Judge Gordon Sullivan enjoyed The Gold Rush Witch Project, in which Charlie Chaplin heads into the woods.
"A delirium of degraded film stock"
When people say "found footage" these days, they almost always refer to a subset of the horror genre that (at least popularly) started with The Blair Witch Project—you know, those films that purport to be found recordings documenting some poor souls' last days with shaky cameras and POV shots. That wasn't always the case, though. For decades, "found footage"—if it was heard at all—referred largely to works that fall into the category of "avant garde" or "experimental"—or films like Bruce Connor's "A Report," which edited together footage from the Zapruder film. Other artists used less well-known footage to construct their films, often taking found home movie, silent-era, and educational/industrial footage and mixing it with their own footage to create evocative films.
Decasia (Blu-ray) is a wonderful example of this kind of footage. Filmmaker Bill Morrison gathered together the footage from numerous genres (including what appears to be travel footage and silent-era fictions) and places (numerous archives are mentioned in the end credits). The twist with Decasia is that all of the pieces of footage that Morrison weaves together are damaged, sometimes very significantly. The damage ranges from simple scratches and lines (the kind we've all seen on old movies) to nitrate-stock decay and water damage (Morrison especially mentions Hurricane Fran's impact on some of the footage he used). By combining this footage with a droning score utilizing a fifty-five-piece basel sinfonietta, Morrison has created a masterpiece that is part homage to decay and part call to arms.
If you've never seen film decay, you might be wondering why anyone would want to watch messed-up film for 67 minutes. It's a good question, but one easily answered by actually looking at some film decay. The usual damage we see can be kind of boring—specks and scratches aren't very visually interesting. However, the decay that plagues film, especially older nitrate stock, is much more visually appealing. Things like mold and disintegration don't happen linearly (like a scratch) and tend to affect individual frames differently. When the stock is played back, there's an organic-looking effect. Tthe surface of the film itself is alive and we're watching it grow and shrink, like a scientific study of microbes.
Decasia is worth watching just for the details of film decay. The organic shapes and the sheer variety of forms create 67 minutes of intense visual interest. The bubbling, frothing surface of the image is revealed, and the result is an awareness of the medium of nitrate or celluloid that our movies are made from.
Decasia is also worth watching for the relationship between the decay that occludes the image and the image underneath. The footage Morrison uses includes many forgotten films (only a handful of which have been identified) that are interesting in their own right—I especially love the image of a whirling dervish that bookends the film. However, more interesting is the way the image interacts with the decay. Sometimes watching is like playing a guessing game, wondering when a recognizable image will emerge from the soup of chemicals or mold on the surface of the film. Other times, there's a humorous relationship between image and decay: in one scene of a fairground, a carnival ride is seen with rocket-shaped buckets moving around a circular pillar. It's a common ride we've all seen, but in Decasia, the film on the left-hand side is damaged, so when the buckets appear from the left to right they seem to be emerging directly out of the decay. Viewers are rewarded throughout Decasia with small moments like this one.
Finally, Decasia's 67 minutes provide ample time to sit and think with and about decay. That can be as simple as wondering what caused any particular piece of film to look the way it does, or it can be as expansive as musing about the certainty of death and decay in our fragile mortal shells, which are susceptible to many of the problems that plague nitrate stock. It's also an opportunity to think about the decay of our cultural heritage of films; in this way, the film is a call to arms. Though perhaps our greatest film achievements won't suffer this fate, there are plenty of films rotting away in archives, basements, and storage sheds that could use attention.
No discussion of Decasia would be complete without a mention of the score by Michael Gordon. It's a droning, circular kind of track that seems to respond to the footage but without any obvious connections, like fast playing for fast footage. Sometimes the score echoes a horror movie's stabbing strings, and that feels totally appropriate for a film that will play like a horror movie to anyone who's had to help archive early film, or any film for that matter.
Which brings us to this excellent Blu-ray release. As a work of film art, Decasia all but demands to be seen in its original medium—on film. Obviously not everyone will have access to the film itself, and that's a common tension when presenting avant-garde/experimental works for home video: maximum viewership demands compromise. However, beyond the fact that it isn't film, there's very little compromise in this 1.33:1/1080p transfer. Obviously, normal standards don't apply to a film about film decay, but detail is exquisite throughout, with no noticeable artifacts introduced by the digitization process. The black-and-white footage looks appropriate, with solid black levels and good contrast throughout—at least as good as the footage itself. The score is available in both stereo and surround configurations. It sounds as good as the video looks, with resonant bass and good dynamic range.
The set's lone extra is another film by Morrison "Light is Calling." It's less than 10 minutes and uses similar techniques to the main film but with decaying color stock. It also features a score by Michael Gordon. Though there is definite benefit to sitting through all 67 minutes of Decasia, it's possible to get a really good idea of what you're in for by watching "Light is Calling."
This is obviously an avant-garde/experimental film, and at 67 minutes, it's not a short one. Those with no patience for art films might find the hour to be a rough one. Purists might also worry that viewers aren't watching the film on film, but that feels like a hollow criticism.
Decasia is a beautiful film that will likely appeal to a wide swath of viewers interested in cinema's margins. It's filled with gorgeous imagery and offers a potent meditation on death and decay. Decasia (Blu-ray) is a near-perfect presentation of the film, and viewers couldn't really ask for more.
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