For practitioners of the art of cinema, the technological advances in the medium are cause for jubilation. But for some, like the British-based Canadian film artist Mark Lewis, these changes are viewed with an air of subtle nostalgia. His two 40-minute documentaries, Backstory and Cinema Museum - which are screening back-to-back tonight at TIFF - share an air of lamentation for film's funkier yesterday, taking us down some of the industry's fascinating historical byways.
The documentaries constitute a break from Lewis's customary working approach. He's known for his short, two- to seven-minute unscripted art films that engage in a kind of slow, scrupulous examination, usually of urban subjects. His new films, though, look at the history of the medium itself. Cinema Museum (2008) records his visit to a madly overstuffed private collection in London, his camera trailing a female curator through the stacks of memorabilia - from old scripts and usherette uniforms to antique theatre signage, and broken-down projectors. A musty air of obsolescence hangs over her explanations (uttered in her soft German accent), as she rapturously demonstrates the fluttering sound of a hand-cranked projector. Lewis looks back to a moment when there was pageantry in movie-going, with uniformed ushers, ice cream vendors, ladies' cloak rooms and sweeping staircases beckoning us to a heaven of make believe - a far cry from the multiplex utilitarianism of today.
If Cinema Museum exudes charming, Old World eccentricity, Lewis's companion piece - Backstory (2009) - resonates with Yankee ingenuity. The film centres on the work of Robert, Bill and Billy Hansard, three generations of men who pioneered the technique of rear-projection in Hollywood. Shooting the background footage in one place, usually outdoors, they then set up the moving images in the sound studio on a large screen and shot the actors performing in front of them. (The most obvious rear-projections are often those in driving scenes.) "This was the moment when cinema became modern," says Lewis, who has used rear-projection in a few of his own films, such as Nathan Phillips Square, A Winter's Night, Skating, a work made for this summer's Venice Biennale and currently showing at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery at the University of Toronto. "This was the moment when cinema started looking at itself, incorporating itself as a subject, literally."
The Hansards gave Lewis their stories. They also provided the background "plates" for his film, which likely constitutes the last gasp for this dying art. With the digital capabilities of current cinema, rear projection has become obsolete, and with it has gone the creaky artifice that characterized film's early days, so charming to our contemporary eyes. Lewis bids this era farewell, addressing - with entropic melancholy - the transformational changes of the film business as well as the human fascination with storytelling, and our futile fight against the passage of time.
Here, history turns poetic, and an industry reveals itself to be a calling. Lewis proves you can deconstruct movie magic and still cast a spell.
Backstory and Cinema Museum will be screened tonight at 7:45 at Varsity Cinemas 2.