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Spark of Being: Film Review

Spark of Being Film Still - H 2011

The Bottom Line

Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" receives a semi-abstract retelling in this outstanding piece of experimental filmmaking.

Director/editor

Bill Morrison

Bill Morrison's wordless film adapts Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" using found film footage.

With Spark of Being, self-described “archival film re-animator” Bill Morrison ventures into narrative territory — sort of — for the first time. Using a fascinating mix of found footage and the mercurial compositions of trumpeter Dave Douglas, Morrison retells Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The dialogue-free feature, which screened in the Young Americans section at the recent AFI Fest, is strictly a festival item, but one that makes you wish there were more venues showcasing experimental films.

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Morrison (Decasia) and Douglas’ collaboration of visual art and music took shape over a yearlong residency at Stanford University, as part of a national series of works commissioned by the nonprofit organization Meet The Composer. Douglas’ score, performed by a six-piece electric ensemble, moves from jazz flights to ambient drone, and is as integral to Spark of Being as Morrison’s
gorgeously distressed and decayed images.

The feature is in some ways closer to its source material than most film adaptations of the Gothic novel. Spark evokes the icebound ship that opens Shelley’s tale through footage of Ernest Shackleton’s marooned Antarctic expedition, photographed by Frank Hurley. The frigid scenes are set against the syncopated heat of jazz passages, to compelling effect.

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Chapter titles structure the visuals, providing elemental explanations of the interactions among the Captain, the Doctor and the Creature. The story’s sci-fi aspect is expressed in imagery of laboratories, test tubes and Petri dishes (drawn mostly from educational films). The emotional core — what Morrison calls an exploration of “alienation and trying to find love in society” — comes to life in vintage scenes of city crowds and views of nature and domestic life. Water damage transforms color images, and the director exploits the beauty of decomposing nitrate and the artistic qualities of Drano to take scratchy B&W into the realm of the sublime.

Whether he’s focusing on microscopic views of cells or mysterious and rugged coastlines, Morrison brings a rhythmic depth to the material. He has likened the assemblage itself, with its “fuzzy, half-formed reality,” to Shelley’s Creature. But when the story’s circular configuration returns to that city crowd, the stares of those long-dead, anonymous individuals suggest that the camera too is the Creature: a way of seeing, and an igniting spark.

Venue: AFI Fest
A Hypnotic Pictures and Greenleaf Music presentation
Director/editor: Bill Morrison
Music: Dave Douglas
No MPAA rating, 68 minutes