Decasia

2002, Movie, NR, 70 mins

Review

DECASIA
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A fantastic symphony of decay (Decay + Fantasia = Decasia), simultaneously heartbreakingly beautiful and exquisitely sad, pieced together from snippets of old films on the verge of oblivion. Enthralled by the evocative power of obscure old film footage, Bill Morrison began haunting film archives in search of raw material for his avant-garde short films. Like all researchers dealing with vintage film, he discovered mountains of footage in various states of corruption, images marred by bubbles, streaks and warping produced by the breakdown of cellulose nitrate stock, on which virtually all films were made until the 1950s. Though it produces luminous images with a distinctive silver sheen, nitrate film is notoriously unstable, prone to separation of the photo-sensitive emulsion from the celluloid backing and spontaneous combustion; experts estimate that as many as 10,000 feature films made before 1950 have crumbled to dust or burned themselves to ash. But while most researchers and archivists shed a silent tear for deteriorating film then move on, Morrison was mesmerized by the eerie ways in which decomposition alters certain images, particularly those in which only part of the image is affected. Over a period of several years, he picked through fragile skeins of deteriorating film to find such evocative scraps of footage as a boxer gamely pummeling a pulsating streak of bubbling emulsion, thrill seekers on an amusement-park rocket ride shooting out of chaotic deterioration into poignant clarity, a gesticulating woman whose face warps into its own funhouse-mirror reflection and tiny planes drifting in a turbulent sky of decay. Other sequences — a caravan slowly making its way across a desert, and a man climbing slowly up an apparently endless ladder (the top and bottom are cut off by the frame) — are relatively intact, except that they've been chemically scorched into silhouette. Woven together, they become a ghostly chronicle of an utterly alien landscape, punctuated by fleeting glimpses of vaguely familiar objects. Morrison's visual collage is held together both by its own rigorous internal logic (he was clearly particularly drawn to images suggesting birth and death, immersion and circularity) and by Michael Gordon's minimalist score, which recalls Philip Glass's more somber compositions. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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