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Plexifilm presents
Decasia (2002)

"The severe emulsion deterioration reveals the film stock in its basic chemical form and the images are stripped to their most primitive emotional state."
- from the back cover

Review By: Matt Peterson   
Published: January 26, 2004

Director: Bill Morrison

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (haunting images)
Run Time: 01h:06m:25s
Release Date: January 27, 2004
UPC: 082354001520
Genre: alternative

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ C+B+A- C

DVD Review

Ah, the joys and woes of the experimental film. This is a much maligned genre that finds supporters and detractors with such passion, they rival the polarity of the abortion debate. I for one am open to cinematic experiments, with one requirement: There must be a purpose. If the ultimate purpose is pure filmic self-gratification (see the Dadaist movement), spare me. However, if you have something to say, I'm interested. Now, whether or not the message is well transmitted through the selected medium is up in the air. Some have done this extremely well. Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, is one of my all-time favorite films. Bill Morrison's Decasia (a takeoff on Fantasia) has been compared to Reggio's masterwork of visual poetry and music, which is a clear inspiration for this film.

Decasia is a noble effort. Utilizing found, deteriorated pieces of film, director Bill Morrison has created a positively haunting, possibly seizure-inducing (there is even a warning on the back cover), distorted black-and-white world. These fragments have been ravaged by time, showing enormous wear and tear from extreme mishandling and/or severe chemical breakdown of the film's nitrate composition. Film is produced via a chemical process. As a result, all film, if left untreated and unpreserved, will eventually deteriorate and return to its most basic elements. Nitrate films are especially susceptible to this decay. Due to their lack of durability and extreme flammability, the chemical composition of film stock was changed. Lucky for Morrison, this old, volatile film stock still exists, revealing unique images enshrouded in chemical fog.

These decrepit film bits flash by in slow motion, strobing pock marks, gaps, severe image distortions, grayscale inversions and nitrate bleeds, hiding the images that were so carefully captured many years ago. A sort of cinematic primordial soup, these images materialize and decompose at random. A flashing of decay will be seen, and out of nowhere, a young geisha girl emerges, looking out a window. She is consumed by a blob of decay, never to be seen again. Other enduring, haunting images make an appearance: a boxer fights a white mass of decay, which has consumed his punching bag; a miner chips away at a pulsating blob that races along the edge of the frame; nuns watch over a uniform line of children, who appear from behind black voids of damage; A baby is born, appearing almost metallic due to major grayscale distortion.

While this chaos erupts on screen, musical chaos provides the aural dimension. Michael Gordon has composed a score that features, in essence, a decayed orchestra. I kid you not. Gordon intentionally utilized out of tune pianos and orchestral instruments to create the impression the orchestra is covered by "cobwebs" like the film. He accomplishes this well, much to my chagrin. The entire score is essentially a series of dissonant chords that whine up and down the scales. There is structure, method, and complexity here, but there are no real themes and the score can drive one to the brink of insanity.

What is Morrison trying to say here? Is there a message? Well, like most experimental films, what you get out of the 67-minute run time depends greatly on what you project onto the ravaged images that flash away. Like poetry, these visuals are open to interpretation, but there was a clear method to the seemingly random assemblage of bits. We begin with nature, or creation, switch to images of people and buildings, or civilization, and come full circle, where a series of images imply death and eventually, rebirth (much like Koyaanisqatsi). Decasia is ultimately meant to depict the temporary nature of this life, and the decay of lives past. Memories, histories, and events that may have been significant at the time, have slowly decayed and faded. Many have been simply forgotten. Morrison attempts to explore this cycle of life via a unique medium, but does not succeed in making the message manifest.

In short, this film did not work for me. I found some images and moments to be genuinely haunting, but the film never really pulled me in, or engaged me emotionally. The damage is so severe in some portions, the strobing effect created by speeding frames of radically different kinds of damage (from frame to frame) was nauseating and disorienting. The score, as previously stated, was an appropriate accompaniment, but was an extremely harsh, unpleasant listen. In Koyaanisqatsi, Philip Glass managed to capture the frenetic and the solemn via distinct melodies and motifs that were engaging and enjoyable. This is not the case for Morrison's film. I find his goal and intended message intriguing, but the film fails to deliver and in the end, it just gets bloody annoying.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: It is difficult to grade a picture that is intentionally riddled with severe damage. As far as I can tell, this is a fine transfer that preserves the original look of the film. Contrast, black level and detail vary drastically, but the frequent damage is captured well. Minor video noise can appear, but overall a fine transfer of damaged film stocks.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
Musical scoreno

Audio Transfer Review: Michael Gordon's thundering, dissonant score is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The mix is mostly front centered, but the surrounds provide a nicely even atmospheric fill, opening up the orchestral soundscape. The track does sound muddled and somewhat empty at times, but I'm sure this is intentional.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 4 cues and remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert with liner notes by director Bill Morrison and composer Michael Gordon
Extras Review: The lone extra on the disc is an audio interview (07m:11s) with director Bill Morrison and composer Michael Gordon on PRI's "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen." This is an informative interview that reveals the origins behind the project, and the messages they are trying to convey.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Possibly the longest commercial for the advocation of film preservation, Bill Morrison's Decasia has lofty goals, but ultimately falls short. Plexifilm's presentation is solid, boasting a fine transfer and a dynamic 5.1 track of the film's grating score. For pure visual poetry, look to Koyaanisqatsi, and let this one decay.


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