Introducing Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) at A Nos Amour’s pop-up screening this Thursday, Rodger Clarke began by contextualising early cinema within other historical technologies of entertainment. He outlined the early competition between X-ray and Cinema as forms of amusement and explained that, at the turn of the 20th century, both were features of pop-up urban spaces, found mainly at travelling fairs. Alongside ghost shows and mechanised rides, cinema and X-ray evoked awe and astonishment, poised half way between feats of science and enigmatic apparitions. That early film was emerging in these transient spaces, alongside X-ray and ghostly spectacles, goes some way to explaining film’s long fascination with the ghoulish; an obsession which is at the heart of Carnival of Souls. It was therefore an apt choice for a pop-up film showing; the ghosts on screen, as illusionary as the shadows of cinema, were in turn as fleeting as the happening itself.
The history of these contending technologies of entertainment betray two converse urban epistemologies; one, a gaze which sees through to the dry bones of reality, and the other; a world of shadows and illusions. Whilst X-ray (now) maps the body objectively, cinema, as its counterpart, layers parallel realities over one another. Extended to urbanism, we can understand mapped city spaces as the equivalent to the X-rayed body, known and chartered, whilst pop-up comes nearer to the world of cinema and indeed, to the world of ghosts; a spatiality across which plural temporary worlds flicker, real only in the moment they are seen.
The scenes that haunted me longest from Carnival of Souls were the ones in which a bewildered Mary stumbles around a town which she can no longer engage with, which no longer sees or hears her. Harvey’s simple but effective method of cutting the sound drives home the fact (if we hadn’t already guessed it from the endearingly suggestive opening scene) that Mary is a ghost in the city. Confused and alone Mary flees first to and then from Utah, but finds herself repeatedly shut out. Unlike the traditional ghost, able to transcend walls, doors, etc. Mary is trapped by a sensory disjuncture which holds her back from the normal, human world. Her footsteps remain amidst the silence, but the clash of her heels against the city streets only reiterates the border between herself and the living.
Yet her separation is not absolute. Suffering a delayed and gradual death, Mary flickers in and out of focus, at one with the world, and then horribly at odds with it, one moment pumping holy organ music to her appreciative neighbours and the next trapped in an oppressive silence, accompanied only by the most unholy of ghosts. The same can be said of pop-up cinema. Temporary and permanent city spaces co-exist like Mary and the good people of Utah, separated by different rhythms of time (pop-up VS permanent, life VS endless death) but falling into sync at certain junctures to meet each other.
Are pop-up cinema goers, then, the ghosts of the city? We find ourselves, like Mary, in the empty space of entertainment; we, the cinema after hours, she the dilapidated pavilion. And just as the ghosts are raised from the lake by Mary’s presence for one last dance at the end of Carnival of Souls, A Nos Amours drag up un-dead celluloid footage to resurface in the light of the contemporary city. Perhaps it is telling that whilst X-ray disappeared as a form of urban entertainment to become the objective vision of science, cinema, the world of illusion, won out. The screen and the city are natural companions, both spaces of multiplicity, transience and imagination. Escaping from the mapped city, A Nos Amours offers a returned attentiveness to the ghostly, a re-engagement with buried films and a throwback to the moving spaces of the travelling fair, to the urban experience as one of intense, fleeting, spectral moments.