Bright Lights Film Journal

Dread Mechanics: The Sublime Terror of Bill Morrison’s <em>Decasia</em> (2002)

Figure 1: "The 'state of decay' shown in this footage is cause for concern"

Decasia is a “horror film” in which the horror it presents as the corruption imposed by time on what people create is also an unavoidable part of the world we live in. What is frightening about Decasia is not only the destruction of these old films, but the implication and reminder that this destruction is not contained (safely) within the art object.

Bill Morrison’s feature Decasia (2002), composed from found footage – decayed and decaying motion picture films – premiered in Switzerland in 2001 accompanied by a symphony by Michael Gordon.1 This extended meditation on decaying film stock was made using the same approach to archival materials apparent in his later films Light Is Calling (2003) and The Mesmerist (2003), both of which are included in the five-volume Blu-ray/DVD set Bill Morrison: Collected Works (1996 – 2013) from Icarus Films. The transformations imposed by decay on the live-action footage become an integral part of the narrative space shown on-screen; these physical changes are determinant of the new motion picture. While Decasia has been frequently reviewed, and is unusually accessible for a contemporary work, it has not yet received a detailed analysis.

Decasia is formed from archival footage in the process of disintegration: it is decayed, but also decaying, a work made from imagery that is rapidly disappearing. The “state of decay” shown in this footage is cause for concern (see Figure 1, lead photo). It demonstrates the very real process of disintegration that our collective moving-image heritage is experiencing. It is entropy, that inexorable movement toward decay. The realization of this physical law in the nineteenth century was a point of existential concern, a fundamental dread that literally suffuses Morrison’s film. Decasia is made from the disintegrating and distorted imagery of early nitrate films. This historical footage shows scenes from around the world, but not all of the material on-screen is so old; however, it is all presented in the same black and white, giving it all a uniform character even when some decayed shots are unquestionably less antique than others.

Morrison’s use of this found footage is distinct from that of other experimental filmmakers such as Bruce Connor or Joseph Cornell in the way that his editing of these sequences results in a sense of their documentary reality – that what is shown is irreducibly real – bringing the documentary effect of Decasia much closer to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with the Movie Camera than to Connor’s 1958 A Movie. The references to the film production process at the start (and reappearing throughout) in both Vertov’s film and Morrison’s Decasia serve to remind viewers that what they are watching is film. What it presents is taken from the real world: this is a work “of reality” rather than “of fiction.” It is this aspect of Decasia that has been carefully considered by film historian Michele Pierson in a 2009 Cinema Journal article. In her concluding remarks, she observes that Decasia suggests a dehumanized perspective on humanity and the natural world, yet does not develop this into a full interpretation of the film.2 What unites the materials of Decasia is the presentation of a world on film that is undergoing fragmentation, dissolution, decay – most visibly in the voids that have opened up in some of the first shots: a gaping white void obliterates the visible world, transforming what is onscreen into an abstract field of pulsating whites and stringy, black strips. Gradually the shot progresses, and it becomes clear what we are seeing is a real world, an interior perhaps in Japan, that no longer exists. In watching these scenes, it quickly becomes apparent that those people who inhabit this filmed world are mere shadows, both metaphorically and literally fragile beings whose mere existence is under a constant threat of collapse. Throughout this opening section, before and during the titles, the nature of this montage becomes apparent: it is neither just a collection of clips of decayed film nor a documentary on the need for film preservation, but a carefully structured portrait of a world in decay, one that is literally disintegrating as we see it revealed on-screen. Within the space of this montage, the role of cinema – motion pictures – is both a material preservation against things falling apart and the revelation of this universal, systemic decay.

That the majority of this filmed material is simultaneously historical – early films produced on nitrate stock – and documentary in effect is not accidental: even though some of these shots were clearly originally part of some type of fictional narrative, they assume a documentary character when they are removed from their original context. Often isolated as single shots, what they reveal returns our consideration to a basic fact about so many films: they are recordings made with a camera of people who actually lived. That the places and things we see in many of these scenes often have a familiar quality (as in Figure 2, where Greeks in native costume perform their traditional dances on the Acropolis in Athens, the Erechtheion in the background) works to ground the more clearly fictional scenes in their pro-filmic reality of actors in sets – living people being preserved on film. It is this continuous assertion of the reality of the world held within these shots that brings the decay into progressively sharper focus. What initially appears to simply be a surface effect that is not a feature of this world rapidly begins to suggest otherwise: that the decay we see twisting faces, burning bodies, and cutting holes in the world is not just the effect of time on nitrate film stock, but rather an inherent feature of the world itself rupturing the imaginary divide between then and now. The ravages of time apparent on this film are also the decay inherent in the world it depicts, and a part of the world that produced these images. It is an unavoidable consequence of being a living person in that world, not just at the start of the twentieth century but today as well.

Figure 2: “Greeks in native costume perform their traditional dances”

Decasia is a “horror film” in which the horror it presents as the corruption imposed by time on what people create is also an unavoidable part of the world we live in. (Similar themes of horror run throughout Morrison’s other films made from decaying archival stock footage.) What is frightening about Decasia is not only the destruction of these old films, but the implication and reminder that this destruction is not contained (safely) within the art object. It is an invocation of the same terror felt in the nineteenth century with the realization of what entropy – the second law of thermodynamics that states everything will tend toward the lowest energy state – really means: that things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the world will end, not with a bang but a whimper. This horrific poetry brings us into a contemplation of just how small humans really are, how we inhabit an inhuman, alienating, and indiscriminately hostile universe where all our endeavors will ultimately come to dust. This terror is the existential core of Decasia, and its encounter is always just beneath the surface, guiding the montage and reflected in the continuously descending notes of the mantra-like score. This discovery mirrors what Enlightenment philosopher Edmond Burke called the “sublime” in his book A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). It is our encounter with this vast, terrifying force we have lived with our entire life that only becomes apparent through the intervention – mediation – of art:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime […] it easily follows, from what we have just said, that whatever is fitted to produce such a tension must be productive of a passion similar to terror, and consequently must be a source of the sublime, though it should have no idea of danger connected with it.3

Burke’s understanding of the sublime is twofold. The sensation of “terror”is central to it, but it is a terror separated from imminent threat or danger. Yet it is not enough that the sublime provoke terror, since there are many things capable of eliciting such a feeling; nor is it enough that the sublime is an encounter with something vastly larger and more powerful than ourselves – these are his fundamental conditions, but it is their interaction that creates the sense of the sublime. Within Decasia this terror arises precisely from the relationship between these signs of the decay and the world shown with this film: the two are intrinsically linked, not just at the formal level of image-material support but diegetically, and it is the apparent interaction by the people seen in the film and presence of the decay within their world that is the source of the terror: it collapses the distinctions normally present in theatrical works between the fictional world (diegesis) and the realm that lies outside of it. This shifting of relations depends on the documentary character that all filmed images have – they are recordings of actions – even when (perhaps especially when) they are creating a fictional “world.” It is the rupture of this mental barrier that separates the formal, fictional, and documentary dimensions of these shots that develops the terrible recognition that the world being shown is the world we inhabit. This linkage develops rapidly, within the first few minutes of the film, and is one that continuously resurfaces within the montage as the “decay” has an unstable relationship to what we see on-screen – in one shot it is the physical collapse of the celluloid itself (Figure 3); in the next it enters into the narrative space, interacting with the people shown (Figure 4). What happens in these encounters is a transformation of consciousness where the terror and vastness of the entropic universe becomes the foundation for a sense of more than just these two feelings: it is this emergent, third experience that is Burke’s sublime and is what links the sublime to the uncanny (Figure 5). Their difference lies with the positivity or negativity of the resulting sensation: the sublime is transcendent in nature; the uncanny is materialist.

Figure 3: “the physical collapse of the celluloid itself”

Figure 4: “it enters into the narrative space, interacting with the people shown”

Figure 5: “it is this emergent, third experience that is Burke’s sublime and is what links the sublime to the uncanny”

However, the sublime dimensions of Morrison’s film, like the existential terror it invokes, are tempered by the negentropic actions of the people we see within the film. It is organized into movements whose names are  contained in the liner notes and menus of its DVD release. This collection of reference points to both music and image reinforces the suggestions of the montage that this film is concerned with life inside an entropic universe: (1) creation; (2) civilization; (3) conundrum; (4) disintegration and rebirth. The boundary between one and another is implicit in the development of the film, but not explicitly marked within its progress: there are no intertitles announcing each section’s beginning. While these “chapters” suggest a formal direct breakup into discrete sections, what they identify is a shifting of focus; materials repeat throughout the film, and no section is really independent of the others. As a sequence of descriptions for the structure of the resulting montage film, what they reveal is the circular nature of the whole: it concludes with many of the same images that appeared in the beginning, but in reverse. The line of camels crossing a chaotic “desert” of real decay from right to left at the start appear a second time returning across this same desert – still seething with rot and decay – crossing from left to right, a return to their origin point. The symmetrical organization of the start and finish suggests the cycle these chapter headings allude to and which is responsible for the film’s existence. The transformation of pristine image to decay, the concomitant loss of coherence, becomes a new organizing principle for all this footage as it takes shape in an entirely new construction. Destruction-rebirth becomes a cycle linked to the material nature of the source material, and implicit in its (re)production as an entirely new motion picture, one that is independent of these initial sources.

While decay dominates Decasia, at the same time, it is a film filled with images of spinning and rotating things linked not to destruction but to maintenance. These images start at the very beginning (and are repeated at the very end) with the motion picture of a dervish rotating in place (Figure 6). It is this spinning action that comes to represent the negation (however temporary) of this decay, and is the means by which the people of this world on film attempt to contain the degradation and destruction that seethes all around them. The connection of spinning to preservation is not a mere accident: motion picture films themselves unspool from reels that closely resemble the other spinning wheels and other devices that appear at the end of the first movement. In the second section, “civilization,” the first spinning image is accompanied by a shift in music from a descending glissando of notes to a stable, high-pitched oscillation that mirrors the spinning wheel’s motions. It is not simply that the world is decaying and we live within this continuous degradation, but that we engage it on many levels. Unlike the earlier scenes of a world coming apart – of spots, holes and distortions threatening to overwhelm the image, this shot is remarkably stable (Figure 7). The figures glow with the Sabatier effect, solarized, burning but not consumed.

Figure 6: “a dervish rotating in place”

Figure 7: “this shot is remarkably stable”

This shot is countered by others where the decay appears to be confined, contained, not so much damage to the film as a feature of the photographic world shown on-screen: the decay is integral rather than superficial (Figure 8). The people on-screen seem to interact with it, aware and conscious of the decay’s effect. This shift from nondiegetic destruction of the film base to a diegetic element of the screen-space is what renders the terrors specific to Decasia. What we see on-screen is not only a “record” of the current “state of decay” in archival film; it is a world that is in decay, internally, continuously. This film presents the terror felt when the nineteenth century first realized the implications of the scientific theory of entropy: that the “lowest energy state” for the complex system that is the universe itself is death; things fall apart, the center cannot hold. This discovery of entropy is what appears in Decasia – the revelation that the world on film as much as the world contained by film are equally linked to this entropic winding-down. The only force that appears in Decasia as a counter to this entropic disintegration is the spinning – dervish, wheel, machine, film reel – a process that does not so much stop the decay as achieve an equilibrium with it. The rotational power of these forms punctuates the sequences showing this world of decayed and decaying matter, the only points where momentary “stability” becomes possible.

Figure 8: “the decay is integral rather than superficial”

This stability is an illusion, however; it is only a momentary delay in the inevitable decay so clearly visible throughout Decasia. These scenes are not moments where the decay stops but rather is held in abatement. This delaying effect is the focus of these scenes – not the suggestion that it can be stopped, but rather that human activity can delay what is otherwise a continuous, natural process of transformation. Things fall apart, as William Butler Yeats wrote, the epitaph of the world is decay, a fact that Decasia documents both in a literal fashion and metaphorically through the transformations of narrative. The world the people inhabit is at once alien and utterly familiar. The uncanny aspects of it are instantly understandable as those parts of the world we inhabit. The boundaries between depiction and reality are constantly in flux in this narrative – the shifting referents that move between document and documentary, fiction and reality are the ultimate source of this film’s dread mechanics: what slouches across the desert of the real will inevitably return just as it went, a treacherous crossing that only demonstrates the decay that is the world.

  1. Kehr, Dave. “Symphony of Compositions From Decomposition,” in The New York Times, December 21, 2012. []
  2. Pierson, Michele. “Avant-Garde Re-Enactment: World Mirror Cinema, Decasia, and The Heart of the World” in Cinema Journal, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Fall 2009), pp. 1-19. []
  3. Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful Sections Part I, Section VII; Part III, Section V (1756). []