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Colin Marshall

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14. Peggy Ahwesh's Beirut Outtakes (2007)
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After seeing his turn as one of those amiable but slightly unsettling fortysomething promoters of/hangers-out among the artistic affairs of the younger generation in Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation, I grew interested in Bill Morrison. But I never get interested in actors, so why this one? Because of his other, dominant career as an experimental filmmaker. I'm particularly intrigued by his Decasia, which, The Wikipedia relays, "was noted by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice as 'the most widely acclaimed American avant-garde film of the fin-de-sicle.'" Furthermore, "Errol Morris commented while viewing Decasia that 'This may be the greatest movie ever made.'" Need one seek more credible endorsements?

None of the works of Bill Morrison, Decasia included, are yet available on Ubuweb. But Peggy Ahwesh's Beirut Outtakes is, and it strikes me as at least a little Decasia-like in its use of found footage in less-than-pristine condition. The Beirut cinema from which the content was salvaged must have been a little more than just closed. Shelled? Flooded? Swallowed by a towering alien monstrosity, then partially digested? Some of these clips haven't aged well at all -- they've decayed, one might say -- and that only adds to the fascination.

Most of the footage seems to date from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s: cowboy movies, appliance commercials, war movies, underwear commercials, harem movies ("Swingtime at the Potentate's Pad"), Gitanes commercials. Some is in English, some has (what I assume to be) Arabic subtitles, some is in (what I assume to be) Arabic, some has French subtitles. One of the potential pitfalls would have been to fall into the well-defined "Behold the extent of the depredations of Western cultural and commercial imperialism" groove by stringing together a bunch of garish U.S. produced spots, and the influence of the midcentury U.S. advertising and mainstream cinema aesthetics don't fail to represent, but the overall product looks as if sourced impartially from all available nationalities.

These bits and pieces would be fun to watch when presented as a somewhat goofy time-and-space capsule; an enterprising Gen-Yer could probably knock together a few saleable Adult Swim interstitials out of them. But it's the decay that brings the interestingness. While some clips look comparatively pristine, others have been ravaged by the elements. Scratches, bad splices, frame misalignment, soundtrack gaps and age-related inflexibility all manifest in the image. It's a reminder of film's ever-more-distinctive nature as a truly physical medium, and, by way of extreme cases, the sort of richness to which its imperfections can lead. Those currently duking it out in the grand vinyl-versus-digital debate are no doubt all too familiar with this suite of concepts.

But does the air-conditioner-selling go-go dancer do more to promote cultural understanding than your average Said tome? It's possible. And besides, I'm not sure how down I am with the concept of "Orientalism." The Orient's pretty neat.

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