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.