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Film review twin-pack: DECASIA and Bodysong

By ZeroesAndOnes in Culture
Thu Jan 27, 2005 at 08:52:01 PM EST
Tags: Movies (all tags)

Last night, I went to my local cinema for what was advertised as an experimental film double-bill. The films offered were DECASIA (USA, 2002) and Bodysong (UK, 2003). The introduction to these films informed us that they had not been shown as a pair before, but they work well together: each is composed of "found" material and not specially filmed footage, neither features any discernable plot, speech or narrative (perhaps arguable in the case of Bodysong, see below), both are accompanied by excellent musical scores and both are artistic in a way that most cinema fare is not.


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.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
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Related Links
o Bodysong
o Bill Morrison
o Michael Gordon
o Bodysong [2]
o Simon Pummell
o a website
o Also by ZeroesAndOnes

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Film review twin-pack: DECASIA and Bodysong | 29 comments (14 topical, 15 editorial, 0 hidden)
+1, Warts and All (none / 0) (#15)
by thelizman on Thu Jan 27, 2005 at 07:42:25 AM EST

Incidentally, I'm shocked that there's no movement to preserve these oldf ilms. Literally hundreds of thousands of movies are rotting in school libraries, and all it would take some groups purchasing (or receiving donations of) some really inexpensive donations of film scanners and a cheap computer to convert them all to digital. In most cases, the copyright has long run out, and these films would be considred open domain and royalty free.

I would start this myself, but...well...I don't know. Anyone got ideas?

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
donate them to archive.org (none / 0) (#19)
by Armin Hardwood on Thu Jan 27, 2005 at 08:54:57 PM EST

sounds like this is right up their alley.

[ Parent ]
Old films & copyright (none / 0) (#20)
by Hightc on Fri Jan 28, 2005 at 12:38:52 AM EST

Antually, I think copyright IS the problem here, and only in very few cases has the copyright run out.  Unfortunately, the permission of the copyright holders is needed to make a copy onto new media, and locating the copyright holders is likely to be impossible nowdays.

Especially for films that are old enough to be in the publid domain, a simple film scanner wouldn't be enough anyway, it is likely the films will need some serious professional restoration work.

[ Parent ]

Preservation (none / 1) (#23)
by cdguru on Fri Jan 28, 2005 at 11:17:15 AM EST

There are a number of groups trying to preserve old film. I don't believe copyright is a problem at all. The problem is far more likely to be something like restoring frescoes - it is hard work and a lot of it. Taking a 60 minute film and restoring it so that it can be copied is going to take frame-by-frame attention. The equipment for doing this work probably isn't commonly available either, so it is going to be expensive. Then you need a technically competent artist to do the work. Frame by frame.

Obviously, it is much easier if you start with something that hasn't had much damage. But that is rarely the case for movies before 1950.

[ Parent ]

Why bother? (none / 0) (#29)
by MrLaminar on Fri Feb 11, 2005 at 07:29:43 PM EST

It's just some old footage lying in a storeroom. Converting it to digital format would require huge amounts of time to do the tedious scanning and archiving work.

Nobody cares if it's there or not. Thousands of other works are in the same state and they can be left to decay without having any impact on anything/anyone whatsoever. Most of these "lost works" are crap anyway, otherwise somebody would care/remember. If a "lost work" had been so good to begin with, that it would be worth restoring, then too bad...

You can't save everything.

"Travel & Education. They will make you less happy. They will make you more tolerable to good people and less tolerable to bad people." - bobzibub
[ Parent ]

Glad to see this up for vote.Thanks! (none / 1) (#16)
by shinnin on Thu Jan 27, 2005 at 08:52:47 AM EST

Interesting, nice, good, concise article. Thanks!

by eihandgranate39 on Thu Jan 27, 2005 at 08:43:20 PM EST

Is anyone homeless?

Just curious if anyone here is homeless except for a laptop with wireless internet?

lol what, what about the batteries? (none / 0) (#25)
by noogie on Sun Jan 30, 2005 at 06:52:17 PM EST

[ Parent ]
Where did you see this (none / 0) (#21)
by Cackmobile on Fri Jan 28, 2005 at 07:43:05 AM EST

It sounds really interesting. Was it in the UK.

Down here in the southern UK... (none / 0) (#22)
by ZeroesAndOnes on Fri Jan 28, 2005 at 08:08:17 AM EST

I am lucky that my local film society (WFS) is so good. I imagine that wherever you are in the UK or USA you will be near enough to something similar, a university will usually have something you can join in with. It requries a little digging, because these aren't moneyspinners for the cinemas, so they don't generally advertise too blatently.

WFS are excellent, every time they show something they will distribute a massive amount of information about the film, there is a spoken introduction before the film, no adverts or trailers, and everybody is asked to rate the films and provide comment if they like so there is a base for further discussion.

I have to say that this evening was exceptional even for the WFS (though not everyone there agreed with me...), and they are usually well above the bar anyway. Good luck to you if you decide to find out one for yourself, the rewards are there to be taken.

0000 1001 1010 1101
[ Parent ]

awesome (none / 0) (#26)
by Cackmobile on Mon Jan 31, 2005 at 07:03:05 AM EST


[ Parent ]
Entropy (none / 1) (#24)
by cdguru on Fri Jan 28, 2005 at 11:21:50 AM EST

You can take a couple of views of this. One (that I find rather abhorrent) is that everything rusts, decays, dies. What you are describing is a "celebration of rust", sort of like a gaudy funeral.

Can't say that I agree with this philosophy at all. I think there are better things to do besides either celebrating or mourning decay. For one thing, there are groups that are trying to preserve old films and other art works. If for no other reason than a historical record of where humankind was. Before "out with the old, in with the new" was culturally mandated.

I walked out of Bodysong (none / 0) (#27)
by alex fittyfives on Fri Feb 04, 2005 at 12:25:44 PM EST

I admit this somewhat sheepishly. I expected to enjoy it more than I did. I liked the idea and enjoy the found footage work of guys like Craig Baldwin, but I found this a bit, I don't know... tedious. It probably doesn't help that I'm not a fan of Greenwood or Radiohead. I've also spent too much time looking at places like rotten for it to provoke a violent negative reaction in me.

I saw it is part of a double bill too. I really went to see the other film, and I guess I just wanted to get to that party that was happening that night... nice review though, maybe it's worth another look.

Alternate soundtrack (none / 0) (#28)
by angelhex on Mon Feb 07, 2005 at 04:41:26 PM EST

Hey, I just saw Clairaudient perform an alternate improv soundtrack on piano and shortwave here in Philadelphia yesterday while watching the film. They have the recording up. Apparently it only got recorded mono, so they may be doing a second take some time in the future. In the meantime, it is there to listen to.

Film review twin-pack: DECASIA and Bodysong | 29 comments (14 topical, 15 editorial, 0 hidden)
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