“The Afterlight” is an alluring tribute to a bygone era of cinema

The first movie I had to watch for the first film class I took at the University of Michigan was Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” I watched it from a stream on my laptop, plugged into the mid-range TV in my dorm room with a friend of mine from the class. Some ways into the movie, she remarked: “This footage is really impressive!” (The film was released in 1941). I agreed in agreement, but had something else on my mind. “Isn’t it crazy to think that every actor in this film is probably dead?”

“Citizen Kane” has no overt association with nonfiction filmmaker Charlie Shackleton’s (“Beyond Clueless”) experimental film, “The Afterlight,” which recently had its US premiere at the 60th Ann Arbor Film Festival. That is, except for a brief cameo from Welles as the iconic character Kane in the latter. How is this possible, one might ask? The latter is in many ways a compilation, consisting of fragments of films from around the world assembled by Shackleton, with one thing in common: Every actor shown in the film is no longer alive. This comes with a further twist — the film exists as a single 35mm film print, which will erode just a little every time it is screened.

Projected onto the expansive screen of the Michigan Theater Screening Room, “The Afterlight” struck me with an amplified sense of the wonder that befell my “Citizen Kane” screening companion. Although quality of the footage varied from fragment to fragment, it was a surprise that old films could look this good. Any projection of a film print is hard enough to come by these days, let alone those of films made almost a century ago. There’s just something about seeing noir and expressionist vignettes from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s the way they were meant to be seen (move over, IMAX!).

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