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Carrying the past.

Fortnightly Review Film Commentary. 

The Afterlight
by Charlie Shackleton
1.37:1 | mono | black & white | 82 minutes

an interview
By Simon Collings.

Charlie Shackleton’s film The Afterlight is a collage of clips from hundreds of films from around the world. It brings together a cast of actors all of whom are no longer alive, including Hollywood stars as well as lesser-known actors from obscure movies. The montage is structured around specific types of action: someone walking along a street, entering a room, driving. The juxtapositions imply a relationship between the images, the different actors in varying locations sharing a common cinematic space. As the film moves from one set of images to another an elusive sense of narrative is created. Characters appear to seek contact with each other, though never quite achieving this. The carefully crafted soundtrack, also assembled from old movie footage, adds to the film’s sense of narrative coherence.

The Afterlight had its first screening at the British Film Institute on 15 October 2021. It exists as a single celluloid print which will degrade over time. This is intentional. The director believes the damage over time  adds character to the film and contributes to an audience’s experience of viewing it. I saw the film at the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford and later spoke with the director. A transcript of our conversation follows.

Simon Collings: Tell me how the idea of the film came about.

Charlie Shackleton: It was an idea that had been floating around in my head for years, the best part of a decade I think, before I actually sat down and started actively working on it. The idea was a very vague one at first, which was really just these two constraints: the idea of an archival film in which everyone who appeared on screen was no longer alive. And then sort of bound to that, the idea of the film existing as a single celluloid print so that that kind of fragility and ephemerality would be imbued in the object itself. I spent years with that idea sort of ticking away in the background. Needless to say, it’s quite hard to fundraise for a project like that. Then around 2019, I began more actively working on it, just in my spare time between paying gigs, and then during the pandemic I kept at it, even though, obviously at that time it was hard to imagine ever being able to actually show it to anyone.

SC: So as you started working on it seriously, were you accumulating a file of images from films where you thought ‘I could use that’?

CS: Yeah, basically. I tried as much as possible not to go in with specific ideas of what I was looking for. Instead I was doing a huge amount of viewing of as wide and varied a range of materials as I possibly could, and seeing what jumped out at me. When I was watching through this lens, thinking about acting, thinking about mortality, and screen presence, and what it means, I just began collecting anything that was of interest to me. I accumulated probably 10 to 15 hours of short sequences, and then over time, certain sorts of themes or preoccupations emerged from that material.

SC: In the film there are clusters of similar types of images or scenes: people walking on a street at night, for example, or entering a room, people standing gazing vacantly as they ponder some problem that we don’t know about. So those kinds of groupings of images emerged from this mass of material that you accumulated? You didn’t go in looking for images of, say, people walking on the street?

CS: Exactly. As someone who’s made archive films in the past, and someone who watches a lot of them, that’s always been a kind of personal bugbear for me, when you get that sense that someone’s started with a pre-ordained idea of what they’re looking for in the archive and then gone looking for it. Because I think in practice you never quite find what you imagine, or what you remember, and instead you get material that sort of fits and you end up crowbarring it into the shape that you want it to be. I think that doesn’t explore the archive, or express the archive, in a way that’s meaningful to me. So I tried to do it the other way, and what ended up becoming interesting to me wasn’t really what I would’ve expected.

And then in practice, what I actually found myself drawn to was the opposite, to moments of isolation and loneliness, and a boiling down of action to its absolute most distilled form.

If I allowed myself to imagine what the film might feel like ahead of time, it was something more based on the idea of a sort of cinematic coexistence, all these different figures from different places and eras coexisting on screen in this strange kind of harmony. And then in practice, what I actually found myself drawn to was the opposite, to moments of isolation and loneliness, and a boiling down of action to its absolute most distilled form. Because they just seemed the moments that became most captivating once clipped, once they were devoid of context. They seemed to transform into something so much more metaphorical, so much more poetic, I think because of their simplicity, because there was something so poignant about these small moments having been captured and having been preserved for so many decades.

SC: Yes the film has many expressive moments. In one sequence of different people in the street we see an actor look up as though responding to the previous clip of somebody looking down the street, but seeming not to see anyone. As you said there’s a kind of relationship between the characters in these sequences of shots, but there’s also an isolation of the figure within each of those individual clips, isn’t there?

CS: Totally, and I think that the mode of editing, where you’re going between these different archival sources, almost inevitably creates that quite productive feeling of one’s mind trying to forge connections even when you rationally know that there are none. Or that you know these two things cannot be in literal dialogue, but nonetheless you strive to create some communication between them.

SC: You said earlier that you’d tried to view a wide range of material, and that’s evident from the film. There’s quite a bit of classic Hollywood, but you’ve also got European cinema and Asian cinema. How widely did you cast the net, and were you surprised after surveying such diverse material to discover this connecting language, these cinematic tropes which seem to cross borders?

CS: That to me was another push and pull where I wanted the film to express these essential differences between what is prioritised in an archive and what is privileged, and then what gets forgotten and ignored and deprioritised. On the one hand that bias gets expressed inevitably whether you want it to or not, because the pool of material I’m drawing from has had so many rounds of selection applied to it before I even get involved. But I wanted as much as possible to lean into that and express within my choices, and within the films’ created decisions, how these imbalances manifest. You can see that obviously in the jarring contrast that is sometimes apparent between how well a clip from a classic Hollywood film has been preserved or maintained versus one from a less culturally dominant or less commercially exploited filmmaker or region.

But then in thinking about where there is thematic overlap and where there isn’t, the sorts of spaces that appear multiple times in The Afterlight, many of them are those favoured by golden-age Hollywood cinema, which as you say, appears in greater number than any other national cinema. So there’s definitely a bit of Hollywood bending the cinematic archive to its will going on. But at the same time, I think that was another thing pushing me in the direction of these much simpler  visual motifs, of  people walking or entering a space, looking around, thinking, waiting, which were the moments where there seemed to be more of a universality emerging, albeit one that is obviously littered with things that complicate any sort of simplistic idea of cinema as this great cultural unifier or level playing field.

SC: Let’s talk a bit about the soundtrack because that’s also fascinating. Sometimes you use sound associated with a particular image that carries on across several subsequent images, you have music of various kinds, you’ve got foley sounds.  At the screening in Oxford you talked about the different kinds of silences in the film.

CS: I think the sound, as much as the visual quality of the source material, tells a real story about not only how the film was originally made and how its soundscape was recorded and processed and presented, but also then how well or badly it’s been preserved. You know, we’re hearing not the film as it necessarily sounded on release, but as it sounds now in its best available version. So I really wanted to preserve those qualities because I think they’re a large part of what speaks to the diversity of the material, and how different so much of it sounds. It’s a good way of reminding the audience that what they’re watching does have a source, does have an original context, does have a history that is either working with or against the context in which it’s being placed now.

I thought of that as a way to play with the audience’s sense of continuity and discontinuity.

As far as possible, I kept the sound of the source material as is. The few compromises I made to that were some of those moments where diegetic music in a scene carries across multiple clips. I thought of that as a way to play with the audience’s sense of continuity and discontinuity. When you feel that continuation from one clip to the next, it reinforces this sense that what you are experiencing is a kind of shared space with these disparate figures coexisting. But obviously, on a rational level, that the music has been added, that the source material did not all come from the same place, let alone the same narrative.

I think if you can get people to buy into that while also questioning it at the same time, that’s a very satisfying mode of viewing. The other compromise was that I wanted, as far as possible, to avoid having sequences where if you’re cutting between ten different clips you would have ten different soundtracks, because I think that would’ve created such a sonically jarring experience. Any hope of people thinking of the clips as coexisting would be flattened by this kind of relentlessly jarring soundscape.

In those instances where I pulled the scoring away, I replaced the sound using sound from elsewhere in the same source film.

In those instances where I pulled the scoring away, I replaced the sound using sound from elsewhere in the same source film. If I had to take away the sound from a clip of someone walking in the Lady from Shanghai, I would get the sound of someone walking from elsewhere in the Lady from Shanghai and lay it over.  I ended up with this library of hundreds of different silences from hundreds of different films, all of which of course are vastly different from one another, and filled with all of these strange unidentifiable sonic fingerprints. It was a weird thing to have left over, like a kind of art project in itself.

SC: I’d like to explore a little bit some of the other film work that you’ve seen that may have informed your thinking about this project. I’m thinking, for example, of Joseph Cornell’s collage film Rose Hobart, and Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog — this came out after you’d already started working on your film. Are there particular collage artists working in cinema, or other work like Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, that you’d highlight as important to you?

CS: Definitely the ones you mentioned. Another filmmaker I was thinking about a lot was Mathias Müller, the German essay-film maker and video essayist. He’s made a lot of work that’s looking at performance and playing with the recontextualisation of fiction. There’s one I really love called Home Stories, which is all clips of Hollywood melodramas filmed off of his television on 16 millimetre. It’s both this great recontextualisation of these little isolated moments of drama, but also feels like a work of media archaeology as well, where it’s really speaking to the mode of viewing as well as what’s being viewed.

SC:  Lastly, I’d like to ask you about the idea of making just the one celluloid print, which over time, through multiple screenings, is going to degrade. There’s a whole tradition of artwork that’s deliberately made to be ephemeral, and to eventually disappear. Is the film almost a kind of art object?

For me, the film comes into being when projected, not just as the images that are on screen, but as the whole performance of a screening,…

CS: I’d probably see it less as an art object and, and more as a piece of performance art. I don’t invest a huge amount of meaning in the static object, in the print that sits in a case behind my sofa. For me, the film comes into being when projected, not just as the images that are on screen, but as the whole performance of a screening, as this sort of collaboration between projectionist and audience, and then somewhere in the mix me as filmmaker.

When I started making the film I’d become increasingly interested in, and committed to, going to see celluloid projected, not particularly for its aesthetic qualities, although I see the appeal of those, but more for the kind of additional layer of meaning that I think comes from watching a physical print projected, the kind of palpable sense that you’re watching something with a history and that the way a print looks, the way a print sounds is a product of that history and can express that history. With The Afterlight, that effect is multiplied because not only does your viewing experience connect you with previous ones, but it also in this case connects you with every experience that anyone has ever had watching the film. If you are watching it, you are watching the exact same piece of plastic running through the projector as anyone else who’s seen it. There’s something very particular and special about that idea of a print as a carrier of the past.

The Afterlight is a Loop production, directed and assembled by Charlie Shackleton, and produced by Catherine Bray, Anthony Ing and Charlie Shackleton. Original cinematography is by Robbie Ryan. Original music by Jeremy Warmsley. Sound design by Charlie Shackleton. Additional sound by Eleanor McDowall. Mix by Tom Jenkins. English-language captions (.mp4, 8MB) and audio description (.mp3, 22MB) are also available. These can be downloaded to personal devices and synchronised with any screening of the film. Contact for bookings and enquiries.

CHARLIE SHACKLETON is a nonfiction filmmaker living and working in London. His improvised 3D short Lateral is currently playing festivals. His performance piece As Mine Exactly had its London run in 2023 at the Barbican Centre and its New York run the year before at the Museum of the Moving Image. Over the last decade, he has made the short films Lasting Marks, Fish Story, Personal Truth and Copycat, as well as the TV special Missing Episode, one part of the VR anthology A Machine for Viewing and the protest film Paint Drying. Before that, he made two feature-length essay films: Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself. He has also made several video essays including Pasta as Prologue, Histoire(s) du TikTok and Frames and Containers.

SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including StrideFortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, Junction Box, The Long Poem MagazineInk Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics ResearchWhy are you here?, a collection of his prose poems and short fiction, was published by Odd Volumes in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021, and his new work Blue Eyes is forthcoming from Zimzalla in spring 2024. Collings is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For more information, visit his webpage.

Image credits. Photo stills from The Afterlight; blank film by gleolite.

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