This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was originally published in 1818. Shelley was just 19 years old when she first conceived of this classic piece of Gothic fiction, and since the book’s release it has been adapted for the large and small screen many times. One of the most unusual interpretations of Shelley’s timeless tale is SPARK OF BEING (’10) made by the experimental filmmaker and artist Bill Morrison, which you can currently stream on FilmStruck.
SPARK OF BEING was creatively stitched together from deteriorating stock footage, timeworn documentaries and antiquated educational shorts, including material from Ernest Shackleton’s historic Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The 68-minute film unfolds in 13 chapters that depict the viewpoints of the ship Captain, the Doctor and his monster without using any actors. The opaque patchwork arrangement, which has no sound besides the accompanying jazz score by Dave Douglas, is a compelling choice that obscures the narrative while emphasizing the story’s underlying themes. Time becomes irrelevant in Morrison’s film as images from different decades collide, collapse and reemerge to form a new and unique contemporary work of art. Despite the experimental nature of the work, this is a surprisingly faithful interpretation of Frankenstein that abandons the Gothic trappings and visceral thrills viewers have come to expect in favor of a more clinical and contemplative retelling.
If you are unfamiliar with Morrison’s work, then SPARK OF BEING is a good entry point particularly for those acquainted with Shelley’s original text or other adaptations of her story. The Frankenstein mythos has become so engrained in our communal culture that it is difficult to breathe new life into this centuries-old fable. However, Morrison manages to make the familiar seem fresh and strange. Not every element of SPARK OF BEING works for me and I occasionally found myself feeling out of step with the film’s visual and aural poetry. But that is a matter of personal taste and more often than not I was in awe of the film’s capacity to convey vast ideas through such an idiosyncratic lens. Of particular interest is the way in which viewers get to experience the world through the creature’s eyes as it mingles with nature for the first time and encounters the prying eyes of puzzled strangers. In these moments the film takes on a mournful and melancholy tone that compliments the source material.
According to a 2014 interview Morrison did with IndieWire, SPARK OF BEING was a collaborative effort between the director and composer Dave Douglas. Morrison was inspired to reinterpret the Frankenstein story using his film collage techniques after coming across old footage of the 1915 Shackleton expedition showing the doomed Endurance ship trapped in ice. It conjured up images from Shelley’s Frankenstein, which begins and ends in the frozen North. Morrison conveyed his ideas to Douglas, who was a resident artist at Stanford University at the time, and together to two men came up with idea of collaborating on a unique project that would combine technology and art. Their unconventional approach to the material is reminiscent of the early work of avant-garde filmmakers and artists such as Joseph Cornell (ROSE HOBART [‘36], THE MIDNIGHT PARTY [‘38], BY NIGHT BY TORCH AND SPEAR ) and Jack Smith (SCOTCH TAPE [‘61]), FLAMING CREATURES [‘63], NORMAL LOVE [‘63]) who reinterpreted footage and ideas from classic movies and recycled discarded film stock. More recently Canadian director Guy Maddin has explored similar terrain in THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (’15) and GREEN FOG (’17).
FilmStruck presently has 18 of Bill Morrison’s short films and features available until June including his most recent effort, the critically acclaimed DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (’16) that was described by Los Angeles critic Dan Schindel as “A history in still and moving images charting the transformation of Tr’ochëk, a fishing camp at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, into the epicenter of the Yukon gold rush at the turn of the last century. It is also a history of the 35mm film prints that were shipped to Dawson between the 1910s and 1920s, then hidden away and forgotten for 50 years until they were unearthed in the initial stages of a construction project …” (quoted at billmorrisonfilm.com). The director seems to have become more interested in documentary filmmaking in recent years but his unconventional approach to the material remains as inspired and innovative as ever.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Originally written for FilmStruck