Talkin' bout degeneration

(Decasia: The State of Decay; Plexifilm; 67 min; B&W, 35mm, 1.33:1, Dolby 5.1 surround; includes interview with Bill Morrison and Michael Gordon; $24.95; release date: Jan. 27, 2004;,

The degradation of film stock over the past century is alarming on many different levels, and it's hard to find many cinephiles who don't think that film preservation is one of the most important potential uses of technology. Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison takes a decidedly different view. In crafting "Decasia," Morrison assumed that decades of film are hopelessly doomed for destruction. Rather than start a fundraising drive, he made a movie. (Lemonade out of lemons, as it were.)

Morrison compiled and recontextualized miles and miles of disintegrating footage, which he presents not as historical documentation or even as a content-bearing art. Instead, his 67-minute film focuses on the physical act of decay itself. Whether it's a boxer pummeling a bag while obscured by a steady stream of scratches or a family from the 1920s bubbling into gooey patches of nothingness, each segment of film Morrison uses is well past salvation by the preservationists and ripe for its own visual exploitation.

Just as the act of decay accelerates with time, so does the intensity of "Decasia." At first, the affected stock is only slightly distorted. But as the film moves forward, the images become more and more unreal, an effect emphasized by the postmodern score by Michael Gordon (Bang on a Can). The net result removes the sentimentality from each of the pieces of film that Morrison used. Instead of cranking out an homage to the "great history of cinema," or some such tripe, he seems to be positing that decay is in fact necessary. Just as most folks would prefer not to see the corpses of their ancestors piled up on the streets, Morrison beautifully deduces that, in order for film -- or any other art -- to move forward, the past upon which it is built must in some way die. Decasia, in other words, is a visually arresting grave dance.


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