Where a Film’s Gooey Bits Are the Real Showstoppers
By Sarah Boxer
December 3, 2002
The theater was an old synagogue on the Lower East Side, huge, rundown and spooky. The movie being screened, “Decasia,” was made of deteriorating reels of film. The speakers that night were an ill-sorted band: the magician and sleight-of-hand expert Ricky Jay, the photographer of deformation Rosamond Purcell, the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and the director of “Decasia,” Bill Morrison. During a break, one group in the audience chatted about the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, while another group discussed old photos of circus freaks.
What drew these people together? Was it just the prospect of seeing celluloid breaking down on a warm November evening?
“Decasia,” set to a clangorous, tuneless, relentless symphony by Michael Gordon, opens with the image of a whirling dervish. But that’s not the focus. The movie also shows waves crashing on a rocky coastline, an old aqueduct, a shoji screen, a mining accident, a drowning man, a rug factory, a spinning wheel, a Ferris wheel, an athlete, a politician, a farmer, a cowboy, a birth by C-section, a baptism, a massage, an old man’s angry face and some parachutists. But they are not the focus either. The scene stealers are the spots of decay attacking those documentary images. As Mr. Morris observed at the screening, “Decasia,”is a cross between a Robert Flaherty documentary and a Stan Brakhage film. “Nanook of the North” meets “Hell Itself.”
The species of decay in the movie are many and varied: splotches, bubbles, honeycombs, snowflakes, gooey bits, wiggly chromosomal shapes, jazzy spots, jumpy spots, steady spots, Wonder Bread spots, black streaks and blinding white flashes that could trigger an epileptic fit. The types of decay have so much character, so much life, that at a certain point you begin to feel that the decay itself has intention, targeting certain images for ruin. “I saw the film as a wrestling match between decay and recognizable images,” Mr. Morrison, the filmmaker, said. The decay won.
One scene, beginning with a sparkly mirage, turns out to be a camel caravan in the desert. A black strip appears, blotting out one of the camels. As camel and man move along the horizon, the strip keeps pace, as if stalking them. In a scene of schoolchildren walking through an abbey watched over by nuns, the splotches threaten the children but not the nuns. A boxer can be seen punching either a punching bag or another boxer. You can’t tell, because the spot has obliterated the opponent. K.O.
Is there some relationship between the image in the film and how it decays, how it is attacked? Maybe not. The point is that decay has a drama that seems closely related to the object it seeks to destroy. As Georges Bataille, the philosopher of formlessness, wrote of Manet’s 1863 painting “Olympia,” “To break up the subject and re-establish it on a different basis is not to neglect the subject; so it is in a sacrifice, which takes liberties with the victim and even kills it, but cannot be said to neglect it.”
Decay not only has drama and character, it also has fans, chroniclers and hangers-on. There seems to be a growing aesthetic fascination with the deterioration of objects into matter, shape into stuff, form into deformity. There is a general celebration of breakdown itself.
The evening of the “Decasia” screening at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, for example, also featured a slide show of deteriorating dice that were owned by Mr. Jay and photographed by Ms. Purcell. These photographs, collected in a book titled “Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck,” show the dice in a state of flux, cubes attacked from within and without. Some have a honeylike crust; some look as though they’ve been frosted; others are eaten away by moldy patches. Some have white cottony stuff coming out of them. Others give off a kind of blue powder. Sometimes the dots on the dice seem to crawl away from their ruined surfaces, and sometimes they seem to be the root of the rot. In each case Ms. Purcell got really close, as if to capture the very site at which form was betrayed.
The dice and film were shown together not because of what they are but because of how they are made and how they break down. Dice, like old-fashioned film strips, were once made of celluloid, a mixture of nitric acid, sulfuric acid, cotton and camphor, Lawrence Weschler, the impresario of the evening, explained. “And having been dust and goop,” he said, “it wants to return to dust and goop.”
The operative word in that sentence is not “dust,” “goop” or “return,” but rather “wants.” Stuff has a will. It wants breakdown. It wants entropy, maximum disorder, minimum sense. It wants to return to its base material state.
Here is how Rosalind Krauss, paraphrasing the artist Robert Smithson, describes the pull toward entropy. First, “imagine a sandbox filled on one side with white sand and on the other with black,” she writes. “A little boy begins to run around the enclosure in a clockwise direction, kicking up the sand as he goes and mixing together dark grains with light. He is then told to reverse his course and run counterclockwise. This will certainly do nothing to undo the movement toward uniformity.” The sandbox will simply become more and more gray.
For the last few years there has been a revival of interest in the will of stuff to do just that, to become more disorderly, to resist form. In a 1996 exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the show’s catalog, titled “Formless,” Ms. Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois gathered works of art that revel in entropy, materialism and formlessness, including Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, Smithson’s piles of dirt and asphalt, Piero Manzoni’s collection of artists’ feces and Joseph Beuys’s chair made of fat. In 1998 the Getty Center had the exhibition “Irresistible Decay: Ruins Reclaimed.”
And now the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington is showing “Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera, 1962-72,” an exhibition of the group of Italian artists who shunned the polished art object and embraced ordinary materials. The room devoted to the artist Jannis Kounellis features, for instance, rice, beans and coffee. The aesthetics of deformity and breakdown has also been tackled in books. “Speck: A Curious Collection of Uncommon Things,” a new book by Peter Gordon Buchanan-Smith, includes such homely things as a stack of laundry lint from one woman’s dryer, a lineup of misspellings of one artist’s name and a collection of worn-down lipsticks. Out of each occasion of disorder arises a new kind of order.
In Abelardo Morell’s “Book of Books,”` books are shown not for the words and ideas they keep but for the brute and vulnerable objects they are. In the preface Nicholson Baker writes that a book “is rectangular and thick, heavy enough to stop a bullet or press a leaf flat.” And it’s also vulnerable.
“Bad things happen to books all the time,” Mr. Baker writes. Mr. Morell captured the curled pages of a book left in water and a book overwhelmed by dirt. That pages are mortal means they also have lives. They live, Mr. Baker writes, “pressed tightly against their neighbors, communicating nothing.”
Where does this fascination with decay and deformation come from? Strange though it may sound, it could be a return to Romanticism. Think of Wordsworth and the ruins of Tintern Abbey or Shelley and the great head of Ozymandias, but with a new twist.
In the fall of last year the journal Critical Inquiry devoted a whole issue to the topic “Things.” In an article titled “Romanticism and the Life of Things,” W. J. T. Mitchell observed that the current interest in “material culture, objecthood and thingness” has it roots in Romanticism, though not quite the Romanticism of our forefathers. “In the old days, of course, it would have been Romanticism and the Spiritual (or the mental, the psychological, the ideal, the immaterial, the metaphysical).” This time around we are “getting physical with Romanticism,” he writes. “The slogan for our time then is not things fall apart, but things come alive.”
In other words, the focus is not on the spiritual dimension of deterioration but on the strange new order that emerges from it. Objects that are proved to be mortal are also shown to be animate in a way that no one noticed before.
Although the movie “Decasia” showed images of old aqueducts and abbeys, they were not the real focus. The drama of the movie was in the fate of the poor film itself, the very way that images were being attacked. Once upon a time people assumed even if buildings and whole cultures crumbled, then at the very least films and photographs would be there to keep the memory safe forever. But alas that is not the case. “Decasia” captures the wearing away of the very documentary images that were supposed to stop time. Film is as mortal as anything else.
Georg Simmel, the German sociologist, once observed that the processes of natural decay do “not sink the work of man into the formlessness of mere matter,” but rather create new form, “entirely meaningful, comprehensible, differentiated.”
That seems to be the message of “Decasia.” There is a new order coming. What will it be?
No one knows, but right now it looks an awful lot like the ends of a home movie, the part where the pictures of Mom and Dad melt away into caramel goo.