Uncertain Presence

Creator's Statement

Uncertain Presence is an essay film on beauty and decay, specifically the beauty of decay. It is about three other essay films, Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954), Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992), and Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002), which all foreground decaying material, souvenirs taken by absent filmmakers. It is about the presence of history and the absence of lived experience as they come together in archival documents. 

Jaimie Baron describes “the unruliness of archival objects” in The Archive Effect. These three films are made of archival documents – celluloid film, VHS tapes, statues and ruins. In her book, Baron reformulates the archival document as “an experience of reception” rather than something tied to an institutional authority (3). What matters is that a viewer recognizes a document as previously existing in another, primary context. Facing an increase in amateur images and social archives, this reformulation privileges experience and in so doing tells us more about our relation to history than any narrative history. One of the ways Baron theorizes this experience is as the desire for the presence of history, or the “archive affect, … an awareness of time and the partiality of its remains” (128). Like Baron, I find this affect in Decasia, but also in the VHS tape glow of Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and the statues and ruins of Journey to Italy. The decay of those archival documents foregrounds their materiality and history in an affective experience rather than a coherent historical truth. But this overwhelming presence is ephemeral and only lasts as long as the film plays. When the film ends, I’m left with nothing. So, I steal the archival documents for myself, taking them as souvenirs. 

The souvenir stands for an absent, original experience, following Susan Stewart’s definition in On Longing. Not only does the souvenir complicate affective presence with nostalgic absence, it strikes at something inherent to film as moving images and ultimately helps me reckon with my own appropriation of these images. Stewart writes that “we do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable. Rather we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us” (135). Perhaps surprisingly, the glut of film souvenirs—screenshots, fan videos, star paraphernalia, etc.—implies that film is less repeatable than we like to think. Even now, with the supposedly easy circulation of images online. But what’s important here is that the archival documents of these three films are in fact souvenirs. Although that’s not quite true. They are souvenirs of archival documents, since they are not the documents themselves nor their experiences, but they are also becoming archival documents themselves. They are souvenirs twice-over, once for the original maker and again for the filmmakers. As I say in Uncertain Presence, quoting Stewart, “the souvenir moves history into private time” (138). Rossellini, Rappaport, and Morrison appropriate art as souvenirs of other absent, often fictional, experiences. They take the affective presence of history and reformulate it as a personal absence

It was necessary, then, for me to do the same. Uncertain Presence is made of souvenirs three-times over, archival documents that offer two historical presences. There is an affective encounter with history in the images of the three films themselves and in my images, which will be out of date and reflective of an historical instant soon enough. Following the three filmmakers, I put my souvenirs on display, joining a conversation via appropriation and returning private history to the public. I appropriate images in order to remember an experience but make a film in order to let those images age. On display, the souvenir becomes an archival document and decays. Hopefully, that decay will one day generate its own presence and beauty.


Harrison Wade is a PhD Student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of British Columbia. He has a BA in Cinema Studies and English from the University of Toronto, where he received the Norman Jewison Fellowship in Film Studies. His thesis research is tentatively focused on special effects, non-photorealistic CGI, and perception, but he has also written on the archive, digital materiality, phenomenology, feminist machinima, YouTube, and screen presence. He has recently published essays in No Cinema! and Camera Stylo, and has poetry published or forthcoming in Echolocation, pretty cool poetry thing, and Hart House Review

Thank you for sending this essay to me for review. It’s a compelling meditation on preservation, ruin, decay, beauty, and the nature of film material, as well as of the experience of those things. There is something beautiful about acknowledging the impulse to collect love-objects, or to preserve such an object over time unchanged, while also acknowledging that we might find the impossibility of perfect collection or preservation itself beautiful. It is a poignant essay, and a moving demonstration of desire. That the author’s expressions occur in a multiplanar mode also makes excellent use of the audiovisual form. The use of multiple frames is very effective, as is the alternation between typing and verbal narration, and sometimes overlapping them. The moments when files were summarily deleted were especially powerful, showing us the ease of erasure. The author’s palpable honesty as they struggle to think about how to know what to watch, how to say what is worth watching, and so, preserving, without recourse to an evaluative position contributes to the worth of this film, as such questions, while perennial, are always with us. I found myself gripped.

Before I can recommend publication, though, I think some revision would be helpful. There is quite a lot going on here. Not only are the 5 concepts already mentioned "big," but there are concerns raised in ways that I found muddy. I wasn’t sure what the author wanted to say, for instance, about the reflexivity of his own laptop screen (beyond the point that he, too, has altered the images).

I also found the times the author raises the issue of privacy to need clarification. For example, in the accompanying prose the author states that “the private allows the resonant materiality of these souvenirs and texts to be foregrounded.” But why would this be? There seems to be an avoidance of the phenomenological register, of using the word “experience,” throughout, but I may be wrong. Privacy is raised, too, to make the case that Voyage to Italy could be regarded as concerned with souvenirs, decay, and so forth. But I would point out that there is a very long history of discussing that film as avowedly essayistic on just these concepts, from Andre Bazin to Daniel Morgan. (Indeed, I wondered why Bazin’s notion of the mummy complex and preservation of life as the impetus for film never came up, given how central it is to the ideas presented.)

A few other thoughts:

• The judgement that with decay comes a decrease in beauty and desirability risks valorizing youthfulness a bit too strongly, though I appreciate that the essay seeks to accommodate loving the decay. There is something really moving about the way the author regards films as mortal.

• The author writes: “If I take too many souvenirs, they become a collection of absent experiences.” What’s wrong with absent experiences? Why is that part of an ethical dilemma? Because storage is limited?

[The author revised the accompanying statement to great effect, and satisfied the concerns I raised in my initial review above.]

Harrison Wade’s videographic essay “Uncertain Presence” ruminates on why Ingrid Bergman’s character, Katherine Joyce, looks away at a critical moment in Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia/Journey to Italy (1954). He connects the turning away with the desire for something absent, a nostalgic “conversation with some object” that his video essay also takes up in its own way. Katherine’s tour of Naples, tracing the absence of her lost poet friend Charles as well as something unnamable she has lost in herself, takes the film’s audience on its own tour of the irrevocable losses of time that inspire nostalgia and emblematize a kind of cinephilic gesture. It is an attempt to possess the elusive, effervescent images of which cinema is by necessity comprised—images which, in time, decay. 

Contemplating the desire to hold something that cannot be held finds a counterpart in Wade’s wonderfully process-oriented work, which productively decouples the immersive narrative qualities of Katherine’s journey from its more disruptive sub- and intertexts. A film’s spectators over time might contribute different investments in it that also shape it. One such investment Wade points to, the professional restoration of Journey to Italy, offers an almost painfully sharp image as a kind of compensation, perhaps, for the losses the film itself alludes to on both the narrative level and on the level of its existence as a media object. The restoration points to the material losses of film in a digital age even while it tries to cover those losses. Wade rightly suggests that whatever promises digital technology may make to the history of film, something is unrecoverable (but worth pursuing all the same). Even the “fixing” of the blemishes in the print to make a pristine copy will not do it. 

“Fixing” the blemishes of objects of media history in a wholly other sense—attempting to put a pin in them and holding them still while time hurries forward—is the creative act of Wade’s videographic essay. Compiling and laying bare the conversation he is having with several works in real time, typing on the screen, comparing and making multiple copies of clips and still images, showing the compilation and editing of the images, and even uttering a throwaway line about not being able to go to his office to show the real postcards he gives us copies of in the video—an allusion to the pandemic, I assume, and a fixing of his own work in a real time that one hopes too shall pass—tells us a good deal about the useful creative and critical interventions cinephilic nostalgia might provoke.