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Films reveal beauty in decomposition

Rosamund Wolff Purcell’s 20-year ‘excavation’ of a Maine junkyard is captured in ‘An Art That Nature Makes,’ screening Thursday at 7 p.m. at Lake Flower Landing. (Provided photo)

The mystery of decomposition and metamorphosis is at the heart of two films being screened at Lake Flower Landing on Thursday October 17 and Friday October 18. The universal human need to collect and classify is a common thread in the work of Boston-based Rosamond Wolff Purcell and New York City-based Bill Morrison.

The Thursday screening at Lake Flower Landing is “An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell.” It premiered at the DOC NYC film festival and is based, in part, on Rosamund’s book, “Owls Head: On the Nature of Lost Things,” which chronicles her 20-year photographic “excavation” of a Maine junkyard. The provocative documentary is from Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning director, Molly Bernstein. The film was a New York Times Critics’ Pick!

Filmmaker Errol Morris says, “Rosamond Purcell is one of the great photographers. She has captured the history of objects by photographing them in Romantic decline: books scourged by worms, petrified food-stuffs, biological specimens gone wrong, the inexorable entropic winding down of everything.”

Rosamond portrays hauntingly beautiful, often unsettling objects from the natural and man-made world. Her keen eye and perceptive thoughts prompted collaborations with intellects like paleontologist/science historian Stephen Jay Gould, magician Ricky Jay, and Shakespeare scholar Michael Witmore in numerous books including “Book Nest,” “Illuminations,” “A Glorious Enterprise: The Museum of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” and “Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters.”

Rosamond has mined collections worldwide for her subject matter, photographing only in natural light. Her artwork is in the permanent collections of major museums. Her vivid transformation of an engraving into a life-size replica of the “wonder cabinet” of 17th-century Danish natural philosopher, Olaus Worm, is now permanently installed at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. As one of the first iterations of a museum, Worm’s cabinet embodied both curiosity in science and the diversity in the world, and our continued obsession with cataloguing and sorting.

“Dawson City: Frozen time”

On Friday, Bill Morrison’s “Dawson City: Frozen Time” (2016) will be screened at Lake Flower Landing. It was screened in the Orizzonti Competition section at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival. Rotten Tomatoes reported a 100% approval rating based on 54 reviews.

Filmmaker Bill Morrison (Decasia, 2002) pieced together the true history of a long-lost and forgotten collection of 533 reels of flammable nitrate film prints from the early 1900s. Dawson City was the former river town in Northwestern Canada just south of the Arctic Circle. Dawson City was settled in 1896 across the river from a First Nations hunting camp as 100,000 prospectors answered the call of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Eventually, Dawson City was the end of the line for a distribution chain of prints and newsreels sent to the Yukon. In 1978 a local man who was clearing a lot with a back hoe suddenly found himself digging out of the permafrost a horde of film cans that became known as the Dawson City Collection. Morrison drew on these rare silent films and newsreels, and constructed a frequently jaw-dropping, even metaphysical, first-rate suspense thriller from what is left of that unearthed library. Bill paired it with an evocative, modernist score by Alex Somers of the band Sigur Ros.

“Dawson City: Frozen Time” intimates exploitation, be it the economic apparatus of the Klondike Gold Rush and that of the motion picture industry, the Black Sox baseball-betting scandal of 1919, or famous fortunes made in this vicinity, including that of Frederick Trump, the president’s grandfather.

In these two films, the artists/scholars/documentarians capture the cycle of exile, burial, rediscovery, and salvation. Their work embodies a universal fascination with material things and how to order them as a reflection of the 20th century archive. Rosamund’s assemblages and Bill’s delirious silent-film montages are filled with the many twists and turns of fate. Discovering the truth of objects can verge onto myth, as can history. Both films are a deep dive into the connections and contradictions of our world.

Post film screening discussions will include both artists and local celluloid historian Julie Robards. This project is made possible with the funds from the Decentralization Program, a regrant program of the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and administered by the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts.

If you go …

What: Sound & Vision Screenings and Discussions at Lake Flower Landing

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, October 17 and Friday, October 18

How much: $12 Admission, $20 for both screenings

Where: Lake Flower Landing, 421 Lake Flower Ave, Saranac Lake