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Decasia (2002)

Decasia: The State of Decay

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 66 minutes

UK Certificate: U


'Decasia' is what might be called an archival work, gathering together nitrate-based black-and-white footage from various collections of old film, as though to ensure that these forgotten images remain fixed for generations to come – except that the filmstock itself has physically deteriorated, stained and melted, making this a document of decay itself, in all its beauty and terror.

Many of the images which director Bill Morrison has chosen are not just themselves decaying, but also actually depict variations on the process of decay – shimmering images of rocks being gradually eroded by the endless onset of waves, snowy distortions of a house burning down, and a woman receiving tanning treatment under lights (the blotchy film making her skin already appear scarred and cancerous). Moreover, the many figures who populate these images are now confined to the annals of anonymity, so that the chemical miasma which obscures them from clear view merely underscores their status as faded memories and celluloid phantoms. The visible disintegration of these people's exploits lends them a poetic air, whether it is one man's elegiac failure to woo a pretty young woman (who seems to wilt and age before our very eyes), or another man's epic shadowboxing against an unidentifiable column of ectoplasmic nitrate burn-out, emblematic of humanity's heroically futile resistance to the inevitable ravages of time.

'Decasia' carefully binds its message to its medium, showing the equal fragility and transience both of human endeavour and of the photographic material designed to commemorate it. It opens with an image of a spinning Sufi dancer, followed immediately by similarly spinning celluloid reels in a film lab. Later the same dancer is seen engulfed in a vortex of scratchy blemishes, and another pair of people dance wildly together on film so damaged that the image itself dances and heaves to its own rhythm. The image of filmreels being dipped into baths of nitrate is echoed by the sight of church converts being baptised in a lake – but the eerie solarised glow of the lakewater, indicative of the film's decomposition, belies the converts' hopes for eternal salvation. For 'Decasia' is not just a psychedelic feast for the eyes, but a cinematic memento mori, demonstrating graphically that nothing endures and everything is in flux – and that even the emulsion which can preserve an image is susceptible to history's entropic dance.

Morrison originally compiled his images to accompany a live performance of a symphony by Michael Gordon – making Gordon's music, with its discordant glissandi, driving rhythms and ominous fragility, a perfectly integrated soundtrack to Morrison's vision of degradation and metamorphosis.

Temporality has never seemed so timeless.

It's Got: Haunting images that distort, drip and pulsate as though viewed through a faulty lava lamp - and a soundtrack full of intense foreboding.

It Needs: To be watched through an old television with a glitchy DVD player.

DVD Extras Scene selection; excellent 7-minute audio interview (by reporter Peter Grimmins on PRIs Studio 380) of director Bill Morrison and composer Michael Gordon - including the revelation that the first sound heard on the films score is rust being scraped on a cars brake drum. DVD Extras Rating: 3/10


Mortality, oblivion and the ravages of time have never looked so hauntingly, beautifully timeless.