A one-off experience visits Birmingham’s Electric Cinema: The Afterlight, an 82-minute collage assembled from footage in which every person in frame is now dead. Director Charlie Shackleton accompanies the film on its tour, not only to give post-screening Q&A sessions, but also because he is in possession of the only copy of the film in existence – a single 35mm print that gradually degrades with each successive screening, picking up scratches and other wear and tear, and when it’s finally too damaged to watch any longer, it’s gone for good.
It’s a compelling idea, invoking questions of film preservation, the ways in which film captures and preserves moments in time, and the peculiar cinematic magic (and particularly magic of celluloid) that brings ghosts to life through illumination. And Shackleton is a charming, intelligent and witty speaker, the best advertisement for his own film, although his style and confidence activate José’s cynicism circuits – do we really believe that he hasn’t kept a copy of the film for himself?
But as for the film? It’s an enjoyable experience, the footage assembled into a rough narrative of sorts that takes us through similar actions and settings seen across countless cinematic sources, and both the choices of source material and the editing’s sense of rhythm create an appealing mood throughout, but much of the specific choices feel too vaguely motivated. Why has this shot in particular been included? Why the focus on one setting or action instead of some other? These questions are never satisfactorily answered, and the film meanders with too little intention.
One point of comparison in particular comes up in our discussion: The Clock, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour installation film that we saw large segments of both together and separately when it visited the Tate Modern three years ago. It’s similarly constructed of clips from films, its rubric to find shots that show clocks and other timepieces so that the film itself can function as a clock. We think about the difference in how often Shackleton and Marclay take creative liberties with their source material and build something new and expressive with it, and the different ranges of that source material to begin with (one of our biggest criticisms of The Clock being the unimaginative Anglo-American cinephile context from which most, if not all, of its sources came).
Criticisms notwithstanding, The Afterlight is an interesting and enjoyable one-off experience that literally – and we do mean literally – has to be seen in person, and if it screens near you it’s worth the evening. It won’t look as good as it did for us, admittedly, but at least you’ll be helping it look even worse for the next audience.