For as long as there were films, there were lost films. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of them – and not just unloved obscurities, but key works of Hitchcock, Ozu, and Warhol, all left to rot in their cans, burned in archival fires, or simply misplaced and never recovered. One day, my new film, The Afterlight, will be among them.
Assembled from fragments of hundreds of old movies from around the world, The Afterlight is a collage of found images that brings together a vast array of actors with one thing in common: Everyone who appears onscreen is no longer alive. . In the film, they live through the performances they left behind, as if preserved in the amber of cultural memory.
Like cultural memory, however, The Afterlight continuously fades. The film is available in a single 35mm print, without any digital copy: no DVD, no Blu-ray, no streaming. Each time it is projected, that isolated imprint erodes further: a living recording of its own circulating life. Eventually it will deteriorate to nothing.
This prospect was easier to swallow when the film existed only in my imagination, before it was a tangible object representing countless creative obstacles, breakthroughs and discoveries. Its future non-existence is particularly daunting after two years filled with so many other losses, during which on-demand home viewing has become a rare source of comfort and stability.
Another 15 years ago, when my own passion for cinema was cultivated through a LoveFilm subscription and the imports section of play.com, I used to wait a few days for a movie to arrive in the mail. Today’s home viewing barriers – browsing and buffering – are measured in seconds. One would expect a proportional expansion in the scale and scope of contemporary cinephilia.
Instead, it often seems that streaming’s obvious potential for opening up new audiences and diversifying cultural palaces has become an excuse to forgo work that could usher in a more complex and curious film culture. After all, Atlantics, winner of Mati Diop’s acclaimed Cannes award is technically available for each of Netflix’s 200 million global subscribers, so don’t complain if every time you load the app you see Halloween halloween.
In a sense, this is nothing new: even the film archives – whose existence rests on the value of making the moving image accessible to present and future generations – are filled with copies that will never be shown, of films that will never be seen. Jurij Meden, curator at the Austrian Film Museum, qualifies these funds as “surplus living dead” and estimates that they represent 90% of archival collections.
Such films are at least well preserved, lest they someday end up in the lucky 10% that grab the public’s attention. This is not the case in the nature of streaming. Any movie “purchased” from Amazon Prime can only be viewed as long as Amazon retains permission from the copyright holder to show it to you. And if these same copyright holders could not be trusted to protect our cultural heritage back in the days when films were physical objects that could be organized and inventoried, it seems unlikely that they will turn out more. reliable in the digital age.
A properly stored physical film print can last for hundreds of years. Digital media, for all their flexibility, are much less stable, requiring constant migration to avoid data degradation and format obsolescence. Infamous uplifting tale concerns Pixar’s efforts to release Toy Story on DVD for the first time in 2000. Although only five years had passed since the film’s theatrical release, the original animation files had become so completely corrupted that the animators were forced to recreate up to a fifth of the film. from reference copies. It is safe to assume that films which do not have Multi-billion dollar franchises haven’t done any better.
A new era of lost movies may be just beginning. Only now we won’t even see them go, shrouded in an illusion of instant and perpetual access. Today, a movie may look just as good the last time it’s screened as the first, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a last time. Despite all the obvious limitations on the lifespan of my film, it might have more in common with the 2021 release cohort than first impressions suggest.
In the case of The Afterlight, at least, the fragile equation at the heart of film culture is laid bare. The scratches and imperfections that accumulate on the print will irrevocably alter the film itself, but they will also replace something bigger: the screening in which they occurred, and the audience there to witness it. In the process, the act of viewing itself will become material, at a time when it is generally anything but.