Decasia: The State of Decay - A Film by Bill Morrison
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Created by award-winning avant-garde director Bill Morrison, DECASIA was edited entirely from found film footage left in archives that deteriorated over time. The severe emulsion deterioration reveals the film stock in its basic cemical form and the images likewise are stripped to their most primitive emotional state. The soundtrack is composed by composer Michael Gordon.
- Audio Interview with Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon on PRI's Studio with Kurt Anderson produced by WNYC
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Top customer reviews
I was much disappointed.
The moments of "artistic" decay are few and far between. A previous reviewer pointed out (most poetically) the highlights of the film, but the majority of the film is endless -endless -endless clips of just poor quality footage.
To make matters worse, most of the clips, which went on far too long to hold interest, were actually slowed down to make them LONGER. Case in point is the whirling dervish footage, which not only is slowed down, but also repeated several times. Then there is the procession of camels which drag across the screen in slow motion to the point that I had to fast-forward just to get past them. Neither sequence, by the way, was particularly decayed or showed any damage of note; certainly nothing to merit slowing them down to such extents.
Likewise, a procession of schoolchildren through a convent garden is slowed to such an excruciating crawl that one actually misses the fact that this scequence IS damaged until you speed it up.
My other complaint (and an artistic mis-step on the part of the film-maker) is the fact that black-and white film stock was used instead of color. As Lyrical Nitrate demonstrated, part of the artistic value of decayed nitrate (even if it was a "black & white" film) is the palette of color produced by the chemical reaction of the film stock.
Lost are the yellows, oranges, rusts, browns and reds which might have lent some genuine visual interest to this otherwise rather bland collage.
I personally would not recommend this film and would instead direct interested parties to the vastly superior Lyrical Nitrate.
What director and editor Bill Morrison has done is create an hour-long meditation on life and death, using found, early 20th Century filmed images on decayed film stock- and uses the effects of the decay itself as a medium to convey a sense of passing, of loss, to the images that someone at some time felt were worth recording. This visual approach is accentuated by the soundtrack, a sometimes haunting, sometimes throbbing symphony by Micheal Gordon, which never pauses between movements, but constantly evolves- some parts fade in while others fade out. This constant change adds to the overall feeling of impermanence that the film so well imparts.
There is a tremendous variety of images, and they are by no means all sad- whirling dervishes, geisha, nature shots, a birth (by C-section), a mine rescue, many scenes from silent movies; pillar-like nuns watching over a line of slowly marching, uniformed, Native-American students in some Southwestern convent school (this segment has a very creepy feel to it). The level of decay varies from scene to scene, flashing interference across the screen, sometimes making the film look almost like a negative, and sometimes taking a while for the image to become discernable. My favorite segment is a very long, slow shot of a distant airplane taking off and unloading a string of parachuters in the air, the camera slowly following them all the way to the ground. The soundtrack has evolved into a single, pulsating electric guitar, and the decay in the film has caused the empty sky to be a constantly changing, abstract field. It is hypnotic and beautiful.
I found the entire film hypnotic. Its message is that of transience, and the deterioration of the physical film itself is why it works so brilliantly. It feels somewhat Buddhistic, but no particular religion at all is espoused, just change, and loss. The sense of history- not only has the film been decomposed by time, but the images are so obviously from a distant era, and the technology itself so outdated- adds to this. There is a sadness to it, without being depressing.
I was also struck by the connections between chance and desicion in the making of the film. I found the overlapping of the random elements- the segments he happened to find, and the uncontrollable visual patterns of decay- with the control he exerted in their selection and sequencing and editing with the soundtrack, to be quite fascinating as art. These elements of chance combined with themes of change added another layer of complexity and meaning to the work, for me at least.
I was reminded of a book titled "Dice" by photographer Rosamond Purcell and Ricky Jay, who has written many books on gambling and magic, and has collected thousands of dice over the years. The older, celluloid dice in his collection had begun to decay in wildly unpredictable ways, so he invited Purcell to photograph them. The result is their book of close-up still-lifes of the rotting and collapsing dice, with essays by Jay on dice, gambling, and chance in general. A small, poetic, statement on a much smaller scale than Mr. Morrison's beautiful film, but somewhat in the same vein.
This film is not really for everyone. My wife, who said it reminded her of the world without her glasses, greatly admired the concept and intention, but found actually watching the movie a little "head-achey". I myself was thrilled when it became available on DVD. I find it to be not only technically, and musically fascinating, but spiritually moving, as well.
Bill Morrison worked with Michael Gordon to put images to a symphony that he was working on. Michael Gordon also, in part, wrote to the film in a true collaboration.
The film is composed of sections of old, decomposing celluloid: old films that are suffering from innatention, damp, heat, whatever it is that distresses celluloid film. These sections are beautifully cut together into a whirling, blurring mass of fractional image and abstract mess that provokes thought and poses more questions than it answers. Butterflies flit in and out of the negative to positive and back again; a boxer loses his arms in a sticky amorphous goo; a woman's face fleetingly appears, contorts into a hideous mask and is lost again...
The music underscoring this is compelling too. Sounding in places like Steve Reich - the motoric pulses - and in other places like Gloria Coates - the detuned strings, this is music about rotting, about the decay of tonal centres.
Do not miss this if you like experimental music or film.