A stunning, mesmerizing, frightening journey into a cinematic world ravaged by destruction, Bill Morrison’s Decasia is a warped love-letter to film and an apocalyptic elegy to its demise. Created using poorly preserved archival celluloid in varying states of decay, the film is a de facto cautionary tale about the need for careful preservation, but it’s also a testament to the fragile (and essential) ephemerality of film — an art form in which the medium is inextricably linked to the message. The images alone are haunting; paired with Michael Gordon’s atonal, funereal score (a composition that predates the film), they achieve a singular, unforgettable sensation of loss.
Decasia often has an unbearably tangible quality to it. The roiling emulsion and nitrate degradation often overwhelms the image and transforms what may have been a banal scene of nuns dealing with their students or a boxer fighting an opponent or a Geisha sitting in her chambers into something far more urgent. Some scenes last only seconds; some last longer, but not one ever comes to fruition, their modest ambitions swallowed up in a morass of film decay.
Morrison deftly weaves together his found footage in a manner as transfixing as any of the propulsive, arresting imagery of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (Morrison actually worked as an editor on the final film in the Qatsi trilogy, Naqoyqatsi). Somehow, one suspects Decasia wouldn’t have the same crossover appeal as Reggio’s films, but for lovers of cinema — and its century-plus of celluloid usage, which seems to be rapidly coming to an end — it’s a bittersweet tone poem and a galvanizing film experience that often transcends notions of avant-garde and experimental film.
The Blu-ray Disc
Icarus Films’ 1.33:1, 1080p high definition transfer of Decasia is fantastic and essential. One might wonder why a film obsessed with damage would even need a high-def image, but the film’s connection to the tactile sensation of actual film stock is something only Blu-ray can reproduce relatively well in the home video format. Taking into account the obvious limitations of the source, this is a beautiful transfer, with loads of healthy film grain, deep blacks and a slivery, film-like sheen. Gordon’s score, presented in both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, is impeccably clear.
Only a single extra, but it’s a great one — Morrison’s sort-of companion piece to Decasia, Light is Calling, an eight-minute short that features decaying footage from the 1926 Lionel Barrymore film The Bells, also presented in 1080p.
The Bottom Line
An indelible cinematic experience, rendered in a perfect home-viewing format.