Decasia, 2002, 35mm, March 26th, Bytowne Cinema,
with Director Bill Morrison in Attendance
Production year: 2002
Runtime: 67 mins
Director: Bill Morrison
Decasia is a stirring, haunting feature film masterpiece composed
entirely of found footage- more precisely decaying early nitrate film
footage. Cellulose nitrate base was abandoned by filmmakers
around 1950, a technical improvement that really was justified. Nitrate
film is highly flammable and prone to rot. Yet it is the rot that
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.
Morrison not only researches and collects this footage, but he uses it
to create compelling montages with original soundtracks. He has
collaborated with some of the most interesting composers working
today–John Adams, Henryk Gorecki, Johann Johannsson, Steve
Reich, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon. In fact the music
begat the film. Decasia was commissioned for a multimedia
performance of Michael Gordon's symphony of the same name. The
end result of this artistic collaboration is mysterious, beautiful, and
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 strange landscape of
grotesque, pulsing shapes 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.
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.
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.
It has a sculpted, sensual quality, a richness of texture missing from
most modern cinema: in place of all those clean, digital, preciseempty 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 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.
Over the past two decades, Morrison has built a filmography of more
than thirty projects that have been shown in museums, theaters,
concert halls, and galleries around the world, including Sundance and
the Tate Modern. His films are in the collection of the Museum of
Modern Art, The Nederland’s Film museum, and The Library of
Congress. He is a Guggenheim fellow and has received the Alpert
Award for the Arts, an NEA Creativity Grant, a Creative Capital grant,
and a fellowship from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. His
work with Ridge Theater has been recognized with two Bessie
awards and an Obie Award.
A Q&A will follow the screening with Director Bill Morrison