“This radical, experimental masterwork feels like the first film, and feels like the last film.”
Filmmaker Bill Morrison created this non-narrative feature, a celebration of decay or a meditation on the human quest to transcend physicality, which derives a large portion of its visual beauty from the nature of the film medium itself. Decasia (pronounced ‘di-KA-zha’) is primarily compiled from a wealth of damaged archival footage, in which the scratches, scraped emulsion, bubbles, streaks, and decaying nitrate add an extra dimension of texture to a patchwork of images both extraordinary and mundane. Originally created as part of a multimedia environmental performance piece, with the film screened in tandem with a performance by a 55-piece ensemble, it has also been screened in a version with recorded score, composed by avant-garde percussionist Michael Gordon.
A symphony of compositions from decomposition: on one level the film is a kind of Rorschach test in which the decaying images become animated inkblots, open to whatever identifications the spectator chooses to impose on them, from garden gnomes to genitals. On another, the film provides a kind of “2001” psychedelia, a rush of abstract images linked to the trance-inducing drone of Mr. Gordon’s score.
Conceived as a homage to Disney’s “Fantasia,” Decasia also moves through a series of distinct movements. In the chapter headings of the disc they are identified as “creation” (the sea, emerging land masses, swirling speckles that might be spermatozoa); “civilization” (buildings sway and collapse, schoolchildren struggle to stay in orderly lines, narrative fragments emerge); “conundrum” (images so deteriorated that they are only fitfully readable); and finally “disintegration and rebirth,” in which images, largely of the natural world, seem to form themselves out of the dark chaos of decay. Only the trance-like dancing dervish, who begins and ends the film, is intact.
In 2013 Decasia was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. It was the first film from the 21st century to be selected and to date is the youngest film to be preserved.