic Love,” is the simplest. It’s one shot, watching a nude man and woman running through a forest, probably footage from a long unseen softcore porn. Around them, the film burns, unable to stay on the reel. The creature seems so close to understanding this. It’s not jumbled or confusing at all, but it is somehow obscured. We see exactly what’s happening, and know exactly what’s going to happen next, but we can’t quite see the end of the scene.

After these kinetic scenes, full of of frantic editing and jazzy, uncontrollable decay, the rest of the movie is jarringly slow. The creature’s education and observation scenes are mostly in color, and the return to black and white in “The Doctor’s Wedding” would feel strange even if the chapter wasn’t composed of slow-motion footage from an early-20th century German wedding, with several looped scenes of men dancing at the end. The scene, one of inclusion, community, and happiness, is juxtaposed with the next chapter, “The Creature in Society,” the film’s shortest but most alienating. The camera pans across a large group of men, who turn and stare at it, probably the first movie camera they had ever seen. In this context, however, their stares are directed right at all the ugliness in the creature, and all the ugliness in us.

The next 3 chapters bring us back to the opening scenes, closing the loop of this circular film. “The Creature Confronts His Creator” is filled with images of ice and snow, both foreshadowing and recalling the end of this story, while “The Doctor Flees” and “The Creature’s Pursuit” physically bring us back to the arctic setting of “The Captain’s Story,” using much of the same footage. After the journey we’ve been through, though, this footage takes on another feel.

I wrote in my notes during “The Doctor Flees” that the footage here reminds me of Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta, considered by most to be the first American avant-garde film. Not necessarily in terms of technique, since in Manhatta the camera is still, and all the movement occurs within the frame, but in terms of intent.

Manhatta and other early symphony of a city films (most famously Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Man With A Movie Camera) are so focused on the marvel of movement. The mere fact that the audience was looking at a moving photograph was still mind-blowing. The footage used in “The Doctor Flees” is a marvel in the same way. Icebergs moving among the waves, wonders that most of the world had never seen before and never would see with their own eyes. In a film that is as much about film as Spark of Being, footage like this transports us back into the mindset of an early filmgoer. We’re no longer watching something confrontational, weird, and alienating. We’re looking at a new part of the world we live in, and watching that world get smaller.

Of course, the idea of a smaller world becomes terrifying when you’re trying to escape something. “The Creature’s Pursuit,” the last chapter of the film,  is very similar to “The Doctor Flees,” but everything seems to be falling apart. The structures and distance we could put between us and the creature seem to be disappearing. The film is disintegrating on the screen. The doctor, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how far he runs, will never be free of the creature. The last shot of the movie, which appears to be footage shot in a desert, is a man in a cloak, slowly walking toward the bottom of the frame until he disappears.

Perhaps it’s the Beckett fan in me, but, as I said earlier, I’ve always read Frankenstein as being about the inevitability of death. The doctor is running to the literal ends of the earth, but he still can’t escape his creature, the image of living death. With the invention of cinema, the world found a way to preserve the world as it was. We may not be able to travel through time, but we can see what New York looked like, in a vividly alive way, in 1921 when we watch Manhatta.

What Morrison reminds us in Spark of Being and his other films is that even that can rot. Footage is constantly deteriorating. The world we once felt was necessary and important to record is disappearing. But it can still be beautiful. There’s beauty in death, and there’s beauty in decay. It’s appropriate that Morrison chose Frankenstein for a basis here, not only because it’s stitched together from dead bodies, but because Frankenstein is one of the most identifiable horror stories ever told.

Horror movies, more than any other genre, have pushed back against the notion that film preserves life. People go to see a horror movie to confront death, to be thrilled by the notion that life is fragile and can end in an instant. It’s the only genre where we know, in the end, that everything won’t be OK. The monster may be defeated, but we know it will be back. We’ve only had a temporary reprieve. In Spark of Being, Morrison shows us the same thing. The man in the cloak has walked off screen, but only for now.