Home Video Hovel- Decasia, by David Bax
As most high school literature students know, William Butler Yeats’ timeless poem “The Second Coming” begins like this: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Ever since I read that in eleventh grade, I’ve been fascinated at the idea of a construct disintegrating not from neglect and stagnation but from progressing at too great a pace for its core to hold together, tearing itself apart with its own centrifugal force.
Bill Morrison’s 2002 film Decasia begins and ends with a whirling dervish and returns repeatedly in the interim to footage of circular motions. Given the title and the general study of decay contained within, it’s difficult not to think of Yeats while watching the film. It consists almost entirely of old and corroded celluloid footage, displayed in hypnotizing slow motion and accompanied by an entrancingly droning and wobbling orchestral score by Michael Gordon.
Gordon’s music is inseparable from the rest of the film. Like the imagery, the melodies can’t seem to keep themselves intact. The instruments aren’t quite in tune and, at any given moment, at least one of them is wandering off from the pack.
Much of the footage Morrison employs here comes from narrative feature films from the silent era. The conspicuous inclusion of these among others that could be more documentary- or home movie-based lends an interpretation of the work as being meta-textual, having something to say about cinema in particular and art in general. Some art may aim to be timeless, to capture truths that are absolutely universal. And, certainly, we as a race try to preserve our greatest works of art, entombing them in climate-controlled vaults or insisting on no flash photography. Yet time is a bigger thing than any of us or the work we’ve created. Someday, the Mona Lisa will degrade and be forgotten, if there are any people left to do the forgetting.
For now, there are people and this film is full of them. Given the age of the footage, most of these folks are likely dead. Here, though, we often see them making merry; dancing and laughing. It’s the laughter that seems to truly inspire Morrison. He features many instances of it but out of its intended context. He focuses on just these shots of people being overcome with glee. The films are eroded to begin with but he, aided by computers in post-production, enhances that erosion. Different fields of the frame will appear as negative images while the others are scratchy positives. These cackling faces are robbed of any mirth they may have someday possessed. They are now images of frightening lunacy and dementia; mental decay. We fall apart from the inside as well as the outside, mimicking the nature of the world around us.
Again and again, Morrison returns to those circles in motion. When we say that something is spinning along, our intention is to say that it is going well. Yet it’s that perpetual spinning that is wearing away at the center, leading to an inevitable self-destruction. Decasia is not telling us that decay lies in our future but that it is, as always, happening now.
The disc includes an eight-minute Morrison short, Light Is Calling, that also features music by Gordon.