Directed by Bill Morrison
The United States of America
I want to do an experiment with you all. If you would be so kind as to walk over to the nearest mirror and just stare at your own reflection for about ten seconds. Go do it now….I’ll wait…..
Good, now picture in your own mind your reflection as vividly as possible. What you are now picturing is not your reflection. It is a memory of your reflection. It will never be as crisp or clear as the reflection presented to you by the mirror. Now think back to the moment when you looked in the mirror in the first place. What you saw was not an accurate reflection of yourself. In the time that it took for light to carry your image to the mirror and then bounce back to your eyes, for the image to travel into your retina, and then for your optic nerves to transmit that image to your brain, you had already changed into something completely different. The atoms that made up your skin and body had shifted back and forth more times that can be counted. The individual molecules and electrons in your face had undergone a million million lifecycles, intertwining and separating with their electric neighbors. Your reflection, and even the memory of your reflection, is nothing more than a paltry lie.
Of course, over the millennia, mankind has tried to capture its own image in a futile attempt to preserve some memory of their existence. Whether by paintings, photography, or film, we are obsessed with capturing, even for a fleeting millisecond, some part of our essence. Why do we do this? Is it pure vanity? Is it to preserve great or important memories? Is it a feeble attempt to achieve immortality? It doesn’t really matter, in the end. All things must die. One day, paintings will crumple into dust, photos will fade to black, and film will decay into nothingness.
It is this very obsession over the impermanence of things that drives Decasia: The State of Decay. A film by Bill Morrison, one of America’s most acclaimed and important experimental filmmakers, Decasia: The State of Decay is both a meditation and celebration on the act of decomposition. Morrison himself summarized the film by saying, “It is [a film] about how film dies.” And indeed, what we see is celluloid in the death throes of its own destruction. Comprised of strips of celluloid salvaged from cemeteries like flooded basements and the dumpsters behind film archives, Decasia: The State of Decay is a Frankenstein construction of dead and rotting film. The snatches of film used are all in advanced stages of decay: the celluloid has deteriorated, the image has sustained severe water damage, mold grows thick on the stock, and pot marks and holes riddle the frames. By all means, the footage, and what it supposedly immortalized, has died. Through Decasia: The State of Decay, Morrison has given it second life.
The footage underwent a rigorous chemical process (actually documented at the beginning and end of the film) in order for it to be shown. The result was nothing less than stunning. Ghostly images from peoples long dead appear like phantoms before our eyes. A procession of young students files by in a tight line in a convent. A merry-go-round twirls around and around with its riders disappearing into and reappearing out of a column of corroded stains. A merry couple dances cheerfully through a visage of black holes.
A peeping woman leans back and laughs at her discovery in a universe of film negative. A newborn baby’s first bath is marred by scars of melting nitrate. A column of paratroopers descend and descend and descend towards a horizontal strip of death for what seems like an eternity.
Sometimes, the images seem to take on a life of their own in response to their fate. In one sequence, a boxer fights against an opponent covered by white mold. In that moment, it appears like the boxer is assaulting the very decay that threatens to destroy him.
Melted faces will sometimes emerge from the chaos and stare straight at the audience. This happens more than once and never fails to disturb me. In one scene in particular, an young girl solemnly regards the screen before she is swallowed up by dirt and grit. Upon my second viewing, I realized that the girl is probably long dead. Could it be that at that time of photographic and cinematic infancy that this film could be the sole surviving image of this girl? Could this be the only record of her time on earth? And if so, does she resent the destruction of her memory? I ponder these things as I face his glowing visage and shiver.
The film would be unsettling enough by itself, but is further enhanced by what can only be described as one of the most haunting film scores ever conceived. Constructed by post-minimalist composer Michael Gordon, Decasia: The Art of Decay is nothing less than a nightmare of sound. Gordon created the score by using a full orchestra playing out of phase with itself. In addition, Gordon used several detuned pianos and pieces of trash that he literally found in a junkyard to create a score that sounded as old and decayed as the images that they accompany. To hear the score is to hear the sound of chaotic destruction and inevitable defeat. It lulls the viewer into a numb stupor while simultaneously keeping them unnerved and anxious at the cacophony of noise.
Much has been made to try and interpret Decasia: The Art of Decay. Some call it a meditation on the impermanence of things, the distortion of memory, and the deception of nostalgia. Perhaps it is all of these things. Perhaps not. Due to the very character of the images and how they are presented, it is human nature to try and associate some kind of overlying theme or narrative. Apparently, after one showing of Decasia: The Art of Decay, the audience was asked to comment on what they thought the film was about. The answers were varied: the Holocaust, war, 9/11. In a sense, the film becomes a reflection of our own fears and preconceptions. In that way, nobody sees Decasia: The Art of Decay the same way; it is a different film to everyone who sees it.
Now go back to the mirror and take another look at your reflection. This time, be thankful that you even have a reflection to look at. Take joy in the fact that you exist in the here and now. One day you will die, but you still have the present. Similarly, one day all copies of Decasia: The Art of Decay will be destroyed, relieving its images from their temporary reprieve from the void. But don’t worry about that. Be thankful that it exists right now, that we can still see these apparitions from the past, that we can witness this incredible piece of filmmaking.