The first movie I had to watch for the first film class I took at the University of Michigan was Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” I watched it from a stream on my laptop, plugged into the mid-range TV in my dorm room with a friend of mine from the class. Some ways into the movie, she remarked: “This footage is really impressive!” (The film was released in 1941). I nodded in agreement, but had something else on my mind. “Isn’t it crazy to think that every actor in this film is probably dead?”
“Citizen Kane” has no overt association with nonfiction filmmaker Charlie Shackleton’s (“Beyond Clueless”) experimental film, “The Afterlight,” which recently had its U.S. premiere at the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival. That is, except for a brief cameo from Welles as the iconic character Kane in the latter. How is this possible, one might ask? The latter is in many ways a compilation, consisting of fragments of films from around the world assembled by Shackleton, with one thing in common: Every actor shown in the film is no longer alive. This comes with a further twist — the film exists as a single 35mm film print, which will erode just a little every time it is screened.
Projected onto the expansive screen of the Michigan Theater Screening Room, “The Afterlight” struck me with an amplified sense of the wonderment that befell my “Citizen Kane” screening companion. Although quality of the footage varied from fragment to fragment, it was a surprise that old films could look this good. Any projection of a film print is hard enough to come by these days, let alone those of films made almost a century ago. There’s just something about seeing noir and expressionist vignettes from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s the way they were meant to be seen (move over, IMAX!).
As such, the power of “The Afterlight” lies heavily in the context of its concept. As a single film print (the film cannot be watched online or through any other medium), it acts as a physical relic, preserving the faces and performances of an ensemble cast of actors, none of whom will perform again and most of whom have otherwise faded into obscurity. Its artistic sensibility is obvious enough, exemplified through Shackleton’s clever manipulation of cinematic conventions — he cuts seamlessly between shots from different films as if they were the same film and chooses pieces of dialogue from different films that playfully retain a hint of conversational plausibility when spliced together. However, “The Afterlight” is devoid of any narrative thread — without knowledge of the film’s conception, it is likely to come across as tedious and lacking substance. Shackleton is not quite bold enough in pushing the boundaries of the form so as to unearth new insight or revelations from his source material. As an experimental film, it’s not experimental enough.
Still, “The Afterlight” functions effectively as a tribute — as a work that pays homage to the rich history of film and film acting. The depth and breadth of film acting across different languages and cultures is on full display. Within the film, there are some truly captivating sequences that capture the strength of human emotion as a sort of sustenance that is at the backbone of cinema. Being aware of its context, it also serves as a bittersweet contemplation of death, what we leave behind and the fleetingness of our existence.
Just like the actors it honors, as “The Afterlight” is screened again and again, the film itself will ultimately fade and disappear. Permanence is a ruse — only in viewership and memory will the film and its subjects live on. And even then, it won’t last forever.
Daily Arts Writer Adrian Hui can be reached at email@example.com.