We were asleep in the cinema.
In the basement, cool concrete that once housed metal that housed celluloid that housed the world. All gone now: seedbanked somewhere inflammable, a climate-controlled vault for the world after. We’d never seen so much as a frame, having lived digitally, big-screen stories intimate in our hands and eyes. In the world before. The satellites fell and we carried on, watching what was caught in the local intranets by anarcho-servers, watching out for every file that dropped, bit by bit. Drip, drip. Then the undersea cable was cut and, being isolated entirely from the glocal community, we had nothing left but memory.
Still, there were cinemas, much as there were other buildings: faded and dangerous, more rebar than bar. But, sunk into the tapped-out earth, the basement remained riverine-cool, and the red velvet curtains we curled up on, and a faint smell that elders said was popcorn and alcopops. Sites of spillage, like us, sleeping the heat out until it was safe to go aboveground.
Generator: that’s what the festival was called, and that was the first we heard of it, a biofuel conversion grinding to life. Popcorn smell getting stronger.
Lights, people, action.
They came to find the red curtains and they found us, hungry and alert. Words we hadn’t heard for years flew around the room: ‘event’, ‘development’, ‘air conditioning’. We looked at the rats, the rats looked at us. They scurried, we shrugged. Mutual understanding. Eat what you can, hide when you can’t.
Facemasks raised, we beat the dust from the velveteen seats until it floated up into the late evening almost-cool, a smell-memory of skin cells. We saw it glitter in the bioluminescent lamplight that the generator made. Darkness we knew, but this new quality of darkness lit, almost-lit. In the pre-dawn chill, we stacked the bar, then snacked on brands we hadn’t seen for years, shipped in we didn’t ask how. Sponsors imminent via holo, we went to the replumbed washrooms and cleaned ourselves with sponsored soap whose scents were called things like Vision, then cleaned the washrooms of ourselves. In the foyer, the sponsors stood resplendent in refractive linen, smiling in almost-three dimensions as the chyron ran beneath them. We were shooed on screen, hit our marks, shook hands. Wearing the T-shirts we’d been given, unisex with wicking patches and UV filtering. Gene / Ration written across our hearts. Volunteer written across our backs.
Somewhere a platform clacked, assigning seats (VIP) or uplinks to audiences. We swept a decade from the foyer, oiled hinges, followed remote instruction to install cables, changed the fuel tank on the generator. Sparks jumped every time, despite the ultra-modular design with all its safeties. The ground beneath where the generator cables entered the cinema’s back wall grew faintly stained with biofuel. Faint as shadow, that half-lit memory.
Mouths filled with the smell of popcorn, we learned the titles of the films in the program by rote, a litany or Pokémon. Gotta catch them all. Most were unknown to us, speaking in a polyphony of newly-formed independent post-national communities and sovereignties shaped and brought into solidarity by the climate chaos that had, conversely, isolated us in our island leaders’ lost battle against the tides. Across the Next Generation program were filmmakers from the United Inuit Highlands, from Ayiti-Quisquean, from Pasifika Nova, from Mesta. Mountains and volcanoes on our tongues. Rivers and the last remaining glaciers. Films, we were told, are shot on new celluloid, a return to its origin in plant cellulose, closer to bark papers such as amate, but that would pass through a Bolex. What’s a Bolex? That black box in the corner of the basement with the strange protrusions. Look.
Through the viewfinder, through the beam of the projector. The day it’s brought in, we make shadow animals on the massive screen whose dried-out cracks turn our dogs and foxes mutant. It lights something up, though, a fuse. Dangerous. Memories sparking. On an overlooked wall of crumbling plaster and faded posters, now slowly spreading with a continental outline of leaked biofuel, we traced not the titles and names of the films we remembered, but how we’d seen them, how we knew them. How many times someone described an image, a movement, a movement between, a gesture against a sunset, the cry of a crowd, and someone said No, but I thought that was a dream.
The remembered map grew whenever we had time, and sometimes when we didn’t. You could turn away to the basement door, turn back, and a new note had been added. Who knew how or when. We didn’t. Generation had begun and we had no time.
We, who had had nothing but time on our hands.
We, who had been epicures of time, artists of time, scholars of time. Who used to craft red velvet roses out of darkness with infinite slowness, because slowness and darkness were what we had, and in such abundance.
Now we had no time.
It made no sense.
By the title of every film was written its length, expressed in minutes. Sometimes next to that a curious sigil, Q&A, which translated to a voice or voices beaming out in holo across the VIP few reclined in the few working seats under the lung-stinging stars, and further on to those connected by uplink from a temporary balloondrone satellite we, as citizens of the non-world, could not access. We’re out of time, I’m afraid.
Some films had a duration that matched their length, a lived-every-minute-of-this. Some were in glacier time, geological time. Some in insect time, a remembered fly-eye. That’s how it felt that we too saw, never able to watch more than a few seconds as we moved and moved, a thousand-faceted eye attached to a single communal never-enough body that opened doors, cleaned washrooms, tore tickets, served drinks, hauled boxes, compacted recycling, ran canisters to the projection booth, and always always always fed the hungry generator as it roared. Hypnagogic when the last film ended just before dawn, the blue sparks seemed to us like solidarity, a tired snap of had-enough, of never-enough-time.
You think this is going to be a story about something catching fire. And you’re right, but not how you think. No-one would sabotage a biofuel generator, even accidentally. Even angrily. The city is a tinder box where no rain has fallen for 3,000 days. The cinema is our home; or was our home, and when the festival is done with us, it will be once more. They will pack up their aircon nanotubecubes and their inflatable bioluminescent lampposts. The biodegradable banner is already fading in the sun between screening sessions. No matter how wicking, the T-shirts will disintegrate too, moving against the dryrot air of the city and our time-blistered skin.
Listen. Everything is already on fire where you are. The ocean is a floating flame of heat and trash and oil, the permafrost burns ice as it leaks methane. More than four-fifths of the films made between 1890 and 1930 burned or disintegrated because they were made on nitrate, a flammable substance initially used to spark rifles. Guncotton becomes, via battlefield emergency medicine, a dressing, a little skin: pellicle, película, film. And look, battlefield photographers find that, painted on a glass plate, nitrate will take developing chemicals. Evanescent art made between wounding and binding those wounds. Made to strike! a spark. The fear of fire was the premise for early film censorship, closing down screenings under the guise of stopping a conflagration, but the real burn was in the hearts of the powerful: that insurrections both political and sexual were being lit by the fuse of the screen.
This is what we hear as we wake one twilight towards the end of the festival. At first it sounds holo, that weightless, breathless, anosmic lagged vocalisation framed by its lack of static, how it pushes no molecules of warm oxygen to and fro. But no, they were there. The Filmmaker, the Filmteller, the Filmbringer. What if we write Film as Fire. Something more and less than a director. They made a film about fire, about being on fire. Yes, I have made films, they said, but I made them to make things happen, not the other way around. It has been a long time. A long time. A time of longing. Once, a festival was a sacred day, a day off. A day in ritual time when actions were repeated to celebrate our ongoing connection to the ecosmos through each other and our own bodies. A day of rest and restoration.
Ah well, there are several restorations in our Greatest Generation program, transferring repaired and reconstructed digital files to neo-celluloid. Your own films, of course —
Of course. Rēstaurāre. To restore. That is our practice in the world, our purpose. Related, at root, to rest — and to resist. All forms of standing, whether still or again. Rest, resist, restore: to hold the line, or refind it. Isn’t it incredible that this is what our art is: just a line. Plant cellulose thin as skin, and images flickering over it. Restore first means to heal or cure. This is our practice, our purpose, how we move through the world. What can film restore? More than itself, no? It has to. For too long, film did nothing to resist. It depended on extraction: on fossil fuel, conflict minerals, stolen land, stolen labour, stolen capital. That is our history. Plastic in our hands.
We hear these words through the crack in the wall.
When we say hear. The words appear like fire on the crumbling wall, winding in echoes through what has been written there, looping around the fuel stains. Animating the fragments of gestures and expressions, explosions and embraces left behind on scraps of pasted paper, half-words living half-lives in a basement. The rumble of the generator, almost-inaudible now we have become so fast accustomed to it, seems stronger, as if the projector is starting up overhead.
We want to go and see the Film. We do not know if we mean what’s happening on the screen in the room open to the metallic odours of the twilit sky, or the person happening in the foyer open to the twilit street. Other voices pop around that one voice like popcorn, but they do not ooze into our wall. We watch the wall, an oilfall of images streaming down now from the screen above our heads. All the micro-moments we have seen as we dart in and out of the screen, which means the room that holds the screen; which means the screen that holds the world. A film unreeling, plastic in our hands. We want to see but — tick. There is no time.
We must open the doors. We must load the bar. We must tear the tickets. We must fuel the generator. We must use the back door, so as not to disrupt the VIPs with their cool breezes in the foyer, aircon nanotube cocktails creating individual pockets of air around their bodies so each refractive hairdo blows on its own wind.
Outside, it is deep twilight, the ocean haze of throatchoke forever chemicals tinting the west velvet red as the east looms blue. Half-lit. The bioluminescent lamp comes on, casting its cone of light up at the biodegradable cell-matrix banner that reads GENERATION TODAY … and a name that pixellates into SCREENING NOW … before we can read it. We try to catch a glimpse of the Firebringer, but they have slipped out like a cigarette.
The house is open. Only one drum of biofuel remains, only one night. While the final films play, we must box up the sponsors’ palettes of snacks and drinks for the solar-powered shipping drones to collect while we sleep, we must complete on-site data reports, we must frame legacy tickets in neo-cellulose as VIP mementoes complete with glocal investment QRcode on the verso. FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS, it reads.
The temperature drops a few micro-degrees as the day and the generator burn down to their dregs. We have time. We’ve had times. We recite the litany of film names, the hints and flickers from which we have pieced together our own festival, and as we do, we see, proprioceptively, sense movement. Is this what it was like for the first people who watched nitrate run through a projector and saw moving pictures? Did their heartrate rise like ours as
In a toasty film of spilling fuel, the images and words spread out from where the basement wall meets the weed-wracked ground of the backlot. The generator stills but the map keeps growing, the film keeps painting itself over the asphalt: outwards, and upwards, onto the back wall of the old cinema, up towards the stars in the now-night sky. Around, to the façade, we follow it, a boundless incoherent cohesion, a montage gummy with biofuel and sweat and sleep and anti-bacterial cleaning fluid and branded water. Both adhesive and fluid, a skin with a skin’s unevenness, its toughness, its vulnerability, its porosity. Absorbs and seeps, with that popping-corn skin-turns-inside-out, catch-of-your-teeth thing that is smell, taste, sensation, memory all at once.
It – this skin, this film – is amorphing onto the next building now, wandering across the street like what we remember of puddles, both a reflection of what’s on the walls and its own thing, changing. It’s flowing down the canyon of the street, up over the boulders, we mean buildings, we mean. Mountains and volcanoes at our feet. Rivers and, where the last red particles fall, is that a glacier?
Hard to see. We (don’t) have time. The angry VIPs, so long asleep in the cinema, are facing, cracked, an empty screen. They will be coming after us for taking theirs. And they will find themselves part of us, watching open-mouthed as the great liquid s/kin pours its memory and possibility into the parched earth.
The Film, like fire, has its own ideas. It has all the time in the world. Holds all the time that holds the world. A seedbank. What we need to begin again.
So Mayer’s recent books include Truth and Dare (Cipher Press) and A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula Press), and their most recent collaborative projects are Space Crone by Ursula K. Le Guin (Silver Press), The Film We Can’t See (BBC Sounds) and Unreal Sex (Cipher Press). So works with Burley Fisher Books and queer feminist film curation collective Club Des Femmes.