Spark of Being (2010) is an example of an artist resisting an aesthetic anchor. Bill Morrison‘s films are often categorized as non-narrative and experimental, so the idea of this artist tackling such a perennial chestnut such as “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” leads us to wonder exactly how he is going to deconstruct such a familiar narrative. Throwing out all preconceived assumptions, Morrison pays homage to Mary Shelly and makes her Gothic creation fresh again with a startlingly literal interpretation. Indeed, Spark of Being may be one of the most faithful cinematic adaptations of the book to date.
Using found footage, Morrison teams with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas and his electric sextet, Keystone, to illustrate Shelly’s tale. Douglas is an eclectic trumpeter who once worked as a sideman with the John Zorn ensemble Masada. With an original score that is simultaneously mercurial and animated, it is hard to imagine a more perfect composer for Spark of Being.
A frequent (and sometimes justifiable) criticism in films this textured is that the style becomes so all-important the end result is a viewer deprived of a heart to identify with. In short, often, a human element is missing. Morrison has referred to this film itself as “the Creature,” and given the agonized condition of footage chosen, Morrison’s creature may be the most pathos-laden performance of the character since Boris Karloff. One can only imagine the painstaking process it took in assembling Morrison’s creation into a cogent psyche, imbued with personality as predominant “presence.” A popular comparison might be the collaboration between James Whale and Claude Rains in producing a personality-driven Invisible Man (1933), but Morrison’s approach is more innovative, while still being true to the author’s tenets. Douglas’ music provides an informative touch of flesh stretched over the cranium supplied by archival footage from Ernest Shackleton’s film of an Antarctic expedition. As in the novel, the film opens here in the segment titled “The Captain’s Story.” The viewer steps with the Captain in his interaction with creator and created and the unfolding tragic drama.
Through laboratory footage we meet “A Promising Student” and adopt his sense of ambition and wonder. Educational footage and decayed nitrate, which looks hauntingly like an intensely animated closeup of an Emilio Vedova canvas, bring “The Doctor’s Creation” to violent life.
In “The Creature Watches” antiquarian city crowds, desolate landscapes and achingly lonely images of a child endow the creature with a Chaplinesque essence. The psychedelic beauty of “The Creature’s Education” is extended and sublime. The heartbreaking “Observations Of Romantic Love” segues into the bitter sting of ‘The Doctor’s Wedding” and the inevitable dejection of “The Creature in Society.” In “The Creature Confronts His Creator,” the new Adam dares to accuse a negligent father, and in “The Creature’s Pursuit” it is God who is tried and condemned. A justifiable patricide is, perhaps, the greatest burden of all. It is the stuff of horror, even nearly 200 year old horror served up in our own mythological consciousness.