This is another transplant from my former site. Enjoy!
A cursory glance through my past posts leads me to believe that I have never told you about Decasia (2002). If I am mistaken, then you can read about it again. The film is out on Blu-Ray, and merits repeated mention anyhow.
Decasia is in two parts – the visuals, by filmmaker Bill Morrison, and the symphony that constitutes all the sound for the film, by Michael Gordon. Gordon was comissioned to write the symphony, then Morrison was approached to provide a visual element, but music and images feed off each other. They are one.
The title of the film is a combination of Decay and Fantasia, being an assemblage of clips from badly damaged motion picture film – silent film for the most part, judging from the subjects and settings. Morrison had two criteria: first, that there be something worth looking at in the original scene, and second, that it be decayed in an interesting way. Reviewers often cite the scene shown above, wherein a boxer fights a now-invisible opponent (I believe he’s hitting a ball or bag) which has been subsumed into the mess that is movie film stock reverting to its component parts. So many films have been lost, and so many others or parts of others saved with partial damage, that there must have been a wealth of material to go through.
Here is another notable scene, in which an amusement park ride bursts out of a distorted blotch – an image every bit as effective as some million dollar CG effect. But this is no effect; it is time robbing us of the world, which photography promised to preserve.
The decay extends to Gordon’s fascinating, though at times hard on the ears, symphony. He de-tuned four pianos, and had half the orchestra (in this case the basel sinfonietta) tune 1/8 of a tone higher or lower than the rest, creating a sound that slides and seems to warp itself – music in the throes of some process over which it has no control.
I got the DVD of Decasia soon after it was released, in 2004. Since then I have watched it numerous times. It does not grow dull with repetition. Rather, each viewing brings out elements that were unnoticed – for example, the electric guitar work, especially in the second half of the film, stayed in the background until my most recent viewing. The recurrence of musical themes and visuals – scenes of nuns leading their charges (schoolchildren? orphans?) through a rather southwestern landscape, a dervish spinning – set motifs for the film. Late in Decasia is a prolonged scene of airplanes and parachutists where my mind kept switching back and forth, first seeing the decay as abstract patterns that overwhelm the original shot, then snapping back to “reality” and watching the aerial action, slow though it was.
Decasia is a memento mori, a reminder that everything passes. Many of the great actors of the past are nothing but names and descriptions, lines of text and nothing more. Many others have been rendered into shimmering ghosts as decay eats into their photographs and films. The irony of a Blu-Ray release is that the limited clarity of old film, combined with the decay, means little improvement can be made in picture quality. Further irony comes when you think of how fragile digital media are. Still, meditating on death and the passing of time need not be a pessimists past-time. There is beauty in it, as Decasia shows; beauty in the loss of what was, beauty in the dust that remains.
If you’d like a taste of what Decasia is like, check out Morrison’s short film, Light is Calling.