New York Times: Composing a Varied Collage Out of Decomposing Film

Composing a Varied Collage Out of Decomposing Film

By: Anita Gates

December 27, 2002

I was going to take a wild guess and say that “Decasia” was about destruction. Then I read about the film, realized what I was actually seeing and knew that was doubly true.
“Decasia,” a 70-minute film that has its television premiere on the Sundance Channel tonight, is nothing more — and nothing less — than a collage of decaying, decomposing nitrate film stock. Movie fans are frequently reminded that a big chunk of America’s film history is already lost or is in danger of rotting away, and that financing is needed to preserve what’s left. “Decasia” is what has happened already to so many silent movies, newsreels and the like. The unexpected thing is that its dying, in this shower of black-and-white psychedelia, is quite beautiful.

There’s no traditional story line. The film begins with relatively unscathed shots of a whirling dervish and of film reels reeling away, but it soon moves on to film in which the images are almost completely obliterated. Amoeba and ink-blot shapes dance across the screen; images flicker from light to dark, from positive to negative, and back again; outdoor action seems to take place against backgrounds of extreme or unearthly weather.

The play of light often makes it look as if the people and buildings on screen were being bombed. When great clouds of gray engulf what looks very much like the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street in the streetcar era, it almost looks like coverage of Sept. 11.

The topics are all over the place: seascapes, a camel caravan, a geisha, factory workers, Ferris wheels, nuns, schoolchildren, airplanes and parachutes. This is not your typical television viewing experience. Bill Morrison, who wrote, directed, produced and edited this truly original work, doesn’t even call “Decasia” a film. Instead the opening titles use the words “a Michael Gordon symphony.” Mr. Gordon’s relentless score specializes in sounds that are usually heard in suspense movies, and only very briefly. Maybe the idea is that every frame of film we see is a horror because of its condition.

“Decasia” is part of the Sundance Channel’s “New Voices for the New Year,” a series of works by novice directors. Others include “Kaaterskill Falls,” an American interpretation of Roman Polanski’s “Knife in the Water”; “The Slaughter Rule,” a drama about a teenage football player and his troubled coach; “Riders,” in which a teenage girl and her little sister run away from their mother’s lecherous boyfriend; and “Charlotte Sometimes,” the story of an Asian-American teenager in love with the girl next door.

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