Which is why it is both creepy and poetically just that Bill Morrison’s “Decasia,” a work precisely centered on the unexpected glories of decaying film stock, has now been released on the living-room equivalent of the DCP, the Blu-ray disc. Distributed by the independent company Icarus Films, “Decasia” has now escaped the fragile world of celluloid for the eerily immaterial realm of the digital, where the scratches, dust mites and flaking emulsion that give film prints their character and physicality are a thing of the 20th-century past.
Academics have recently come to identify those unintended physical aspects of film technology as the “haptic” element of the cinema — those seemingly tactile qualities, like the cue marks that once appeared in the upper-right-hand corner of the frame to warn projectionists that the end of a reel was approaching, and the time for changing over to the second projector was nigh. (When they were missing, projectionists used to make their own cue marks by burning them into prints with lighted cigarettes, not a great idea given the explosive potential of nitrate-based celluloid in use for much of the first 50 years of cinema.)
In today’s digital cinema, cue marks are a thing of the past, as are the dangerously unstable nitrate prints, which were eliminated in the early 1950s in favor of acetate stock, which was less inclined to burst into flame or, over time, decompose into a gelatinous mass and eventually collapse into powder.
“Decasia” seizes on those transitional moments, when the readable images of nitrate film are slipping into the many odd and curious distortions caused by the decay of the physical medium. Some images seem to flake away; some blossom into glowing effects that suggest the solarization that was a popular technique for evoking the psychedelic experience of the ’60s; others suffer distortions like those of a fun-house mirror; still others seem to be invaded by swelling masses of bacteria, like something you would observe in a petri dish.
Mr. Morrison’s film is founded on an enduring paradox: that decay produces its own kind of beauty, and even functions as a kind of creation. Originally assembled as a component of Ridge Theater’s “multimedia theatricalization” of a symphony by Michael Gordon, first performed in Switzerland in 2001, “Decasia” has gone on to become that rarest of birds, an experimental film with crossover appeal.
On one level the film is a kind of Rorschach test in which the decaying images become animated inkblots, open to whatever identifications the spectator chooses to impose on them, from garden gnomes to genitals. On another, the film provides a kind of “2001” psychedelia, a rush of abstract images linked to the trance-inducing drone of Mr. Gordon’s score. As the base reality of the images buckles and bubbles away, at least some members of the audience will experience some mild 1960s flashbacks.
But “Decasia” is by no means a randomly assembled collection of footage. Mr. Morrison has clearly logged a lot of hours at film archives — including the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress and George Eastman House — in pursuit of particularly evocative instances of decay. Some shots seem almost too good to be true, as when an early-20th-century boxer spars with the shifting mass of nitrate rot that has erased his punching bag, or when explorers discover what looks like a blobby space alien pulsing in the depths of a cave. An airplane, crossing what once had been a clear blue sky, finds itself in a mighty contest with the elements as great, dark thunderclouds of rot rise around it, suddenly illuminated by bolts of lightning, or perhaps artillery shells fired by an unseen enemy.
Conceived as a homage to Disney’s “Fantasia,” “Decasia” also moves through a series of distinct movements. In the chapter headings of the disc they are identified as “creation” (the sea, emerging land masses, swirling speckles that might be spermatozoa); “civilization” (buildings sway and collapse, schoolchildren struggle to stay in orderly lines, narrative fragments emerge, along with fleeting close-ups of early movie stars like William S. Hart and Mary Pickford); “conundrum” (images so deteriorated that they are only fitfully readable); and finally “disintegration and rebirth,” in which images, largely of the natural world, seem to form themselves out of the dark chaos of decay.
Unifying the various sections are repeated newsreel images of film being processed in an industrial laboratory — the moment of birth for a movie, as it emerged from the amniotic fluid of the developing tank — as well an emphasis on circular images, like a Sufi whirling dervish, or an Indian homespun weaver at work at his wheel. No simple nostalgist, Mr. Morrison comes to emphasize the cyclical nature of creation. The new devours the old, which will be devoured in its turn.
Digital technology does not mean an end to this cycle. It may even mean an acceleration of it. The zeros and ones of digital recording may exist outside the physical world, but the media used to disseminate those binary streams is still very much limited by material reality. The magnetic surfaces and optical discs used to fix digital information are just as vulnerable, if not more so, than celluloid. (The glue that holds iron oxide to tape flakes away, the light-sensitive dye that makes DVD-R recordings possible eventually fades into nothingness.) In these cases the resulting decay has little poetry about it; the sounds and images are either there or not there. At the moment there are few if any major archives that regard digital media as a reliable standard for preservation, while, properly cared for, the new acetate film stock will endure for hundreds of years.