Historically, the photographic process is rooted in the desire to preserve. Captured on film, that which would otherwise succumb to the devastation of time lives forever ... or so we'd like to think. "Time's Shadow: Film Among the Ruins," a series now playing at the Pacific Film Archive -- inspired by a photography show on exhibit in the Berkeley Art Museum through August 8 -- invites the viewer to contemplate the nature of decay. Why do we flock to the sites of certain ruins, and avert our eyes from others? And who knows whether the images we take away -- of the Colosseum, Chichén Itzá, or Ground Zero -- will last longer than the ruins themselves, or the memory of what happened there?
The series includes some classics, as well as lesser-known and avant-garde films. In the first category is Fellini Satyricon (July 29), Federico Fellini's 1969 vision of a society flaunting its own imminent demise. Based loosely on the circa-60 CE writings by Petronius and set in Rome during Nero's reign, Satyricon draws a parallel between an ancient world -- money- and sex-obsessed, headed for ruin -- and modern society. Another classic, slightly less decadent in its staging, is F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (August 24, with piano accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg). Again, the ruination is somewhat implicit. The film was made in Germany in 1922, while the country was struggling to recover from the First World War. The vampire Nosferatu is much more than a bloodsucking nuisance -- he's a Midas of demise, a sexual threat, a pestilence and, significantly, an unwelcome foreigner, a symbol of everything that is corrosive to civilized society. In this case, humanity manages to keep the vampire at bay -- but the message is that perhaps we won't be so lucky next time.
Departing a bit from the canon, we find a few programs of shorts. The films in "The Way Things Go" (July 27) are about making art out of detritus, including Junkopia (1981) by Chris Marker, on the bygone Emeryville Mud Flats. "Existing on Its Ruins" (August 10) brings together movies about violence and natural destruction. Showing the following week, Jesse Lerner's full-length faux-documentary Ruins (August 17) is a humorous take on a serious subject, examining how Mayan and Aztec ruins have been used by governments, archaeologists, museums, and forgers -- among others -- to suit their particular purposes. You're never quite sure what's real and what's not in this movie, but that's Lerner's point. He shows us how the documentary filmmaker is a forger himself: By choosing how to present the past, he is able to shape the present. The ruins themselves are something of an afterthought. Bill Morrison's Decasia (August 31), which closes the series, is an elegy to film itself. Seventy minutes of pieced-together, decaying nitrate film footage could be boring, yet it's absolutely fascinating. Each segment is a haunting glimpse of what used to be, while the music, composed by Michael Gordon and performed by the Basel Sinfonietta, hints at the decay yet to come.
"Time's Shadow: Film Among the Ruins" plays at the UC Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive Theater through August 31. The PFA Theater is at 2575 Bancroft Way, near Bowditch. General admission is $8; reduced prices for members, students, seniors, children, and the disabled. All films listed above shown at 7:30 p.m. See BAMPFA.berkeley.edu for the full schedule or call 510-642-1412.
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