A Return to the Memory of Decay

Decay in Guy Maddin's Films

/ by David Spittle

Life is possible only by the deficiencies of our imagination and memory – E. M. Cioran



Endless archives exist in the excess of our refuse and representation. Some are consciously constructed and others are the suspended by-products of online activity, anthropocentric industry, and the surplus of “data” (in whatever form it takes) that now surrounds every breath and waking gesture. We have unprecedented access, through versions of infinite digital storage, to entire histories of art, film, literature and music, and so, in a sense it seems decay has never been further from us…decay itself has been archived from the augmented realities of embalmed and circulating information. Where is the distorted, glitching and warped, or the molding, damp and broken? Well, despite this apparent repression of disappearance that the internet presents, or because of this, decay is increasingly everywhere.


This presents (through the always re-represented) a turning back on what has been to now be again: Quarried / re-purposed / re-animated /found / tunneled into / constructively disturbed / recalled / retrieved / recycled / obsessively turned over / obsessively obsessed over / and then, and then, obsessing in hunt of a new obsession: For the not-yet-gone of what has gone before, this becomes our narcotic compost. A way of dealing with the “it” of everywhere and “everywhen,” as always archival is to cherish marks of resistance – of decay. There is, of course, much more to this. This romanticized turn to decay is hardly new, it is itself in the late stages of its own creative decay.




In a 2013 conversation between the filmmaker Guy Maddin and Bookworm radio host Michael Silverblatt, the topic of erasure and decay arises: Silverblatt comments that “the deformation and disintegration of what we once loved will be our task for the future.” This “decay” is not conceived as a return to theories of deconstruction, nor as the latest loop of inter-textual and meta-referential postmodernism. Instead, they are suggesting (and as demonstrated throughout Maddin’s filmography) decay as a creative impulse, one that is haunted by and haunting as disappearance and decomposition. Disappearance becomes the felt presence of an absence and decomposition, newly configured, is understood as an evolving of composition. In this light, decay becomes a celebrated mobility for the production of new life in the death(s) of old matter; still mattering or muttering in its supposed obsolescence, where the body’s posthumous leakage is bottled to quench a particular drought in the present.


Maddin and Silverblatt mention the films of Martin Arnold, specifically Deanimated (2002), in which a Bela Lugosi film, The Invisible Ghost (1941), is digitally manipulated to erase characters onscreen. As a haunting result of this erasure, Lugosi’s melodramatic acting becomes newly expressive of the increasingly empty scenes and evacuated space. The digital performs an overwriting through a visual writing-out, a surgical decay of the film’s content. Their conversation then segues to the poetry of Mary Ruefle, whose “white-out” texts (of which there are many but only one officially published – or “republished” – A Little White Shadow, 2006) re-purpose old, second-hand books, concealing the majority of the text (painted, scrawled or collaged over) to leave islands of disconnected print like lost objects uncovered after snow. It is a technique that has its most dramatic precedent in Tom Phillips’ epic book-art experiment, A Humement, which uses W.H. Mallock’s forgotten Victorian novel, A Human Document (1892). A Humement was first published in 1970 and its “final” edition, including all subsequent erasures and variations, appeared in 2016. The intuitive archaeology of revealing books in books, like Arnold’s film, conducts poetry in the act of disappearing – not as a textual sleight of hand but in severing hands to reveal new dexterities. It makes literal the absence that defines language and that has always seduced poetry; a disappearing that, in meaning-making, introduces its (de)centered motor: The (w)hole movement between presence and absence being the same flux that characterizes decay.




The disintegration of the flesh, that first digests itself in autolysis, before external agents descend (the flies, the archivists, their maggots, and the artists) will later purge, flesh escaping its own boundaries (as the intestinal walls collapse), liquefied (the body’s interpretation, running away from itself, its residual question mark) to leave its trace in the changed chemistry of the soil (the climate from which writing begins), all this will overlap with and constitute a poetics of decay. Decay as noise, as play, as memory. Decay as the body disappearing within the appearance of new bodies, as the trace and proof of living.

The Word became Flesh. And then, bruising? Maybe. It may be in the blooms of pressure and spilt continents of mold; some accidents are eloquent with time…and meaning, meaning you should watch Bill Morrison’s film Decasia (2002).


Morrison’s extraordinary film stitches together found-film from archives in ways that dramatically foreground the celluloid’s decay. The chance of organic deterioration enacts a hallucinatory parallel to John Cage’s aleatory procedures; accidents of time, damp, mold or pressure induce ghostly blemishes that interrupt and re-imagine the film’s image. Decasia stages decay as a poetics of interference through which original narratives – that dietetically occur in each found film – are spun into a visionary disruption of narrative to instead newly narrate time itself, wrestling and dreaming into the chemicals of film’s medium.


Audio parallels to this haunting of and as the medium can be found in William Basinski’s ambient album, The Disintegration Tapes (2002/2003), in which attempts to salvage early magnetic-tape recordings becomes instead a looping attention to their gradual decay. The emergence of the recording coincided with the 9/11 attacks, the artwork that accompanied the piece subsequently used images of New York’s burnt and smoking skyline: the symbol, and symbolic capital, of American power newly re-configured in the wreckage of its decay. Another sound-artist/musician relevant to this discussion would be Leyland Kirby. An experimentalist in electronic, ambient and atmospheric creation, Kirby’s project “The Caretaker” (taking inspiration from the haunted ballroom in The Shining) subjects big-band records to textured loops of static and, as of 2016, has envisaged the project’s descent, Everywhere at the End of Time, into a kind of sonic dementia. Unnerving repetition is central to “The Caretaker” as the music waltzes through abandoned corridors of amnesia, hears muffled nostalgias through peeling wallpaper, and corrodes the incessant stylus to a frightening disorientation as, gradually, memory decays…once warm familiarities become unhinged and cold cruelties, reminding only of their change and distance…




To return to Maddin. Alongside and out of his (and co-director Evan Johnson’s) stunning film, The Forbidden Room (2015), sprung with a mad nesting of narratives that unfurl like venereal flowers in ectoplasmic fog, Maddin also embarked on the online film creation: Seances (http://seances.nfb.ca). Here we have decay and the delving into decay that (de)composes disappearance, accident, erasure, online glitching, efflorescing celluloid, and narrative in a suspended portal that awaits each online visit to invoke its ghost. The project was inspired by resurrecting the spirit of historically ‘lost films’ (those early films consigned to bonfires, misplaced, un-watchable…or simply lost), to reimagine – via filmic séance – a revisited history, modelled on the desire to see what can no longer be seen. Filming hundreds of these short films, many of which structured The Forbidden Room, Maddin has now curated a disappearing archive where they can now all be viewed in unique combinations online which, once seen, owing to an algorithmic roulette, can never be seen in exactly that way ever again. Inspired by loss and absence, adopting an aesthetics of decay and encouraging each moment of viewing to enact its own disappearance, Seances can never be entirely experienced but is, in the experience of its play and memory, one of the most astounding (de)composings of decay I’ve ever (almost) seen.


Decay has charmed Renaissance paintings scattered with Greco-Roman ruins, seduced the Gothic Romanticism of derelict mansions and abandoned castles, eroticized the surrealist image of a train stranded in a forest, resonated across literature, film, and music through specters of hauntology – as coined by Derrida and later popularized by Mark Fisher –

and voyeuristically kindled a development in photography referred to as ‘ruin porn’.

When self-surveilling documentation is normalized, the role of memory paradoxically disintegrates; externally re-distributed among virtual archives that warp new miniature histories among the present, our own contact with memory is seemingly outsourced. Consequently, memory is reduced to our own performance of, and tribute to, its disappearing possibility. A distracted amnesia – articulated primarily through the default badge of non-specific stress, bewildered fatigue, or sublimated panic – means we have become increasingly nostalgic for nostalgia (a syndrome that arguably returns to the late 90s and crests in millennial obsessions). Any object or process that embodies the ageing and decay that digitally manufactured timelines and updates of ‘experience’ seem to repress, become hypnotic sites of missed encounter: that which we recognize but have become habitually estranged from. What Maddin’s films so beautifully realize, is that to now (re)turn increasingly to decay has a utopian ache. To re-experience memory and the play of time, and to re-acquaint ourselves with (f)ailing bodies, means that decay becomes a potent ticket for remembering remembering. A return.

David Spittle

completed a PhD on the poetry of John Ashbery and Surrealism at Newcastle University. He has published reviews in Hix Eros and to PN Review. His poetry has been published in Adjacent PineappleBlackbox Manifold, Datableed3am, Zarf, and has been translated into French by Black Herald Press. Twice shortlisted for the Melita Hume Prize (2015/2016) and included in the Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 Anthology (Eyewear Press), his debut collection, All Particles and Waves is forthcoming with Eyewear Press (October 2018). In addition to poetry, he has written the libretti to three operas, and in 2014 was commissioned to write a song cycle for the Bergen National Opera, since performed internationally. http://themidnightmollusc.blogspot.co.uk