Decasia: The State of Decay

Screening: Saturday, November 17, 8 p.m., Rich Theatre

We’re honored to have MoMA’s Associate Curator of film Anne Morra back at the High on Saturday to introduce this weekend’s American Indie, Decasia (2002). Critics who have had the chance to see this abstract, haunting opus of a film all sound almost desperate in their reviews, as if they cannot believe what they just saw and are imploring us to just witness it for ourselves. To prep us for this beautiful meditation on celluloid decay, a few quotes from these awe-struck critics:

“There are camels, geishas, nuns, factory workers, schoolchildren, Ferris wheels, seascapes, airplanes and parachutes. If you see Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) without knowing exactly what you’re looking at, you may not appreciate its strange beauty. This is nothing but decomposing nitrate film stock. This is the horror that film preservationists have talked about — the amoeba and ink-blot shapes appearing in the image, the flashes from light to dark and light again, the black-and-white accidental psychedelia — and it has taken Michael Gordon, who did the music, and Mr. Morrison to find the art in it.”

–Anita Gates, New York Times

“Morrison is not the first artist to take decomposing film stock as his raw material, but he plunges into this dark nitrate of the soul with contagious abandon. Few movies are so much fun to describe. Heralded by a spinning dervish, Decasia‘s first movement seems culled from century-old actualités: Kimono-clad women emerge from a veil of spotty mold, a caravan of camels is silhouetted against the warped desert horizon, a Greek dancer disintegrates into a blotch barrage, the cars for an ancient Luna Park ride repeatedly materialize out of seething chaos. Decasia is founded on the tension between the hard fact of film’s stained, eroded, unstable surface and the fragile nature of that which was once photographically represented.

…The solarization, the morphing, the lysergic strobe effects on which the movie thrives, are as natural as the photographic image itself. As Decasia continues, the calligraphy of decay grows increasingly hallucinatory and catastrophic. The sea buckles. Flesh melts. A boxer struggles against the disintegration of the image. Wall Street is half consumed in flames. A dozen little parachutes dot the cracked sky. A group of nuns traverse a courtyard that frames an Italian landscape in severe perspective, evoking a Renaissance vision of the Last Judgment.”

–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

“The effect of the nitrate film’s decay is to make everything seem fluid, while creating a weird landscape of grotesque, pulsing shapes. It’s all scarily counterpointed by Michael Gordon’s soundtrack: feedback music, rising at the most intense moments to a screech. In fact the music begat the film. Decasia was commissioned for a multimedia performance of Gordon’s symphony of the same name.

…Sometimes the effects are so expressive you can’t believe chance did this. But it did. Morrison’s editing is so emotional that he makes you see, always, something behind what is on screen, shadowy back stories. Gradually the power of it mounts and from mild pleasure in seeing something so unusual you become involved, tense, menaced.”

–Jonathan Jones, The Guardian

For tickets to the Saturday, November 17 screening of Decasia, click here.

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