This review was corrected on Mar. 3, 2003.
Avant-garde film pioneer and special effects inventor Pat O’Neill, whose classic shorts from the ’60s and ’70s led to his acclaimed features like “Water and Power,” turns his formidable experimental technique on Hollywood in “The Decay of Fiction.” The legendary Ambassador Hotel, where Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe were discovered and Bobby Kennedy was shot, materializes like Stanley Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel run wild; its empty rooms haunted by ghosts from imaginary Hollywood movies, appearing in transparencies as they play their fictional roles for eternity. The attention given to constructing each shot makes for a hypnotic visual experience, while lack of a progressive narrative telescopes film’s running time into infinity. Fest and museum auds should be the main takers. Partnering the film is a continuous-projection installation of the DVD-ROM entitled entitled “Tracing the Decay of Fiction.”
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Time-lapse photography establishes an eerie atemporality, ironically augmented by creepy movie music. Against a background of billowing curtains, peeling plaster and ruin, a see-through ensemble cast enacts typical scenes from classic ’30s, ’40s and ’50s films. Gangsters watch floorshows in the Cocoanut Grove Bar, detectives interrogate suspects, an elegant blonde waits for her lover. Snatches of stories overlap, drawing attention to the artificial nature of the fictional narratives, but also to the wealth of memories trapped in the hotel’s decaying walls.
Adding a welcome note of variety are interludes of naked men and women walking around in death masks. Like demons escaped from some hell, or the repressed forces of the unconscious, they parade across the screen performing strange antics and recalling the miniature goblins of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.”
The shadows of palm trees slide over the lawn in the haunting images of cinematographer and sound designer George Lockwood. In the end, the hotel crumbles (the Ambassador, though still standing, is under threat of demolition to make way for a school), adding a possible flash-forward to the recurrent idea that movies are photographing time as it passes.
The cast’s ensemble work is painstaking in its reconstruction of bygone Hollywood stereotypes, drawing on sources from Joan Crawford and Robert Mitchum to Art Linkletter for the artificial diction of old film dialogue. In keeping with its setting, the film uses now-superceded photomechanical techniques like the rotoscope.