Decasia is a relentless memento mori that grabs you by your repressed thoughts of death and doesn’t let go. Its visual premise is, on the surface, simple and monomaniacal: it consists entirely of un-retouched clips of old silver nitrate films—documents of ordinary life or melodramatic scenes from silent films—that have deteriorated over decades of neglect. Filmmaker Bill Morrison copied these strips of film, in whatever state of decay he found them, and spliced them together to create a powerful sixty-six minute meditation on impermanence. Experiencing this montage and its compelling soundtrack by Michael Gordon is mesmerizing, and the film continues to haunt long afterwards.
Decasia’s original incarnation was a symphony by Michael Gordon (of Bang on a Can fame) that was accompanied by an earlier version of Morrison’s film in a live multi-media performance. Morrison later re-edited his film to mesh with the music.
The opening scene is meditative: slow-motion whirling dervishes whose revolving movement initiates a motif suggesting cyclical change. Morrison continues this motif of circular motion with an archival film tour of a motion film processing centre, in which reels of film revolve on a machine that immerses the strips in tubs of chemicals. After this tour of the the birth and baptism of film, which establishes the metafilmic premise of Decasia, comes a sustained onslaught of images showing its inevitable decay.
One of the first clips in that onslaught confounds filmed object and image of decay: what appears to be drifting smoke or shapeshifting clouds might also be a morphing milky wash caused by the chemical degradation of silver nitrate. Thus from the start, Morrison collapses object with decay, inviting meditation on the limits of representation: just as life is subject to decay, so is representation also subject to mutability and illegibility. The mimetic pretense of film images allows us to witness something of the objects captured. But those images express their own reality, not just that of the objects, and their decomposition is a reminder of the elusiveness of capture and posterity. They are failed time capsules that carry within them the seeds of their own demise.
One of the most compelling illustrations of Decasia‘s dance with mortality is a film of a boxer, perhaps from the 1930s, hitting a punching bag to his right. The image of the boxer has survived, but the right side of the frame has decayed into a fluctuating amorphous cloud, so that the boxer appears to be ineffectually punching a shifting column of ethereality. Even decay is not static but mutable: like life, it’s a process, not a state. And it can be combatted but not halted. Thus is a film of a boxing exercise transformed from quotidian to metaphysical.
Decasia often gives the illusion that hundred of patterns of various types have been superimposed in rapid succession over a film’s frames. And by showing the films in slow motion, Morrison transforms what might at normal speeds be blips on the screen (and thus not available to the conscious mind) into clearly visible patterns of destruction. For example, a film of the Big Sur coast seems to have been invaded by rapidly shifting giant amoebas, as though a series of slides of the creatures had been overlaid on the film of rocky coastline. Each frame of the film, it seems, was affected by the same chemical process of aging, but in a different configuration. And in a scene in which a Japanese woman in traditional kimono walks past a window, it’s as if hundreds of transparencies of abstract impressionist paintings have been superimposed in rapid succession over the images.
But the decay comes from the inside out, created by the agents of time and natural processes: decay and image are integrally fused. They render visible what is often forgotten or suppressed: thoughts of impermanence set aside in order get out of bed in the morning, as Morrison points out, without being paralyzed by the ultimate futility of it all.
To a film archivist or preservationist, being subjected to scene after scene of film in various stages of decomposition might be as nightmarish as a librarian examining rare books warped by flooding. But an expert would not be surprised, as I was, by the variety of forms that decay and time can wreak on film. Blisters, amoeba, specks, amorphous congeries, abstract expressionism: time’s handiwork is endlessly creative, and the marks of impermanence left on these film clips are as impressive as they are relentless, and as beautiful as they are ominous. Decay might render the original images unreadable, but it now plays the lead role, pulsating as if it were itself a life force and not the angel of death. The decay of a film of a burning house takes the form of flames flicking across the fire. Mesmerizing black tornadoes threaten nuns and the children over which they watch walking single file into a schoolroom. Funhouse mirror distortions oddly stretch and contract an automobile of newlyweds. Grim black shadows fall over the image of a miner, unconscious or dead, being carried from a mine. Decay, like the grim reaper, has a smorgasbord of choices.
I have read more than one review that suggests that Decasia‘s primary purpose is to convey the message that old films are being irretrievably lost to the ravages of time for want of the funds or will to restore them, and to issue a rallying cry to do something about it. That message is unavoidable in a film that is obsessed with (and composed of) the decay of its own medium. However, it seems limiting to view it mainly as propaganda. To tie down the film with such a moral imperative would be as reductive as interpreting Hamlet as a cautionary tale to warn kings not to sleep with their ears exposed. It misses the larger picture.
Incredible how much of 20th Century film history has been lost. Not so much through neglect, but through ignorance of the celluloid decay process. To think that we’ll never see “Midnight in London” with Lon Chaney, except in a few static photos. Tragic.