erasing clouds

Portrait of Decay: Bill Morrison on Decasia

by dave heaton

Bill Morrison's film Decasia: The State of Decay opens with a Sufi dancer spinning in circles, followed by reels of film spinning on some sort of large machine. Those are apt opening images, as the film is both meditative--it consists of a collage of images paired with entrancing music written by Michael Gordon of Bang on a Can--and a film about film, as Morrison constructed the film using clips from old films that are in the process of decaying. The experience of watching the film is thus tinged with sadness, as these images come from real films that are decaying. Yet it's also an absolutely gorgeous film, and the decay itself is part of its beauty. Weird clouds, bubbles and marks move across the screen and interact with the original images in ways that are mysterious and truly mesmerizing. A theme park ride passes through a pulsating cloud which makes the ride and its occupants temporarily disappear. Men carry dead bodies out of what seem to be a mine, while black and white fuzzy lines frame the scene. A boxer fights a moving blob, essentially battling decay itself. Decay itself becomes a visible character on the screen in a way that makes us contemplate its omnipresence; yet the more you watch the film and sink into its world, the more what you're seeing becomes its own beautiful, fascinating creature.

What led to the original idea for Decasia? Please tell us about the film's origin.

I have been involved in making films that show some sort of manipulation of an archival image for a number of years. I was particularly inspired by Peter Delpeuts' 1992 feature Lyrical Nitrate, in which remnants of hand-tinted films from the Nederlands Filmmuseum were reproduced to dazzling effect. I was particularly moved by the scene toward the end of that film, in which Adam and Eve were eradicated by emulsion deterioration. I made a short film entitled The Film of Her in 1996, about another deteriorating collection, the Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress. While attending the Orphans Film Symposium to present this film, I searched for films in the University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library that showed emulsion deterioration. I found the seed images of Decasia in this collection.

At around the same time, the Europaischer Musikmonat (European Music Month) commissioned Bang On A Can co-founder Michael Gordon to compose a symphony that would be performed by the basel sinfonietta in November 2001. I work with a theatre company in New York, Ridge Theatre, which had staged several operas by Bang On A Can composers. We (Artistic Director Bob McGrath, Visual Designer Laurie Olinder and myself) were asked to give a visual component to Michael's as yet unwritten symphony. Following my discovery in South Carolina, I suggested that we make decay the theme of the piece, and that the piece be called Decasia. Michael took this to musical extremes I couldn't have dreamed of, writing a decaying symphony.

How many source films did you draw images from to create "Decasia"? Where did they come from? Are they of varying ages, roughly, or mostly from the same era?

I looked at several hundred reference prints, probably closer to a thousand. They primarily are from The Library of Congress, The Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, The University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library, and the Cinematheque Suisse. There are a few shots that were provided by private collectors, A/V Geeks in Durham, and Oddball Films in San Francisco. They range from 1914 to 1954 in age, although I used primarily films that had been originally shot on nitrate-based stock, especially those from before 1929. I would day a good deal of the actuality footage is from the years 1927-1929, and the rest is spread all over.

The images and the music seem inseparable. Did you collaborate with Michael Gordon right from the start?

As explained above, we were simultaneously commissioned to make a symphony with projected images. I had ideas about Decay that I shared with Michael. He had ideas about how that would apply toward music. For the most part, we worked separately on the project. He played us 15 minutes of the music a year and half after our first meeting, and shortly thereafter I gave him a rough assemblage of the images I had been collecting. In August 2001 he delivered a scratch soundtrack of the symphony as recorded on a MIDI computer. The version of Decasia that was projected during the live performances in Basel in November 2001 was edited to this score. I knew that the sync would be approximate at best, and that I would re-cut the film once we had a live recording of a performance by the Basel Sinfonietta. So that version was more atmospheric - the shots were longer, and less dependent on the changes in the music. In the end, I cut to the recording Michael's score we made in Basel. To this end, there were two subsequent re-edits - one that was completed before Sundance in January 2002, and the final version, which was finished in April 2002.

I gathered from the film's credits and from your web site that Decasia premiered as a multimedia event in Switzerland. Could you explain what that was like? Is the music in the film (on the videotape) a live recording of that performance?

Working with the design team of Ridge Theater, we built a triangular structure out of scaffolding, three storeys high. The members of the 55-piece orchestra were arranged on these various levels. The conductor stood on a podium on the triangle's floor, surrounded by the audience. From each corner, film and slides were projected on a scrim that covered the opposite wall, obscuring the musicians (3 film projectors, 12 slide projectors). The orchestra appeared to the audience through the scrims, inside the projections. We made a live recording of the performance in 5.1, which became the soundtrack on the film (and video/dvd). The performance was a surreal and somewhat spooky experience, occurring as it did on the heels of September 11th, 2001. My favorite moment came when one film projector caught a frame at the end of a performance, and the image burned in real time.

There's moments in the film when the decay threatens to overtake the other images altogether: to what extent do you consider the film to be a portrait of decay in action (and a statement of the inevitability of decay)?

Certainly the film is both a portrait of decay and a statement of its inevitability. I found that when one was still able to recognize an image there was much more tension than when it gave itself over entirely to amorphic decay, so I edited out the extended abstract sequences.

That you used decaying film stock might lead viewers to the conclusion that Decasia is an expression of sadness at the way old films are decomposing or an attempt to build awareness of the fact that these films are decaying. Do you think about the film in that way? To what degree are you interested in issues of film preservation?

Decasia owes much to the efforts of film preservationists, both active and from the past. Much of the footage is a reproduction of previously preserved nitrate footage. In a few instances I became my own reclamation project, preserving footage that otherwise would have been picked up by Hazardous Waste. But for all these debts, it is in the end not a film about preservation. It delights in the process of decay, and deals with it not in a nostalgic way, but rather matter of factly. There is no build of decay--it exists in varying degrees from beginning to end. I like to think that Decasia deals with decay on other levels besides the actual decay of the film. This is certainly where my primary interest in it lies.

How did you go about choosing which particular images to use for the film? Obviously there's plenty of decaying films and images you could have used.

I first looked for decaying images. From within that group I looked for images that seemed to "push back" against the decay. I would try to find images of people whose gestures seemed to defy mortality or would so pointedly ignore it that the decay licking at the film would serve as an ironic counterpoint. I assembled huge lists of where I thought this might occur: with religion, love, athletics, disaster, but also with more mundane shots where people address the camera/audience through the layers of time. From this group I chose those shots that fit my narrative and also looked strikingly beautiful. I was interested in images that interacted with the decay, so that figure and ground were always interrelated.

"Decasia" is ambiguous enough to generate a variety of feelings; to me it's beautiful, scary, mysterious, and more at the same time. Did you have an overarching feeling you wanted to convey when you first set out to make the film?

I wanted people to feel an aching sense that time was passing and that it was too beautiful to hold on to.

When you were deciding what images to put in what order, how did those decisions relate to your ideas about decay, to the themes you wanted to explore in the film?

I built a narrative that was told from the point of view of the Sufi Dancer who brackets the film. He is the projector, the feed reel holding the future and the take up reel spooling up the past. A metaphysical lab reveals a number of parallel films. We are watching this one that the hand examines. It is a creation story, as seen by a Japanese goddess. The earth and sea divide. Species form and migrate. Civilizations are established. Early societies adopt a circular view of life and death and eternity. Modern man is born as an Eisenstein baby. He grows up, explores the frontier, goes to school and develops a linear approach to the world. This creates a conundrum, one where decay leads to fear, something to be avoided at all costs. In the end, rebirth is signaled by the extensive plane and parachute sequence. The Japanese Goddess awakes from her dream, the Sufi Dancer draws the last frame into history.

What have people said about the film that surprised you--as far as how they interpreted it, how it made them feel?

There have been a lot of reactions to the film. Some people have found it overly long and monotonous, others have found it inspirational.

One of the more interesting responses I received from an audience member was from a man named Hajro Terzich, an ex-Chicagoan who now lives in Atlanta. H e wrote me the following:

"Just had one of the great revelatory experiences of my intellectual life. It was that partly because what was expressed was what I had been expressing in my work. But in a wholly new way that confirmed and deepened the ideas for me. I just watched Decasia, a film in which the film maker used pieces of old, decaying film and spliced it together. It is given structure by beginning, coming back to, and ending with a Turkish dervish (a thing I know something about). Then it proceeds to take you through a series of images, like a boxer seemingly battling an engulfing force of decay and cancer rather than the punching bag which is wholly obliterated by the destroyed film or like the nuns shepherding children to their communion but in a slow pavane against a background of flickering light and engulfing darkness.

What this made me think about was the conflict between the vertical and the horizontal...and what St. Paul said about the battle being with powers and principalities and, by extension, not a single combat. The dervish whirls, he stands upright but his motion is all horizontal. The animal world is horizontal. People are vertical. Images in the film play on this contrast. The dead are horizontal. The living fight to stay vertical. But they fight as individuals against powers and principalities. Airplanes are high in the sky but fall. The forces of nature are really, once the skirt is raised, the forces of decay and horizontality. We may help each other but we are powerless to unite except in special ways. What the film maker has done is raise the veil of the Saitic Isis and seen the true state of things. Plutarch has a nice little essay on this goddess on the island of Sais. It is like Roger Bacon who chased a beautiful woman until she, in exasperation, lifted her clothing to reveal the cancer devouring her body. In the end, the redemption is in the fall itself. That is, not to overuse the religious language, in going from the vertical to the horizontal which is inevitable, we redeem ourselves as Bacon, reminded of the horizontality and evanescence of the natural world in his lust for the surface, redeemed himself."

To clarify one thing about the technical side of the film: Were the images sped up, slowed down, or in other ways altered from their original state?

The images were step printed two or three frames for every original frame, in effect slowing the images down.

I haven't seen any of your other films, though I've read about some of them. When did you first begin making films? At that time, what interested you most about filmmaking?

I began making films in the late 1980s as an art student at The Cooper Union, where I was studying painting. My film professor was the great experimental animator Robert Breer, who also used to be a painter. He taught a type of autonomous filmmaking based on the concept of manipulating 24 paintings a second. This was something I could relate to, as a single painting could not do what I wanted it to do for a viewer. I found animation to be too labor intensive, so I experimented with a sort of subtractive animation based on degrading images that has been previously photographed with a movie camera. This led me to archival footage and its various degradations, chiefly through the work of Ken Jacobs (Tom,Tom, The Pipers Son, among many others)

What can you tell us about other current or future projects you're involved with?

This year I will collaborate again with Ridge Theater on the set of a new production of John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which will be presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December 2003. Next year we will reunite with Michael Gordon to present a new piece at Carnegie Hall in February 2004. I have several other projects that are in various states of incubation, mostly involving presenting film images with live music in different formats.

{For more information on Decasia, visit the web site.}

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