An article in UK broadsheet The Guardian on Friday 26 September 2003 reviewed “Decasia”, described by Kenneth Anger as “Compelling and disturbing!”
“Bill Morrison’s U.S. experimental feature “Decasia” finds poetry in the abstract psychedelia created by deteriorating archival film stock. Lacking any obvious thematic or emotional arc, compilation pic succeeds as a pure exercise in visual stimulus, its narcotic effect much amplified by Michael Gordon’s thunderous, dissonant orchestral score.” — Variety
Text of the article:
Jonathan Jones pays tribute to a stirring, haunting modern masterpiece put together from decaying old film footage
Friday September 26, 2003
Film was an invention before it was an art and is futurist by nature, always on the lookout for its next evolutionary leap. Films made just a few years ago are technically laughable now, and although Hollywood pays annual lip service to the past with a lifetime achievement Oscar for some old sucker, the vogue for remakes betrays its fundamental contempt for history.
Until Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen intervened, it even looked as if classics such as Casablanca were going to be “colourised” so audiences would never have to experience the seedy smell of age. Cinema tends to see its own past as about as attractive as that sticky patch on the floor in the fourth row.
In this world of the perpetually vanishing present, in which only the thing not yet unwrapped can truly be trusted as new, Bill Morrison’s Decasia sticks out like a leper’s thumb. This film doesn’t so much savour the past as make perverted love to the silver, shimmering dead.
Morrison has made a 70-minute feature composed entirely of early nitrate footage. Cellulose nitrate base was abandoned by film-makers around 1950, a technical improvement that really was justified. Nitrate film is highly flammable and prone to rot. Yet it is the rot that fascinates Morrison. Decasia is the Fantasia of decay.
Morrison has found examples of old film, from archives such as George Eastman House and the Museum of Modern Art, going back to the beginning of the 20th century: some drama, some documentary, screen tests, all kinds of peculiar images that have decayed in intriguing ways.
Edited with an authentically poetic sensibility and delirious timing, the images flow mysteriously into one another in what feels like a necessary, meaningful structure, though inexplicable. Faces and buildings dance in and out of random, abstract pools of black, grey and silver; faces become chrome shadows; the sun turns black; flames look like water.
The effect of the nitrate film’s decay is to make everything seem fluid, while creating a weird landscape of grotesque, pulsing shapes. It’s all scarily counterpointed by Michael Gordon’s soundtrack: feedback music, rising at the most intense moments to a screech. In fact the music begat the film. Decasia was commissioned for a multimedia performance of Gordon’s symphony of the same name.
Among the raves that have pursued Decasia since its showing at Sundance and New York’s Anthology Film Archives is a “Compelling and disturbing!” from Kenneth Anger, the great American film-maker. To disturb Kenneth Anger – follower of Aleister Crowley, better known for hexing people than praising them, whose own films are occult rituals of sex and death – has to be considered quite an achievement.
In fact, if Decasia has any antecedent, it is in the ominously erotic and gorgeously nightmarish rites of Anger’s cinema. It reminded me of Eaux d’Artifice, his 1953 reverie among ghostly fountains in the Renaissance gardens of Tivoli; other analogies might be the sickly-hued photography of old San Francisco in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, or the chilling Victorian photographs in Wisconsin Death Trip.
Decasia is on a death trip of its own. In fine art and architecture, ruin has been regarded as picturesque since the 18th century, but cinema’s ruins are rarely visited. Rancid and, in normal terms, unwatchable, these bits of film are gradually fading into nothing in archives away from the light and away from the cinema. They were never meant to flicker into life again.
The experience of Decasia is abstract and figurative. Leonardo da Vinci recommended staring at marks on walls to find ideas for paintings, and there’s something endlessly pleasurable and hypnotic about the wet blotches, expanding and contracting shadows, the thickly textured accretions, formations like porous rock or cork, the rivers, volcanos and scars that breed on the surface of the images monochromatically staring at you from Morrison’s footage.
Like landscapes made by the surrealist method of Decalcomania, in which paint is pressed between two surfaces resulting in arbitrary rocky formations, the blemishes, seepage and intrusions that all but blot out barely glimpsed moving pictures give Decasia the unfathomable mystery of an abstract painting made by something inhuman. The artist here is not Morrison: he is a medium, allowing the random creativity of decay, of time itself, to become visible.
This would not be such an original, engaging film, however, were it simply an exercise in abstract cinema or avant-garde playfulness. What makes Decasia so beguiling is that the film footage Morrison has discovered is only partly destroyed. You can see images, and not just any images. The dead and forgotten faces seen through the fog are moving, striking, sometimes frightening. Beginning with a trancelike sequence of a whirling dervish, we see burning shacks, landscapes with the sun turned black, parachutists in a fizzling soup of sky, a young couple coming towards us and fading before our eyes, sentenced to make this walk again and again on an Edwardian street in Edwardian clothes, their faces grey velvet holes. In another sequence, a man in perhaps the 1920s is flirting with two women, one of whom is merely a burnt shadow.
Sometimes the effects are so expressive you can’t believe chance did this. But it did. Morrison’s editing is so emotional that he makes you see, always, something behind what is on screen, shadowy back stories. Gradually the power of it mounts and from mild pleasure in seeing something so unusual you become involved, tense, menaced.
Bill Morrison has created a unique artefact, as enigmatically authoritative as Max Ernst’s collage novel Une Semaine de Bonté. It has a sculpted, sensual quality, a richness of texture missing from most modern cinema: in place of all those clean, digital, precise empty blockbusters here’s something dense, deep, full of unnameable spectral presences. It is film as landscape, as sublime vista, and at the same time as history, as fact. It makes you think of Joseph Cornell’s memory boxes, Robert Rauschenberg’s time-stuffed assemblages, Anger, Hitchcock. It makes you feel that the art, as opposed to the business, of cinema does have a future – even if it has to be found deep in the past.
· Decasia is at Tate Modern, London SE1, as the centrepiece of the Rare Finds film season from October 3 to December 7. Details: 020-7887 8000.