September 25, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Quite a few of the great films are about movies — what it means to make one or view one. Only one, as far as I know, is actually about film itself. The literal material of which movies consist — the thin strips of fragile stock on which all the images, characters, and dialogue reside. Decasia chronicles the decay of early silver nitrate footage by simply presenting 67 minutes of it, with no commentary, no context, and no attempt at continuity. In doing so, experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison has demonstrated more effectively than any polemic on the subject could exactly what film means to us.

The gradual breakdown of the footage manifests itself as odd blurs, blank spaces and defects in the film: it doesn’t so much make the images meaningless or illegible as it constructs a new image out of the original and its disintegration. What we see more frequently than anything else are images flickering into view for a moment in the center of the frame and then dissolving into meaninglessness once more. The strange thing is how I strained to make sense out of the maelstrom, how I felt triumphant whenever I could identify an emerging object or person. The fleeting snatches of stories and scenes I could catch –the remnants of a make believe — seemed to be a reality impinged upon by the decay; which was only the manifestation of what the images really were: information preserved on a specific medium.

Every shot in the film is striking and unique. How could they not be, when the frames we see have never been seen before and never will again? Because the film decomposes constantly, probably even as Morrison was running it through the projector. The footage he used probably doesn’t exist anymore in any corporeal state other than what we can see of it in Decasia. There is a short shot of the ultimate American icon — the cowboy and his beloved in each others arms, silhouetted against the horizon — being repeatedly swallowed and spit back up by the decomposition until they finally disappear behind it. The breaking up of the film and distortion of the images does not seem to be a natural process, but the desecration of a final resting place for dreams.

Decasia is both one of the most beautiful and most horrifying movies I have ever seen. Every image, no matter how mundane, is transformed by its own destruction into something ungodly, unearthly, and lovely. Each individual aspect of the frame seems almost to float, disconnected, hovering independent from the larger image. Everything, people, objects, background, moves in an odd dream-like waltz. The film dances as it melts and burns.

At the same time, the film is unbelievably unsettling and painful. The film is not decaying, it is dying. And with it, the people preserved in it die a more final death than the one they already suffered. It is one of our most central and comforting beliefs that art is eternal. By leaving behind an accomplishment to stand as a memorial, or even so simple a marker as a photograph, we seek to gain immortality for ourselves. Morrison has shown us that even metaphorical immortality is impossible, and that art and dreams are just as easily destroyed as the bodies and lives they represent. The decay of the images is, in some way, our death too, and one by one it seems we are all becoming ghosts.

Archived article by Erica Stein