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March 3, 2005

Decasia: The State of Decay

I watched Bill Morrison's amazing 2001 cinematic symphony, Decasia (IMDB), last night. I normally review only contemporary films, but I really enjoyed this film and wanted to encourage others to see it, if possible (or to find out if anyone else has seen it). Decasia is a montage of decaying silver nitrate footage set to the symphonic music of Michael Gordon (I have to be honest, I didn't really pay a lot of attention the role that music played), but the film itself is an incredible meditation on decay and loss, especially when it comes to the incredibly fragility of film itself. Although Morrison comments in an interview on the DVD that Decasia is about (human) mortality, it's impossible for me not to read the film as an allegory for the death of cinema itself or to think about the relationship between cinema or photography and death (yes, I've been reading my Roland Barthes and Andre Bazin).

The film opens with a Sufi dancer spinning wildly, setting up a spiral motif that dominates the film. As J. Hoberman notes, many of these early images recalls the actualit├ęs of pioneer filmmakers who captured scenes of everyday life, revelling in film's status as a novelty, and perhaps hinting that Decasia might offer a way of thinking about cinema's history. But before the credits roll, we get a tracking shot of a film development lab, with strips of film laying in the development fluid before being taken up on the reels (another spiral metaphor). These images of film labs reminded me of Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, and his modernist celebration of the Kino-eye, now transformed into a decaying object. As Anita Gates notes, cinephiles will likely watch Decasia's images knowing that "a big chunk of America's film history is already lost or is in danger of rotting away."

Even with this knowledge, I found the decaying images themselves to be utterly beautiful and completely fascinating. Shots of a boxer punching against a strip of white mold suggest the impossibility of fighting against this decay. Other shots portray workers crawling out of the mouth of a cave that is about to collapse under the weight of a slightly melted film frame. Other images flip from positive to negative and back again, transforming a simple love scene into something sinister and more ominous. as a result, Morrison's presentation of decay seems more ambivalent than might initially appear. The film seems to warn against the decaying film stock and the images that risk being lost without greater efforts at preservation, but at the same time, decay has never been presented so beautifully.

Posted by chuck at March 3, 2005 2:06 PM

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It's been a few months since I saw it; I too enjoyed the images of decay. --I was struck by the "Asia" in "Decasia." Obviously, the clear sense of the title leans on Disney's Fantasia, not Asia. But the film does start with some images of whirling dervishes (if I recall correctly, slowed down to an eerie pace), and then too, aren't there some strange images of a school somewhere in North Africa or the Middle East? A lot of the "actualites" are from cinema's anthropological beginnings. (among its other beginnings.) So that the relationship between cinema, photography, and death is also at play on the level of the death of... I don't know, exactly. The death of naive ethnography, the death of a certain world view? Not that we're so enlightened now. ... ok, this kind of fades off, but it could go somewhere. Another thought: It is hard to see those images of schoolkids being herded into and out of buildings and not see something tragic there, something like Christian Boltanski's work. They are so irretrievably lost, and that world with them.

Posted by: Diana at March 3, 2005 6:17 PM

Diana, I like that reading a lot, and the slow motion does add to the eerieness. There were a lot of ethnographic images in the film, something I'd noticed, but hadn't really interpreted thoroughly. I had a similar reaction to the decayed shots of the schoolkids.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 3, 2005 7:19 PM

I don't know, hasn't cinema always sort of been about its own death? How can it not be when, like sound recording, it's about archiving time past, so that it can, as Cavell so nicely puts it, screen something not present. That absence of presence is what guarantees that the representation continues to exist because it is not bound to that bodily presence. But it's also in some sense then about deferring death. Then, too, it's about analyzing time, dismembering time, cutting time, in order to reassemble it in the appearance of linearity: the unwinding of the reel. But that linearity, which is also the appearance of the world as will and representation, is of course fictive, constructed. It is a construction of the appearance of life, its representation here, formed out of recorded segments of another place, another time, another body that is not identical to that which we see, namely the character. That body is no longer; that world that that body inhabits is no longer, indeed never was. Ever since it discovered the constructive possibilities of narrative, cinema has been a discourse on this impossibility. But even before then, as Edison pointed out already with the phonograph, it is an archiving of live in the presence of death.


Posted by: Jimbo at March 4, 2005 8:33 PM

Jimbo, yeah, cinema has always been about its own death. That's why I find the foregrounding of decay so fascinating, and that's why I find time-travel film so interesting, too. The warped temporality of time travel meets its match in the equally (and similarly) warped temporality of cinema:

It's also in some sense then about deferring death.

Of course, so many time-travel films have this fantasy element: travelling through time in order to defer (untimely) death, to live beyond one's death, or by contrast, to live before one's birth.

Then, too, it's about analyzing time, dismembering time, cutting time, in order to reassemble it in the appearance of linearity: the unwinding of the reel. But that linearity, which is also the appearance of the world as will and representation, is of course fictive, constructed.

This is another aspect of (time-travel) cinema that I find interesting, the self-conscious analysis, dismembering, and cutting of time. Thanks for fleshing out these ideas a bit....

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 4, 2005 8:50 PM

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