It was probably inevitable, baked into the chemical essence of film, that the medium’s own ephemerality would become a metaphor for time, aging, and death. Filmed images outlive the people in them, but time’s army eventually catches up, and what we’d long thought was immortal confronts the laws of decomposition just as we do. Movie images are ghosts, but eventually the ghosts themselves begin to rot away.
It may’ve been because cinema was finally a century old, or due to a leveling-up in the world of film preservation, but it was in the ’90s when artists began recycling old film not for its subject but for its nitrate collapse. Emerging around the same time as Dutch archivist Peter Delpeut, Bill Morrison quickly became this domain’s archdruid; soon, he was, and still is, America’s most viewed and most distributed avant-garde filmmaker. A primary ingredient to a Morrison experience is the dramatic invasion of an old film scene’s flicker-fusion integrity by the roiling swamp of chemical decay that defies the frame’s edges and churns of its own menacing accord.
We’re very aware that we’re watching the process of oblivion happen before our eyes. Morrison himself started out using this visual drama for strictly suggestive, lyrical ends, but lately he’s toggled toward a purely historical interest in archivable footage, like a poet who becomes obsessed by etymology. Like Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), Morrison’s new feature The Village Detective: a song cycle is essentially a straight documentary, one that begins with the discovery of unearthed celluloid — in this case, Russian film cans dredged up in fishermen’s nets off the coast of Iceland. The find was not, as an ardent film geek would hope, a long-pursued “lost film” or anything rare, but a never-missed copy of a 1969 proletariat farce, The Village Detective, which was hugely popular in its day and has never been unavailable in Russia. (In interviews, Morrison says he was told by a native curator that the film is shown on Russian TV “almost every day.”)
Never mind — for Morrison, every smushy slippage is a cause for contemplation. His investigation into the film becomes a look at its star, Mikhail Zharov, who is more or less unknown to Western viewers but whose 63-year career began in 1915 and ran like an artery through almost the entirety of Soviet history. (We should know him: he was in 1924’s Aelita, Queen of Mars; Pudovkin’s Chess Fever, from 1925; Boris Barnet’s 1925 film Outskirts; and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible films, from 1944 and 1958). The first actor to sing in a Russian film (the first Soviet talkie, Road to Life, in 1932), Zharov specialized in all manner of folksy, roguish characters as he aged and as the Soviet political winds blew hot and cold, and in the original Village Detective, he plays a beloved elder in a rural hamlet with no crime, tasked to solve the mystery of a stolen accordion.
Searching for what is lost: ambling between Zharov’s career, Soviet history, and the story of The Village Detective itself (assisted with sound from an intact print, and new English subtitles), Morrison allows the threads to dovetail, but finds few revelations. (A nice historical point is scored by noting how a 1920 film reenacting the storming of the Winter Palace was used for years after as documentary footage of the real 1917 event.) Morrison is a suggestive filmmaker; since Zharov, however adored in Russia, is no lightning-rod figure, and the original Village Detective is uncomplicated family entertainment, the new film seems to promise conclusions that don’t come.
What’s complicating, though, adding a signature layer of troublesomeness to the legacy of Soviet culture, is the storm of visual damage that crowds, obscures, and ultimately consumes the old film — with the dialogue and subtitles marching on as if nothing is amiss. Even here, in Morrison’s demystifying mode, in the folds of an essay-film about Soviet-ness and nitrate stock, the entropic tragedy of time sings out. ❖