Film is a visual medium. So it's interesting to note the number of times people mention "the acting" or "the dialogue" when discussing a movie. It's not that they are dismissing the optical element outright, since each of those aforementioned aspects must be seen to be appreciated. But when was the last time you heard someone call a filmmaker a true "visionary" and actually mean it? Oh sure, there are the artists who get a mention because they manage to find a way to have us experience something familiar in a fresh and provocative manner. And sometimes, an artist stumbles upon a style that makes them seem technically novel. But aside from actual auteurs with names like Hitchcock, Powell and Lynch, very few makers of movies offer style over and mixed within substance. It is a rare entity indeed that hopes to mess with the medium and still make the message clear. Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison is one such risking businessman. Practicing the very definition of "found" art, this interesting innovator has crafted a "film" out of footage shot by dozens of unknown cameramen and women over the decades and combined it with a potent musical underscoring to try and create something new and yet suggestive of its archival source. At times, the combination is amazing. But the overall effect is one of shrugged shoulders, of wondering what all the fuss budgeting was about. Decasia wants to be profound. But it merely ends up being pronounced.
There is no real "plot", so to speak, to Decasia (pronounced like a play on the Disney film Fantasia, which is completely intended). There is no true beginning, middle or end. There are movements, which the chapter headings call "Creation", "Civilization", "Conundrum" and "Disintegration and Rebirth". Within this loose structure there is a linear presentation to the images, a swelling from vague to specific, generic to individual moments. They seem to suggest the idea of civilization and its rise, telling the entire cycle of life from Genesis to genocide. There are hints of the origins of man, the struggle between nature and science, the atrocities of war and the futility of personal battles. Sometimes the symbols can be so obvious as to warrant a scoff or sneer. Other times, the odd juxtapositions between what is seen and what is obliterated (and for the most part, what element is actually doing the eradicating) can make for frustration and failure. What Morrison obviously strives for is a cohesive whole, a greater than the sum of its parts piece of cinematic performance art. Like Laurie Anderson quoting slogans from advertising and pulp fiction to the self-satirizing nature of self-help manuals, he hopes the good and the bad, the unseen and the apparitional blend around and through each other to give you a literal brain blow out.
His approach is indeed original. Having found a storeroom filled with rotting, aged film reels, some covered in so much mold and filth that they could barely be touched, Morrison considered whether the images on these battered and abused prints could be saved. Better yet, he felt the whole discovery had the feel of a rare archeological expedition, and that the prints should be preserved as is: dirt, mildew, scratches, defects and damage left intact to give the movies a more authentic, evocative look. What he learned was that, even encased in layers of gunk, the images captured and more importantly, the mood expressed on these long lost and forgotten movies were still there, struggling to get out from under the decay of age. In conjunction with composer Michael Gordon who had been commissioned to write a new symphonic piece, the idea of decay was bantered about. Thus came the main thrust of the musical themes (detuned instruments, slowly spiraling roundelays and layers of sounds) and the creation of a "video", for lack of a better term, to go along as part of the multimedia presentation. Hoping to hit upon something universal as well and individualized, Morrison made Decasia. Un-spooling like the oversized reels of film in a massive processing lab, it is a film that drags history and mystery through the viewfinder one last time.
Unfortunately, Decasia is not completely successful as a film, experimental or not. It never builds enough visual grace to reach that necessary "transcendent" moment, that chance to have the images move beyond their obvious message to signify or suggest something deeper or more profound. As the tension builds, as the images become more errant and frazzled and as the inferred narrative builds to a climax, we keep waiting for that one piece of film, that one saved cinematic memory that will cement the movie's mission as a conceit of merit. But it never comes. We never experience the cathartic release that the tone and timber of both the visuals and the music have been hinting at for the last 60 minutes. Instead, the images return to being vague again and the music begins to wind down like an out of commission music box. We end on the same visuals we started with: a Sufi whirling dervish dancer lost in the rhythm of his cyclical ballet. As he starts to slow, it's as if Decasia has come undone from its sprockets and is getting ready to derail. The theory and theme of decay is indeed present in almost all aspects of this film, from the images to the presentation of same. But there is never a sequence that casts a complete spell over you. Like the movie itself, so much of Decasia is a generalized and slapdash amalgamation of elements that you simply have to have a little prosaic faith in what is happening. And that's asking much for an audience trained to look with their logical, not their inner eye.
And this may be Morrison's message. It is easy to see from the approach he takes that, for the most part, he simply wants Decasia to function as a tone poem, a chance to match esoteric and aesthetically demanding images along side a challenging, modern symphony of cacophony to instill the viewer with a certain psychological or emotional response. Many of the visuals he uses strike that deeper resonance: a boxer, swinging at and pummeling a black hole type void; a series of carnival ride rocket ships literally appearing out of a swirling vortex; an aqueduct that appears rock solid and strong until defects in the negative force it to bend and bubble, like it's being inflated cosmically from the inside; a couple of dark, angular nuns watch as a courtyard full of children walk by them; bodies are drug from a mine shaft after an apparent accident; and perhaps the most eerie repeated sequence, a group of Japanese geishas, peeking in and out of horrible print damage, like broken radio transmission from another time visualized for the screen. As said before, we are asked to absorb all this material, to take the blatant with the tangential effect of age to represent...something. And that something is the hard part. It's like asking someone to add integers to isotopes; you may eventually come up with a response, but you may not be 100% happy with it. You're in tune with the tenor and the opera is interesting, but the arias just don't affect you.
It's a good thing that the other more "melodic" aspects of the movie are so vibrant. Perhaps the images in Decasia are underwhelming in combination because this is an instance where the music, a sonata of sadness and short-circuiting synapses, is actually more successful than its visual accompaniment. Michael Gordon has created a creepy, ethereal work of dense industrial shapes and atonal lapses that recalls the works of such diverse artists as The Residents, Phillip Glass and Brian Eno. He even borrows on the latter electronic maestro's idea of "treated" instruments (in this case, detuned pianos and brake drum "drums") to create the confused noise he hears in his head. It is one of the most effective, atmospheric scores ever created. And it is very unnerving. You will feel yourself getting tense and nervous throughout the running time of Decasia as the wild deconstruction of melody with counter-melody suggests sirens mixed with banshees or the death rattle of dying machines. It's like listening to an abandoned factory cry or the screams of pain from an imploding building.
All the more reason to lament Decasia's cinematic shortcomings. With such powerful music behind it, the movie itself should be stronger and more coherent. A good test to see whether one can work without the other is to watch the visual element of the "performance" without sound. Is it anything other than interesting? Now listen to the music sans visuals. Does it still sweep you away; make you think of untold agonies and storms on the horizon? It surely does. Indeed, a good way to think of Decasia is invocative instead of evocative. How you experience it is much more important than what you experience. And in the end, you may still be scratching your head, wondering what it was really all about.
This is a weird aspect of the DVD to discuss, since we are dealing with a pristine image of an amazingly bad set of prints. While that dichotomy is enough to mess with even the most open minded fan of the format, the idea that you are paying for a digital representation of rotten film just seems to be anti-technology at its most luddite. But one has to admit that, for what it's supposed to represent, the 1.33:1 full frame transfer is outstanding. The old fashioned monochrome that fills the screen is clear, crisp and loaded with detailed contrast. Since much of the damage is on individual frames, there is a lot of strobing and flashing (so much so that the DVD contains the following warning: "Warning: This film is not recommended for individuals prone to photo-sensitive seizures).
In a word, magnificent. Decasia sounds absolutely spectacular in the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround sound presentation. Completely immersive and full of instrumental separation, the aural hurricane created by the score is brilliantly reproduced here, making Decasia one of the best sounding DVDs in recent memory.
Sadly, there is not much bonus content here. We get a pamphlet within the packaging that discusses the history behind the film and the commission that started it all. And there is an audio interview, lasting about eight minutes, with both Morrison and Gordon that repeats much of the printed material. What this film cries out for, though, is a commentary, a chance for both Morrison and Gordon to discuss the creative process, how they were influenced by and in return how they influence each other. It would even be interesting to hear both artists take on what they think the images represent, the themes and ideas they hoped to convey and the interpretation of certain sequences. Sadly, we don't have an alternative track narrative here and it makes the overall DVD more like a piece of multimedia art and less like a versatile digital experience.
It's hard to completely dismiss the efforts of avant-garde artists, especially when the results are as novel and inviting as Decasia. As a musical piece, it is quite brilliant and bracing, able to convey mixed emotions within a very dissonant setting. But the film that goes along with it has a harder time selling its sense of self. It wants to unleash feelings and it does. It wants to suggest certain universal ideals and it definitely does that. It also wants to represent the notion of decay, not just of imagery and film stock, but of life and consciousness and, again, we see success. But sometimes, tone and texture only adjoin to mean so much. Decasia is also guilty of such a shortened swan dive. As it bubbles and blasts towards what seems like a moment of clarity, it reaches the very edge of the zenith and then does something uncalled for. It shies away. It sees the mountaintop and moves back a few feet. Then it realizes it has a long way to go to climb back down and begins its descent before the ascent is even a memory. It's not a matter of fear so much as mode of operation. Perhaps Morrison didn't have the footage to finalize his visual thesis. Maybe he thinks he already achieved it. Or it could be that it was never his intention to scale the cliffs of conscious thought and unveil the peak. Maybe he was striving for something more remote, something tantamount to the visualization of memory as it actually functions within the mind. Decasia is recommended for what it sounds like and how that ambiance matches to the movie itself. But don't be surprised if the symphony stays with you longer than the jumbled, jangled film.