By ZACHARY ZAHOS
What a pretty mess.
Whatever your feelings on Bill Morrison’s Decasia and Just Ancient Loops, two experimental films Cornell Cinema screened at Sage Chapel Tuesday evening, you should agree that this pithy assessment of mine approaches some objective, albeit cursory, truth. For Morrison’s work discovers a beauty in what most would consider ugly, nonnegotiable trash: destroyed and/or decomposing celluloid film stock from the ancient, lesser-known annals of silent cinema. By assembling these clips together and asking us to find meaning in their perceived deficiencies, Morrison works in a most peculiar mode of the “found footage” form. These decrepit moving images take on new life, paradoxically, through the invasion of decaying, dying elements. It is an awesome, sometimes startling and often maddening experience.
I say “maddening” knowing that that was partly Morrison’s intent. Why else would he commission Michael Gordon to compose a score for Decasia where the orchestra plays out-of-tune, in repetitious and shrill drones? As an admirer of Philip Glass and current experimental electronic acts like Oneohtrix Point Never, I am totally on board with cyclical, stubbornly non-harmonic music styles. Yet Gordon’s soundtrack does not traverse as wide a range as it should in a film with such cryptic, alien images, instead climbing up to the higher registers early on and just staying there, wailing almost the entire time. Pairing these sounds with the film makes for a somewhat suffocating experience, piquing anxiety at times when the images provoke free-floating curiosity. Perhaps I am overly irritable, or maybe the Sage Chapel’s speakers were too loud, but it narrowed my perspective on Morrison’s work.
At the time, at least. Reflecting on what Morrison actually did, on the ineffable tinge of Decasia’s exploration of life and death — how art, at least film art, suffers corporeal violence in the same way humans do, yet how it can potentially better from it — I find it impossible not to be moved. Some of these shots just stay with you. An expressionless boxer punches at a stream of eaten-up nitrocellulose, unknowingly battling a force more powerful and eternal than the human opponent it replaced. White wisps of liquefied chemicals tear at the face of man and, later, a hook-nosed woman, resembling an effect similar to the Dementor’s kiss in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, or Stephen Gammell’s infamous illustrations in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Intensified film grain mingles with the ants crawling about a tight macro shot, confusing the identity of each. Extreme reversals in contrast render Mary Pickford, America’s golden girl, into a maniacal, glowing beast, and a sunny cloister into a nightmarish vision that could have been pulled from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon.
I mention other films and movie stars, old and new, because I believe Morrison operates in that referential, meta-cinematic mode. Bookended by a shot of a whirling dervish, Decasia obsesses over movement — some of it chaotic, but most of it rotational, like a projecting film reel. Mechanical movement meets an arc light to create life, or recreate it, or, better yet, to revive it, as the subjects in these 100-year-old clips take back that energy robbed by the grave. Rather than obliterate meaning and function like a magnet to a computer hard drive, the deterioration of film stock amplifies backgrounds, hides protagonists, quite literally pulls apart human emotions and provokes them anew through the most abstract forms, like frame-filling black and white blotches that become, on their own, lyrical films in the vein of Stan Brakhage. Morrison probably wants you to support film preservation after seeing how time and poor conditions ravage celluloid, but the unfamiliarity of most of the source material (culled from University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections, by the way) just fascinated me more, encouraging my mind to go wild with associations. Whether he intended to or not, Morrison created quite a decadent Rorschach test for cinephiles.
I neglect to comment on Just Ancient Loops, Morrison’s most recent effort, which premiered just last year (compared to the original 2002 release of Decasia, his most famous work). Running 26 minutes compared to Decasia’s 70, Just Ancient Loops concerns itself with a more explicit spirituality and the way we visualize such unknowable, unseeable divinity. Ancient cinematic reenactments of Jesus’ resurrection (they look hand-painted, so we’re talking like 110 years back) coexist with clips of jungles, roller coasters and a playful moon. The most jarring sequence comes as the film’s most serene: a CGI scale modeling of Jupiter and its four Galilean moons, with the perspective swooping back to dwarf each orbiting rock against the gaseous giant behind it. This goes on for a couple of minutes, and I may have checked my watch at least once during that duration, but I look back and think to myself: Man, even if this all doesn’t make sense, isn’t fleeting boredom via a visionary artist’s exploration of the cosmos a beautiful problem to have?