Dec 24, 2012

Decasia/Fantasia; Nitrate/Acetate; 35/16; Tallow/Fat

Speaking of a film "where we experience impermanence" (see previous post), here's a Christmas Eve return to Decasia, the Fantasia of found footage feature film fun. Dave Kehr (love him long time) reminds us in his 12/21-23 New York Times column ("Symphony of Compostitions from Decomposition") that Icarus Films (ditto) presents Michael Gordon & Bill Morrison's (ditto) 35mm motion picture on Blu-Ray.

Two images continue to be associated with the promotion of Decasia. Each has its aesthetic value, whether in motion or as a still. However, each has a tiny "slippage" worth noting when thinking about "found footage" and how these images signify what they do.

The first, with its snow-flakey crystalline patterns, is seasonal today. However, it's curious that this particular frame enlargement is so often reprinted as representative of Decasia. The shot of the young girl on a school bus, seemingly looking into the camera, sticks out from most of the footage -- at least to viewers familiar with film stocks and aesthetics of varying historical vintages. credit reads:  Icarus Films
First, she sits in a mise-en-scene of a post-WWII world (albeit in 16:9 here!). Most all of Decasia otherwise has the veneer of the 1920s or 30s. And in fact its source materials were mostly born in that earlier time.

Second, because of the above, Decasia's display of decay is physically sourced to motion-picture film printed on stocks with a base made of cellulose nitrate (aka 'nitrate film'). Nitrate is famously beautiful and lustrous when projected and infamously (1) photochemically unstable and hence subject to rapid decomposition if not optimally stored and (2) highly inflammable (or flammable; one of those rare pairs of words that can be both synonym and antonym to each other). The characteristics of this material's decay are not like those of the later "safety film" manufactured on a cellulose acetate base. Decasia's bodies and things were shot in the 1920s and 30s, when nitrate was the norm. (It remained so until 1951.)

Therefore the Girl on the Bus looks to be from a later era because she was. The patina that covers her frame is also symptomatic of the later acetate film stocks. It's science, not magic. A fact, not a feeling.

Here's how the gold-standard research of the Image Permanence Institute describes the impermanence of acetate film.
Another consequence of base deterioration is the appearance of crystalline deposits or liquid-filled bubbles on the emulsion. This is evidence of plasticizers, additives to the plastic base, becoming incompatible and oozing out on the surface. They can appear on either the base or emulsion side of the film. Plasticizers are chemical additives that are mixed in with the cellulose acetate during manufacture. . . . The high plasticizer content of acetate films reflects a desire to make film as non-flammable [aka 'non-inflammable,' ed.] as possible. The second function of plasticizers is to reduce the dimensional instability of film due to solvent loss or humidity change. All cellulosic films will shrink under dry conditions and expand under damp conditions; minimizing this behavior is an important role of plasticizer additives.
           --  James M. Reilly, IPI Storage Guide for Acetate Film (Rochester, NY: Image Permanence Institute, 1993, rev. 1996), 12.  See also: D. G. Horvath, The Acetate Negative Survey (Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville, 1987);  C. R. Fordyce's article "“Motion Picture Film Support: 1889-1976, An Historical Review," SMPTE Journal, 85 (Jul. 1976): 493-95; and, from one of the inventors of 16mm film at Eastman Kodak in the 1920s, C. E. K. Mees, “"History of Professional Black-and-White Motion-Picture Film,"” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, 63 (Oct. 1954): 125-40.

The shot of the Girl on the Bus comes from a 16mm acetate print of a film in Skip Elsheimer's A/V Geeks collection. He has in fact done entire curated film programs about school buses -- shown while the audience travels in an actual school bus. At, find DVD compilations of his educational 16mm prints, including Extreme School Bus Adventure!

The second image often illustrating the nature of Decasia also appears in the Times notice, also from Icarus's Blu-Ray disc promotion. It looks like this. credit line:  University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections/Icarus Films
As Dave Kehr notes:
Mr. Morrison has clearly logged a lot of hours at film archives — including the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress and George Eastman House — in pursuit of particularly evocative instances of decay. Some shots seem almost too good to be true, as when an early-20th-century boxer spars with the shifting mass of nitrate rot that has erased his punching bag.  

Even TV Guide's capsule review refers to "such evocative scraps of footage as a boxer gamely pummeling a pulsating streak of bubbling emulsion."

Indeed this is a striking image, especially when set in motion. As the filmmaker himself has noted, it conveys a sense of futility and mortality that is Decasia's theme. However, it derives not from one of the Big 6 film archives, but from the notable nitrate collection at the University of South Carolina. The Fox Movietone News Collection was housed in what was known as the Newsfilm Library when Morrison was mining its massive contents. (Now it's called USC Moving Image Research Collections, and its glories are now appearing online as part of a developing "Digital Video Repository." See As noted elsewhere, more than half of the imagery in Decasia has South Carolina/Fox roots. This particular shot is not Movietone (sound-on-film, born in 1927) but silent-era footage from the newsreel service that was then known only as (wait for it...) Fox News.  :-(

Just as the strip of film has a physical referent in a particular place (the vaults in Columbia, SC), the emulsion on the nitrate strip was created originally by a particular real-world subject in front of the hand-cranked 35mm camera. For the purposes of viewing Decasia, Kehr is correct in describing the Man as "an early-20th-century boxer." Yet in recognizing that this shot was "found" (using an exacting cataloguing system!) in an archival collection, we can also wonder about its historicity. We could easily re-imagine this same footage (decayed or not) illustrating something about, say, the 1920s (the golden age of sports) or the history of prizefighting.

soundtrack CD (Cantaloupe Music, 2002)                                            limited edition DVD (Other Cinema) 

Sparring Man battling an amorphous abstract opponent is actually Sparring Man Willie Ritchie (born Gerhardt Anthony Steffen), training  (as the camera operator Lou Hutt knew when showing up to film the boxer) for a comeback title bout against then lightweight champion Benny Leonard (born Benjamin Leiner, he held the title from 1917 to 1925). Ritchie was lightweight champion of the world from 1912 to 1914, the "white hope" era, when Jack Johnson held the heavyweight crown. The original Fox catalog record is correct, but perhaps a bit misleading today, stating that Ritchie was training for a championship match with Leonard. Indeed the press of June 1923 (when this scene was filmed in San Francisco) reported that Ritchie was training for his comeback and wanted to a title match. But he never got it.

No doubt Morrison was drawn to the part of the updated catalog record that says "various scenes of Willie Richie [sic] training... including: jumping rope, using punching bag (emulsion deterioration)." And "Note: TBP [to be pulled or printed, due to physical condition]; emulsion deterioration, severe [yay!] at times." Had he been making a documentary on, say, the history of boxing, he might have been more drawn to the other Fox footage of Willie Ritchie. Both pieces of film (MVTN 3370 and 0930) have the assigned title, Boxing: Ritchie Trains, but the less deteriorated piece was shot by San Franciscan Sam Greenwald, almost a year earlier.

To tie up this posting in a bow, we might note that the last piece of silent film in the USC MIRC catalog attributed to cinematographer Hutt is MVTN 8567 (San Francisco, Dec. 27, 1928): Bust/Statue of "Santa" Made of Tallow/Fat.  The content summary reads: "Chef Gustave Milhan carves a "Santa Claus" from 500 pounds of tallow (fat). It took four months to make."

 # # #

This "stock" photo from Corbis company [100 million images] comes from the noted Bettman Archive [11 million photos], which it purchased in 1995.  According to the Corbis Images site:  "Original caption:1935- - Benny Leonard, Lightweight Champion, on a barn-storming trip, took on Willie Ritchie, ex-champion for four rounds at San Francisco and took a whipping. However, in a later fight in New Jersey, he knocked out Ritchie in 8 pounds [sic]." 
 I wonder if that 1935 date is accurate? Could be, if they were barnstorming. But they both look in fighting trim.

More likely, the photo is from 1919, when Leonard was champion and Ritchie retired, serving in the U.S. military as a boxing instructor at training camps. In "Ritchie May Try to Stage 'Comeback'"  (Aug. 20, 1922), the San Francisco Chronicle noted Ritchie's "sensational four-round fight against Benny Leonard" in San Francisco, and "a longer match in Jersey, where Leonard handed Ritchie a  decisive beating."

The photo below, from a memorabilia dealer, is identified only as an "antique photo" from a 1918 charity benefit, showing Leonard shaking hands with Ritchie (left). The newsies' front page extras refer to Italy, Flanders and battle, confirming this is not one of the postwar Ritchie bouts.