When the powers-that-be at Spoleto Festival USA began putting together this year’s lineup, we seriously doubt they were taking into consideration the needs and wants of the puff-puff-pass crowd. However, if there is one Spoleto show that is sure to appeal to stoners, it’s Decasia. This experimental film is arguably the trippiest offering the noble festival has presented over the course of its 39-year history.
First released in 2002, director Bill Morrison’s Decasia is a 67-minute, black-and-white montage of old film footage, all of it in some state of decay. There is no narrative in the classical sense, just a seemingly endless string of scarred film. Sometimes the footage appears to be strangled by shadows or clawed by some unseen beast. Other times the film bubbles and pops like boiling water, creating an effect that is very similar to the paint-splattered trip movies that often accompanied the more psychedelic bands during the heights of the great acid test.
Comprised largely of film from the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collection, Decasia is accompanied by the music of post-minimalist composer Michael Gordon, whose pulsing score will either grate your nerves or guide you like a mantra-chanting guru into this haunting meditation on the uncomfortable beauty of decay. (For this Charleston performance, the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, led by John Kennedy, will perform Gordon’s score live.)
But is there more to Decasia than what appears to be a random collection of old footage — from Sufi priests furiously spinning around and around to nuns solemnly parading children across a school courtyard to a solitary boxer hitting a punching bag? And if there isn’t, does it really matter?
Make no mistake, Decasia will move you. It will force a reaction. Some will be drawn in by its dark beauty, while others will find it to be a test of endurance on par with a triathlon. Heck, we wouldn’t be surprised if the film doesn’t make some moviegoers physically ill, much like The Blair Witch Project.
Morrison, for one, says there is a method to all the celluloid madness. “These are carefully chosen shots where the decay plays a role in each theme,” he says. “We did an enormous amount of research to cull these shots together and to make this film into one seemingly single movement, long-form poem.”
Over the course of several years, Morrison searched the archives for just the right strips of film, the ones where oxidation had given the celluloid an otherworldly patina. “I was trying to find images where the decay would enter the frame in an interesting way where it would play a role,” he says. “We were looking exclusively for those shots where it entered the frame, entered the image, and followed the contour of the emulsion [the light-sensitive coating on films] and therefore became a character.”
The director notes that he specifically chose to keep different types of film decay together. Hitting the viewer with too much variation would have been distracting and exhausting. As a result, the film is divided into four distinct sections.
Morrison also sought footage that spoke specifically to the human condition. “We were looking for images where the person who was originally filmed was involved in some sort of action that is trying to take them above the normal experience. That could be something athletic or an emergency or in love — everyone is involved in some heightened emotional state,” Morrison says. “It’s a reminder that we are mortal and these extreme emotional experiences are fleeting.”
And as Decasia shows, film, like life, isn’t forever. As Morrison says, we’ve lost an estimated 90 percent of our silent film history.
However, the filmmaker says that Decasia is not meant to serve as a call to preserve the old films we still have. While preservation is important and Decasia wouldn’t have been possible without the help of preservationists, the use of old, damaged strips of celluloid speak to a universal truth and a universal hope: every ending is a new beginning. “It’s more of an analogy of our own bodies and experience than a cry for preservation,” he says. “If anything this is saying that things fall apart, but they can come back in new forms.”