Catherine Grant’s wonderful Film Studies for Free has posted a great set of resources on film preservation as part of the Film Preservation Blogathon, which features blog posts, articles, images, videos, tweets, and rallying calls from distinguished cinephiles including Roger Ebert, David Bordwell, and others.
The video above (included there) is a Studio 360 piece on Bill Morrison’s found footage collage film Decasia, which is one of the best examples of film, or art, that comments on its own materiality, including its origins and, in this case, its inevitable demise. I’ve blogged about the ecologies and temporalities of images a few times here (with more to come), but thinking about Decasia makes me realize that my recent post on Bergson neglected to mention this materiality of the image.
It may be true, as I wrote there, that “the past is divisible into the era of reproducible images and the era that preceded it: BP (before photography) and AP (after),” or more generally, Before Recording and After Recording, with different extension and limit points for different types of recording — oral, literate, electromagnetic, et al. It may also be true that our technologies of archaeological retrieval, interpretation, and restoration are digging ever deeper into the materiality of the world, making more of it available virtually for new actualizations in the present and future. But it is also true that those materialities all have their half-lives, their temporalities of decay and disintegration, and that there won’t ever come a time when the past is rendered fully open, a pure and transparent archive in which nothing has been lost, nothing has slipped away or disappeared in an invisible stream off the edge of the universe. Things do slip away.
I’ve been thinking about this slippage of things since Graham Harman posted a note in reply to Steven Shaviro arguing that Bergson’s intuition about time “isn’t really grounded in reality”. The point of difference between relational and object-centered accounts, according to Harman, “is whether a thing’s process of genesis is inscribed in its current reality” or not, to which he says “no”: “Much of its genetic history does leave traces, but a great deal of history is forgotten by reality in every moment.” I had begun to respond to him, thinking to myself that this Bergsonian intuition is very much a matter of debate, and that it isn’t just relational and processual philosophers like Bergson and Whitehead who believe that everything at one moment of reality gets incorporated, in some form, into the next moment; that reality, in other words, moves forward — developing, evolving, changing, or enduring, as the case may be, rather than dropping off into an abyss. Where, after all, would it go?
But then I realized that, in fact, everything decays, too, everything has its half-life — or at least that every non-living, non-autopoietic system does (though the boundary between the living and the non-living gets hazy at certain crucial points). It may be that object-oriented ontology avoids at its own risk this distinction between different orders of objectness and systematicity. There are, after all, objects that are merely aggregate systems: rocks, beaver dams, spider webs, hammers and nails, computers and buildings — all of these are what they are for a time, but without maintenance they break down, becoming something else, something lower on the complexity scale. The same goes for photographic images.
And then there are self-organizing dynamic systems, things that work as ensembles to maintain a more or less consistent form over the course of a certain series of developments and interactions — which constitute their lives. Whether these are single organisms (spider, beaver, human) or complex relational entities (spider + web + corner of the wall, or beaver + dam + lake + etc., or global body politic with all its cultural and communicational and reproductive technologies), the point is that they are constituted by a certain set of internal relations and they take on their form and maintain it through a certain set of relational encounters with things outside them. Each such system exchanges matter-energy with its outside, and each develops and changes in the process. For a time.
So why is it that the decay of images speaks to us of our own decay? That, as Roland Barthes put it, photographs for us always have “a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die”? “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” (Camera Lucida, p. 96) Is this mere analogy, a poetic reference we learn to interpret as we become literate in the arts of decay, or is the relationship between the two a more direct one — the decaying, disintegrating image being a direct image of time, the same time that we know will bring our own demise?
Living things are negentropic for a time, as living process pulses through them. But that time, that “for a time,” that “a life,” we all know, is an island surrounded by a sea of roiling transformation. And at a certain point we realize that sea is rising around us. Film images mimic that process of life as we watch them; they bring us closer than perhaps any other medium to the movement of life and of time. But there is the Time that they mimic, and there is the “for a time” that they are. It is because we see them as time, as motion, as life, that their real inevitable death reminds us of our own. Film images really do die. But that death can be staved off, for a time.