Citizens of Decasia

Bill Morrison’s DECASIA is a wonderful thing, to me anyway — a kind of thaumaturgical travelogue of an unknown, unknowable kingdom, a melting world of nitrate decomposition. Morrison’s film, which belongs to that form which, perhaps fittingly, has no satisfactory name — call it avant-garde, experimental, non-narrative or abstract — and is composed of extracts from various silent-era films, both drama and documentary, which are in the advanced stages of decay.

Parts of DECASIA remind me of a strange, abstract nightmare I had recurrently as a child — some vast annihilating force was coming to destroy the world — it started at the top of our garden and rolled towards our house, engulfing or obliterating everything before it. But what was it? I woke in terror, but quite unable to identify the source of the fear.

Perhaps TIME? Perhaps these images fascinate because they are a photochemical analogue of our own eventual extinction?

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22 Responses to “Citizens of Decasia”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    I’ve never seen DECASIA, but the images you’ve posted remind me of certain ‘digitally restored and remastered’ DVDs of classic silent films.

    Can anyone imagine a parallel world in which famous paintings are allowed to decay under centuries of mould, or classic novels are abandoned in libraries until their pages disintegrate with age?

  2. Fascinating…

    We don’t need to imagine a parallel world, David W….many famous paintings are lost, famous works of antique literature have disappeared. Works by Aristotle, Aeschylus and the like are gone. The same with many masterpieces of painting and even then there’s the fact that a lot of Old Masters works don’t exist in the original form. Like Rembrandt’s The Night Watchers

    “This botany of death is what we call culture” so goes the opening of Chris Marker’s Les statues meurent aussi.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    Yes, that’s all true…but I think our preservation of films is particularly dire. Doubly so when you consider that no film is much more than 100 years old!

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    The Criterion Collection Extraordinary Special Edition of “Decasia”:

    “This newly restored high-definition digital transfer of “Decasia” was created on a Spirit 2K Datacine from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. The film required extensive digital restoration, using MTI’s DRS System and Pixel Farm’s PFClean System, to remove by hand thousands of instances of dirt, debris, stains, scratches, splices, warps, jitters and flicker. Digital Vision’s DVNR system was also used for fine dirt, grain, and noise reduction.”

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    I dream of a restoration of all of “Decasia”‘s images, in Morrison’s sequencing, comprised of paper prints from the Library of Congress and various archives and newly-discovered film warehouses in suburban Kiev, New Zealand’s northern South Island, and an abandoned madhouse in Pomona, CA where they dumped the preview print of “The Magnificent Ambersons” among other films that tanked in previews there.

  6. Criterion tend to be tech-junkies with their re-mastering but they are sophisticated in delineating details. Witness their Brakhage sets.

  7. Decasia is so full of analog artifacts, things that flash up jusy for a frame, that avoiding digital artifacts would be especially hard. To make the decaying nitrate stock look as bad as it is supposed to would be delicate.

    Of course film is particularly unstable in a way that paintings are not. Everything before the 50s was shot on flammable nitrate stock, almost everything after the 50s was Eastmancolor, which fades. The vast bulk of film history requires active intervention if it’s to be preserved. Unlike books and paintings, which you just keep away from fire and water and you’ll probably be OK.

  8. Amazing. These images are disturbing, yet at the same time sublime. It’s as if we’re looking at infectious diseases, which in a sense we are, but the ensuing results have created unique, organically conceived images of startling aesthetic allure. One could almost argue in favor of letting them rot. Almost, but not quite. What’s done is done, and we let’s be grateful that we still have that which hasn’t been lost to pronounced cinematic infection.

  9. Film preservation is perhaps the most sisyphean attempt at cultural dialogue ever concieved. Everything that’s preserved is done for a little while and then after some time, it’ll have to be restored again. And the number of films to be preserved and then restored will only rise.

  10. Strange as this may sound, nitrate isn’t as big an issue as it may seem as far as storage qualities. The acetate base that replaced it isn’t much better at keeping away the ravages of time. Whenever you hear of a print or negative that has “gone vinegar”, that’s acetate which has degraded – it smells of acetic acid i.e. vinegar. The good thing is they don’t degrade into something hazardous and incendiary. The bad thing is that they degrade anyway. Eastmancolor is a whole other issue and it’s a real problem, fading is very inconsistent between emulsions, so storage issues can’t even be addressed, but even Tech b/w separation negatives can go bad. Stable film bases like Estar have been made, but they’re not well-liked (harder to cut for one thing).

    P.S. I have nitrate filmstrips stored in my house from an abandoned project. I was horrified when I found it was nitrate (the strips were a mix of nitrate and acetate from the ’46-’49 period), but now I just check it once a year, and it’s still stable. A few color filmstrips were included from the early sixties, all degraded.

  11. Some of Shirley Clarke’s short films are totally pink now — not sure what the prospect for a restoration is, I suspect without a clear reference for what they originally looked like, even if a restoration were funded it’d be guesswork.

    Many nitrate films are lost because of the fire hazard though: one print combusts and the whole storehouse goes up.

  12. David Boxwell Says:

    Tragic irony: you can’t watch most of Fox’s pre-1934 library, but you can watch it all go up in flames in the New Jersey storage fire in 1937, newsreel footage of which is now up on Youtube.

  13. I’m sure that a hypothetical Criterion edition would actually try to preserve the flaws if they were integral to the asthetic! (Witness their disc of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm where the paragraph about the transfer states that they’ve left all the flaws intact!)

    Decasia is a great film – some of the most amazing sequences are of a line of schoolchildren crossing a yard, occasionally disappearing under the debris; or the boxer fighting someone else who has been totally obliterated by damage, making it seem as if he is quite literally fighting the rot!

    My favourite Bill Morrison piece though would have to be Light Is Calling:

  14. David Boxwell Says:

    Yes, colinr, I was making a satiric point about our current fetishization of “immaculate” restorations, which can sometimes go awry (i.e. “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane”).

  15. It’d have to be guesswork for the most part. I’ve restored color prints which have faded, made prints off faded negatives, and anything that far gone has no information left in some of the color layers. As soon as you get crossover (and that’s way before pink), you have to make choices as to what to save and what to do with the rest. It was all I could do to get a decent b/w print made sometimes. If you think Eastmancolor was bad, Kodacolor and Ektachrome were just as awful.

    Considering how many people I’d seen smoking casually at gasoline stations, I’m not at all surprised that vault fires happened.

  16. I’ll judge the versions of Kane we see on DVD on one criterion — when we see little snowflakes drifting across the writing on Thatcher’s journal, they’ll have got it right. Always visible in 35mm, never on TV. The snowflakes all appear in a rush, instead of as little white interruptions of the text.

    What is your nitrate film of, Mark?

  17. Just industrial education filmstrips, along with the vinyl (okay, some are too old to be vinyl) accompanying them. I can’t do anything except either destroy or preserve them, and they seem to be rare (I’ve never seen any of these anywhere). I chose to preserve them until I can find someone who’s willing to pick the stuff up. Can’t mail nitrate and don’t want to break up the set(s).

  18. Thank you for the interesting post. Restoring something that is supposed to look unrestored is a conundrum. And some of those captures you posted gave me the creeps.

  19. This is a better upload of “Light Is Calling”

  20. Thank you Mr Morrison sir! I rhapsodised about Light is Calling here: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2009/05/03/intertitle-of-the-week-the-decalcomaniac/

    Joe, Decasia is quite eerie at times. The boxer fighting a battle against decay is, as Colin says, an incredible image. Some of the music is horror movie stuff too. And yet there are many lyrical and beautiful passages also — or, in fact, the most creepy parts are also lyrical.

  21. […] for Kubrick completists in seeing the master’s Fear and Desire (1953). David Cairns calls Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) “avant-garde, experimental, non-narrative or abstract,” which, had it not been […]

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