I just saw a film about decay, and decaying film was the medium.
Decasia: The State of Decay is an hour and seven minutes of old film clips that have been deteriorating. They’re shown as they are, no attempts made to clean them up. (The Wikipedia article says some computer imagery was used to “create more meaningful abstract imagery.” That’s the only place I’ve seen that claim, so believe what you will.) The filmmakers also make it clear that they didn’t do anything to speed up the process, either.
The film came out in 2004 (OK, so I’m a little late, so what?) and was directed by Bill Morrison. The films in the film are mostly silent films, some documentary, some travel, some scripted dramas, some perhaps home movies. The opening image is a Sufi whirling dervish, an image the film comes back to again. It’s also the least damaged.
Sometimes the damage is severe and all we see for a few seconds are warped, pock-marked, moldy and bubbled emulsion, a crazy abstract pattern that flashes constantly across the screen. During one of the worst of such segments, a single, small lonely face appears in maelstrom, like a drowning man giving up his last gasp. I saw a film long time ago made when someone scattered salt on the negative, exposed it to light, then projecting the result. It doesn’t come close to the random frenetic visuals in here.
Often, though, the original image will shine through like the sun emerging from behind thick clouds. It’s easy to tell the scripted pieces; the silent-film acting tropes just don’t look realistic. Still, the pieces cut from the whole do make us wonder what the film was like. (A couple of the films have been identified, including one based on a book by L. Frank Baum. No, not Oz.)
As interesting as those bits are, it’s the documentary type films that are the most compelling; art just cannot imitate all facets of reality. Rescuers bringing out unconscious or dead miners after disaster; miners trying to escape some sort of emergency. A burning house collapsing. A Japanese woman walking through a house. A man walking in a garden. A birth, perhaps risqué for the time. A boxer apparently working out on a punching bag. (Only apparently because half the image is buried under mold. If he is sparring with someone, his partner must be a bloody mess.) Scenes of a big city, with another man cranking his camera on a ledge to the left. True, many of these would be boring without the decay images making the look spooky and other-worldly, but in this context, all have their share of poignancy.
And then there are the ones that make you ask “what the foofraw is going on here?” Without context, we can only guess, and with much of the image buried under decay, that context is even more distant. For instance, we see a group of children and adults standing around a 1920s era vehicle, all waving their arms in a circle, and then they all start jumping up and down. The scene is made more surreal by the damage that distorts the shape of the vehicle. (This happens quite a lot in the film.) A doctor and a nurse giving TLC to a mannequin. A man scraping a tree with some kind of tool. A scene on what looks like a 1950s-era school bus shows us individual shots of a few of the children, who are looking away at first, but then turn toward the camera, faces frowning with … anger?
One image the film returns to several times was apparently shot at a Catholic school or orphanage. The children are paraded through a courtyard and into a building. The girls are wearing sailor-style outfits with white tops and dark skirts, the boys white shirts and dungarees (probably). In every scene, though, there are two nuns nearby, sometimes with backs to camera. They hardly move, resembling two Grim Reapers examining their latest harvest.
Other films leave us hanging. One seems to be answering the question “What happens when you poke an anthill with a stick?” The obvious answer: a bunch of angry ants. But wait—was that a bone they just uncovered? Alas, the film cuts away, we’ll never know. A scene of what look like World War I-era biplanes (it’s hard to tell) flying in formation is marginally interesting because the damage cuts out any reference points. Then something drops from one; we suddenly realize someone is parachuting from the plane. Then there are others. They take forever to reach ground, but when they do, it looks like they’re landing on top of a factory. Are those two over there going to land on a smokestack—aw, dang, once again the cut ends.
And then there’s Michael Gordon’s music. Dissonant, edgy, repetitive, it complements the image perfectly. In their original state, the films would not show well with this music; but in their deteriorated state, this is the only music that serves. Do I detect influences of Philip Glass here? Well, in the long list of thanks for support in the credits, there’s a group called “Qatsi Productions” with glass and Godfrey Reggio listed therein.
Gordon’s music reminds me of Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio’s 1982 film contrasting the modern world against the natural world. I’m not saying Gordon copied the score wholesale, but there are passages that evoke Glass. Gordon’s score stands on its own in creativity and musical themes, but if you’re going to be influenced by someone, you could do worse than Glass.
Indeed, Decasia as a whole reminds me of Koyaanisqatsi. The whirling dervish theme reminds me of the rocket launch opening and the rocket exploding and spinning back to Earth at the end. The only sound is the music as the images flash by in both films. I don’t know if Morrison had Koyaanisqatsi in mind when he put this thing together, and this form of film certainly wasn’t invented by Reggio, but having seen both, the parallels just stick in my brain.
Decasia isn’t for everyone. The splotches, distortions, holes and scratches flash by like those 1960s strobe lights . The constant changing shapes and light intensities can be distracting. And the score is, like I said, dissonant with odd sometimes irritating high-pitched sounds. But if you can stand all that, the movie is a compelling watch.
And what’s the point? Decay, my friend. When these films were shot, no one gave much thought to preserving them. They are records of the times, but decay carves holes in our history. Being confronted by this decay, seeing these people from another era seemingly desperately going about their business even as decay overwhelms them, reminds us that we, too, are of limited existence.