The long take: filmic fragility

Rare indeed is the celluloid reel that dies with dignity in its farewell performance.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

You might expect a film critic to brag about seeing a film for the first time: a pristine print of a freshly made work of art, unspooling for the eyes of a select few only. Sure, that’s a great time. But one occasion that really lingers in my memory is seeing a film for the last time.

A film print, that is. Five years ago at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, I took my seat, glowing with anticipation, to see a vintage 35mm print of Rancho Notorious, the biting 1952 western about “hate, murder and revenge”, directed by Fritz Lang and starring an imperious Marlene Dietrich as ranch owner Altar Keane. True Technicolor, not a reproduction, seared through the projector and gave Keane’s illicit jewels a covetable allure, her skin a peachy vibrancy. There was grit on this print, and plenty of damage, but it was still extraordinarily vivid, full of the life that a digital restoration can only aspire to.

The colours were strong, but the film was fragile. After Keane made her final act of self-sacrifice and bled crimson dye all over her sugar-pink bed linen, the lights came up and the print was put to rest in its can for good. Deemed too delicate to be projected another time, the print was retired, even before it could make the second screening planned for that week.

The Afterlight (2021)
The Afterlight (2021)

I have been pondering that farewell performance recently, with the release of a new film that is purposely designed to meet a similar fate: Charlie Shackleton’s The Afterlight (2021), cinephile catnip that gathers long-departed movie stars together in a late-night bar in an eerily pleasing supercut. The film exists only in one 35mm print. Mindfulness is designed into the fabric of the film: each showing comes at a cost, and that price is the wear and tear that will accumulate into irrevocable loss.

It’s part of a mini-trend for such self-aware exhibition: Yorgos Lanthimos’s silent short Bleat (2022), a caprine fantasy starring Emma Stone, will tour, playing only on 35mm with live musical accompaniment, before being retired. Apichatpong Weerasethakul sent his Memoria (2021) on a protracted journey across the United States, screening in one venue at a time, rather than ‘going wide’.

It’s all too easy to imagine the hushed final screening of The Afterlight, as the snapped-and-spliced, blotched-and-worn loop of film eventually makes its last journey in front of the bulb. Perhaps it will catch light or break once more in the final act, so the audience can be sure the swan is truly dead, the film is no more and the afterlight has been extinguished. I suspect The Afterlight will come to a dignified end at a time of the filmmaker’s choosing – though do book early, you don’t want to miss your moment with this intriguing film.

However, at Bologna this year, returning to in-person, and therefore 35mm, screenings for the first time since the pandemic forced the festival into a hybrid model, I was reminded that the journey of a print rarely follows such a neat trajectory. Here I saw a beautiful French film from 1911 (Albert Capellani’s La Danseuse de Siva), once thought to be lost until a copy emerged in a Russian archive, a print that belonged to distributor Sergey Ivanovich Osipov, with interposed Russian intertitles. There were mere fragments of films, as well as nearly complete versions with missing reels covered by lengthy captions. There were hand-tinted films minus their flamboyant inks and 9.5mm versions of classic 1920s films by Germaine Dulac and Jacques Feyder cut down in size and length for the home-cinema Pathé Baby format, with telltale central perforations taking a bite out of each frame. There are films otherwise lost that have only survived due to these lesser copies, when the prestige versions wore out from overuse, were mislaid in a cinema basement or misaddressed on return to the renter.

Foolish Wives (1922)MoMA

Even among the festival’s gala screenings we saw the new San Francisco Silent Film Festival and MoMA restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), more than enough film for anyone’s money at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but nowhere near the extravagant director’s original, outlandish 31-reel cut. And Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922), famously pulled from exhibition for breach of copyright, now pieced together from the prints and rereleases that escaped the cull. Both cases are exemplary studies in how modern restoration techniques can intervene to save films when the prints have been interfered with.

Nitrate film, now long since abandoned, was liable to combust or to rot, even in the best cases. And it is not always preferable to ignore that. Bill Morrison, whose short film Her Violet Kiss played in Bologna this year, has made gorgeous and provocative new movies from the damage that time inflicts on nitrate film. Watch his documentary Decasia (2002) and swoon over imperfection. Watch another doc, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016, available now on BFI Player), and discover what happens to film prints abandoned under the Yukon permafrost – once rediscovered, they are reborn as distorted scraps, contorted relics of what they once were.

These are violent ends. Rare indeed is the reel that dies with dignity, like Dietrich on her rose-petal eiderdown, but the afterlife of a print can be almost as fascinating as the making of the film itself.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

Get your copy