At a time when the restoration of films is attracting so much attention, especially when they surface on DVD, it may seem odd to come across one that takes full advantage of the damage that films stock can undergo, Yet Decasia does exactly this, constructed as it is from nitrates that have suffered the most appalling levels of deterioration. Indeed, it celebrates every scratch, stain and splodge of mould; this is cinema in its death throes and utterly unique.
Decasia is that rare thing: a film that can only be conceived as film. Bill Morrison, who wrote, directed, produced and edited, takes as his starting point the fascinating abstractions the damage itself produced rather than the images which lie “beneath”, and constructs his feature from this point onwards. From this standpoint it is the deterioration that forms the narrative, as though a strange shape not unlike The Blob or Forbidden Planet’s monster from the id is randomly terrorising the excerpts from silent movies and documentary footage, attacking their inhabitants and turning faces to mush.
Yet behind all this (quite literally) another story is going on. What makes Decasia such an interesting example of experimental cinema is the way in which it builds associations through the assembled footage. On one level this is a film with a cast of thousands, from New Yorkers to school children, and jumps between time and space, from 19th century France to the Wild West, via Egypt. Yet for all that is recognisable, nothing here is completely human. In order for Morrison to display the damage at its “best” he has had to slow the images way down so that they resemble a ghastly other as opposed to anything truly quantifiable. Indeed, for all the beauty of the mould and its blotches, there is something of the horror film about Decasia. Laughs and smiles, even someone running towards the camera, take on sinister elements, but it is in the combination of damage and drama that this aspect truly arises: black and white pictures suddenly reverse so as to recall the forest scene from Murnau’s Nosferatu or the promo for David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes; nuns become distorted so to resemble Ingmar Bergman’s vision of Death; on-screen participants suddenly appear from behind a mass of burnt nitrate, ominously staring directly at the camera; a painting can one minute look perfectly normal, the next it resembles that of Dorian Gray. And so it continues, all the while aided by Michael Gordon’s score, performed by a fifty strong orchestra who start out at intense and never let up for the full 66 minutes.
Of course, much of this is free association and another viewer may experience something entirely different such is the manner of the images. (For one person an imminent sandstorm is approaching, for another it may be a simple piece of foliage.) One thing is certain, however, and that is that every single frame constantly reminds its audience that this deterioration (or “state of decay” as the packaging subtitle puts it) is happening to film stock somewhere in the world right now, perhaps to some hitherto undiscovered - and maybe never to be discovered - masterpiece. Indeed, as a rallying cry for film preservation, Decasia proves more successful than any lecture or article ever will. There may be genuine frisson when there is interaction between the various prints’ damage and the images they have captured - as when a group of children and (presumably) their father spontaneously applaud at its appearance seemingly right in front in them - but even this cannot match the force with which Morrison drives home his message.
As a final note, Decasia also prompts another reaction, this one slightly stranger. After each encounter with the film I am immediately compelled to put one of my poorer looking silent movies into the DVD player in the hope the it will proved some previously unknown - but now fully apparent - delights.
Paradoxically, as far as Decasia is concerned, the worse the picture looks the better it is. So whilst it may demonstrate some of the worst looking film ever seen on disc, the DVD producers can hardly be criticised. It adheres to the original 1.33:1 ratio of its assembled footage and offer no technical difficulties. It should be noted, however, that this is an NTSC release.
The sound on the hand must be absolutely perfect and thankfully doesn’t disappoint. Gordon’s score sounds utterly superb in its DD5.1 form, so much so that it doesn’t as such create a wall of sound but rather an entire room. Flawless.
Sadly, extras are limited to sleeve notes by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman (in form of an excerpt from an article taken from said organ) and Deborah Artman (taken from Gordon’s Bag on a Can website), both of which provide brief analysis and biographical info, plus a seven-minute radio interview with Morrison and Gordon. This piece is fine as far as it goes, but is altogether too short to be fully satisfying. Indeed, as Decasia prompts numerous questions about its conception, collation and editing, a commentary by the pair would have greatly appreciated.
This DVD is available exclusively through the BFI website.