Appropriating Fictions in the Kingdom of Shadows by Lucy Reynolds
'It could be argued that a change has occurred, where narrative fiction no longer has the power to disguise the spectral nature of cinematic time.'
In 1896 the writer Maxim Gorky famously wrote of his first impression of cinema as the 'Kingdom of Shadows.' He described the spectral quality of the figures on-screen in the Lumiere Brothers new moving image attraction, where: 'Their smiles are lifeless, even though their movements are full of living energy… their laughter is soundless although you see the muscles contracting in their grey faces.' Technological advances have since brought colour and sound to Gorky’s ghostly projections, but the sense of disquiet he articulated, on encountering cinema's uncanny powers over space and time, has not diminished.
These powers were soon obscured beneath the mantle of fiction, where narrative sleights of hand have breathed believable life into the Kingdom of Shadows, seeking to disguise its uncanny nature with the agency of setting and scenario. As Laura Mulvey puts it, '[N]arrative asserts its own temporality' over the embalmed 'camera time' when the image was first captured, so that: 'the 'then-ness,'' the presence of the moment of registration, has to lose itself in the temporality of the narrative, the iconicity of the protagonists and their fictional world.'
Viewing Cordelia Swann's film Deliria (2008), and Jason Dee’s I wish there could be an invention that bottled up the memory like perfume (2004), I am reminded of Gorky's Kingdom of Shadows. In both films the artists summon embalmed time back to the surface, using tactics of repetition and isolation to remove the vestiges of fiction that still cling to them. In Deliria Swann transforms Vivien Leigh into a melancholy Echo, compressing a scene of romantic climax so that time and space overlap and Leigh is superimposed upon herself, her speech and movements delayed and repeated, and her appearance rendered literally ghost-like, transparent and insubstantial as it is layered over itself.
Dee's film also appropriates a film of the classic Hollywood period, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. However, he eschews the film’s more climatic scenes to focus on an apparently unremarkable linking shot, a conversation between the lead protagonists in a moving car. Dee freezes and loops into repetition a sequence originally defined by the car's speeding momentum. And, as all narrative causality is frozen in the foreground, the back projection of the road behind the car continues, constantly receding and looping behind the motionless figures. No longer relegated to the supporting role of mise en scene, this location backdrop is brought to the fore in all its artifice. In a wry addition by the artist, a stray wisp of hair on the heroine’s head plays in an absent breeze.
Through their contrasting modes of quotation and appropriation, Swann and Dee disclose the layers of artifice used by narrative cinema to elicit identification and pleasure in the spectator. However, it could be argued that, with the passing of the century, a curious change has occurred, where narrative fiction no longer has the power to disguise the spectral nature of cinematic time glimpsed by Gorky, and alluded to by Mulvey. Deliria and I wish there could be… not only reveal, but accentuate Leigh, Olivier, Fontaine and Hitchcock's phantasmic nature. As the title of Dee's film meaningfully implies, Fontaine's on-screen wish to bottle memory has been granted by the invention of cinema, which, in a poignant twist, embalms Fontaine too. No longer an agent of narrative, on-screen or off, Fontaine has become part of the ghostly cast of cinematic apparitions that haunt the accumulating archive of twentieth century culture.
With this in mind, Dave Griffiths' Seers Catalogue (2009) functions as an archaeological excavation, which examines the inscriptions of an earlier century of cinema spectatorship for clues to their culture. Like a subversive film archivist, Griffiths isolates those film frames that bear the mark of reel change-over, part of the litany of coded instructions passed between projectionists, and passed over by the film viewer intent upon the narrative. Out of context, these circles and scratches resemble the symptoms of a virus, spreading rash-like across Seers Catalogue's disparate celluloid surfaces and seeming to infect the on-screen scenarios with their enigmatic presence, invading the diegesis of its truncated narratives and crossing from the space of the spectator and the projectionist into the realms of fictional time.
For it could be argued that the subterfuges of cinematic fiction have become part of the kingdom of shadows too, their codes and conventions becoming a historical narrative inscribed into the film frame alongside that first past moment of capture. This is not to suggest that the films of Dee, Swann or Griffiths are driven by nostalgia for a disappearing cinematic culture and the demise of celluloid. Rather, their appropriations might be better understood as a means of navigating the overwhelming circuits of cine-information now available to us, finding points of focus in a close-up, a back-drop and indecipherable inscriptions on-screen.
Lucy Reynolds is a lecturer, artist and film curator. Her research focuses on expanded cinema and British avant-garde film of the 1970s. She teaches the history and theory of cinema and artists' moving image at Birkbeck College, the University of Westminster and Goldsmiths College.
Her projects include An Arabesque for Marie Menken (Tate Modern) and Describing Form (LUX touring film programme). She presents talks on artists' film and video at arts venues across the UK, including the CCA, Glasgow and the Serpentine Gallery, London and has written for Afterall, Vertigo and Millennium Film Journal.