DECASIA (DECay fantASIA) was made in 2002 by Bill Morrison and is an exploration of Morrison's fascination with the decay of early nitrate film footage. All of the clips used to make this 65 minute piece are sourced from pre-1950 footage, and all shows sign of decay typical to film of this era. It is estimated that 10,000 or more feature films from before 1950 have been lost due to the volatile nature of this storage medium, and this film is in part a homage to them. It is entirely in black and white and the film itself is silent, though there is an accompanying soundtrack written by Michael Gordon. Neither the soundtrack nor the visuals make a particularly comfortable experience: the music has been described as the sound of a plane crash in slow-motion, the visuals are stark, flickering and often incomprehensibly jumbled. The only treatment which Morrison allowed himself to make to the footage is that it is slowed down to around 8 frames a second.
This film produced a wide range of reaction amongst the people I saw it with, as one would expect for such experimental work.
Despite this, the film is artistically very strong, and it produces a great quantity of metaphor for the mind to work through while watching.
Most obvious is that the footage shows common activities from over 50 years ago and the parallel between the decline of the ways of life shown and of the nitrate itself allows one to ponder how long it will be before both are gone completely. The director's aim with this film is to demonstrate the transience of life and this is achieved, because even the so-thought immortality of life on film will eventually distort and fade. The views offered are like old memories or dreams, there is visual noise, warping, distortion, a sudden clear glimpse of a nun or a whirling dervish, a discontinuity, an aeroplane.
There are more direct visual allegories given too - in one scene there is a boxing match, with one boxer perfectly clear, throwing punches to where his opponent has been obliterated by smudged and melted film. In a courtroom scene, the elderly female witness shifts in and out of certainty as her features are pulled and warped like gum into monstrous facades suggestive of liquefying skulls while the judge delivers his verdict from the writhing face of a nightmare.
Overall the impression, helped by the score, is of horror. I actually think this is the scariest film I have seen, in terms of how it made me feel about myself. The scenes with warping nuns flicking between normal and negative while silently herding children through an archway will stay with me for a long time. Sections of it flow beautifully and in places the timing with the music is magical. There are some scenes which are too long (the parachute and ladder scenes espeically) and in a film which is so chaotic the line between riveting and painful can be crossed easily. Watching this film should not be undertaken lightly - it requires a certain amount of willingness on the watcher's behalf to be taken on a journey to places unvisited by mainstream cinema, but if you are prepared to bear witness to a visual rhapsody of decay, then please, you will not be disappointed.
The film is (perhaps ironically) available on DVD, but rest assured that even that will perish eventually.
Bodysong was directed by Simon Pummell. The similarities between it and DECASIA I mentioned above, so now for some differences: gone is the sharp minimalism of Gordon's score, and in comes an altogether more human (and humane) collage of musics from Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. At last some colour and some undisturbed, and undeniably beautiful, footage. This film fits over 500 clips from every source imaginable into its 85 minutes. The theme is the human body, the ambitious objective is an overview of the human condition. While there is no narration, there is a narrative of sorts in that the film starts with sperm chasing an egg, getting in, cell division, embryos, and pretty quickly we get to see some births, growths, deaths and dreams. This is where the film takes off; the visceral, bloody, nauseating sight of dozens of babies popping out in quick succession lets you know that this is not a shy film. In fact it was passed by the BBFC uncensored, despite graphic sex (hetero and homo) and some horrific images of corpses and murders.
The power of this film lies in two areas: Greenwood's music is great and provides almost as wide a spectrum as is shown in the visuals, but more than that is the sheer numerical power of what you see. A furious kaleidoscope of humanity passes by - each tiny clip represents at least a whole human life and often so much more, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed. There are some famous clips: Man vs. Tank in Tiananmen Square, summary executions in Vietnam, nuclear bombs over Hiroshima, WWI trenches. These are shown in the same context as home videos of birthday parties, African rites of passage, peace marches, Jackson Pollock at work, jazz dancing, learning to speak and everything else you can imagine humans doing. The effect is wonderful, and provides as close to an objective overview of What Humans Do as possible. If aliens arrive, they should be shown this film immediately.
One person walked out of the cinema during this film, and he really did himself a disservice, though to see his action in the context of the film was amusing to me. The ending is a celebration of the trancendence of humanity away from the corporeal by means of art and dreams, and thus the counterpoint to DECASIA is fully established. During this film the horror of DECASIA evaporated, and was replaced by a feeling of being part of an amazing group of animals. I say "animals" with special reference to the scene of food relief being thrown to a chasing pack of hungry men.
Artistically this film is ambitious, and it will not surprise to learn that it was developed simultaneously as a film, a website and a gallery installation. It will appeal more strongly to mainstream audiences than DECASIA, and this appeal (and its fame) are greatly due to Greenwood's excellent work, though anyone who overlooks the amazing visual experience is reading less than half of the story.
Either of these films will provide many times its own length in thought for the inquisitive watcher, and their juxtaposition enhances both. I feel that my appreciation of cinema, and of humanity, has been altered by seeing these films and I cannot say that of many evenings at the cinema, nor could I honestly ask for more. Do yourself a favour and step away from the mainstream for a few hours.