There are ghosts in Bill Morrison’s work — shadowy illusions that emerge out of a haze of static, scratches, or discoloration for brief moments, then disappear into a chemical darkness. Morrison’s intention is to restore meaning to these little apparitions from the dawn of the film age, if not singly, then in a collage with dozens of other similarly retrieved moments.
Decasia, Morrison’s latest work, is a 70-minute exploration of pre-1930s celluloid films in their final death throes. Set to an original symphonic score by Michael Gordon of Bang on a Can and is performed by the Basel Sinfonietta, the screen practically bubbles with distortion, and then distinct images emerge — a camel caravan, Sufi dancers, a baby being born — only to disappear again. The effect is hypnotic because of the random patterns of the decay, but it is also reassuring because it’s clear that something magical is being saved.
“What I’m trying to do is create a continuity between scenes that are gathered from disparate sources,” says the New York-based filmmaker. “That’s one of the reasons I work in black and white, because the black becomes a common denominator for the images.”
“I’ve been attracted to deteriorated film in all of my work, so this was a logical step,” Morrision continues. “The idea is that cinema is a fossil of memory, or that it’s a shared common memory that has been forgotten and archived. We as filmmakers are little brain synapses that are recalling these things in a big brain somewhere.”
Decasia, given its length and the amount of restoration involved, was more elaborate and ambitious than Morrison’s other work, much of which has been funded by the Manhattan-based Ridge Theater group as part of its multimedia program. Morrison has been a part of Ridge since 1990 when the group was looking for a young filmmaker to take over the visual part of their multi-disciplinary approach. Morrison was 25 at the time and fresh out of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where he had trained as a painter but been deeply influenced by the work of animator Robert Breer and experimental filmmakers like Ken Jacobs. Morrison worked with Ridge to create many of their signature pieces over the last dozen years, such as the Obie-winning opera Jennie Richee, as well as producing solo films to play at festivals and in museums.
Decasia, another collaboration with Ridge, was intended to create an experience akin to Disney’s Fantasia, at least in the sense of pairing music and light. In order to complete his part, Morrison had to spend over 18 months culling archives of old celluloid footage, starting with the University of South Carolina’s collection of Fox Movietone outtakes. He then moved on to places like the Library of Congress, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Museum of Modern Art’s stash of nitrate film which is, as Morrison says, “somewhere in Pennsylvania.”
Morrison had to make new masters of the fragile and highly flammable material he found. The painstaking process had him photographing each frame of the original film onto 35mm stock and then stretching it out to fill today’s standard of 24 frames per second instead of 18 — which gives the film a slow motion effect. Morrison actually described this transfer process in an earlier project, The Film of Her (1996), which is a fictionalized account of the Library of Congress clerk who saved an entire roomful of rare paper print films from the incinerator.
Decasia premiered in a live multimedia event; Morrison intended it, however, to stand as a self-sufficient film after this debut, and it has since screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and is bound for DVD. That first live performance in Basel, Switzerland, in November 2001 was something of an extravaganza. The film played in a specially-built triangular theater that also had three levels, with the audience on the floor, the orchestra above behind scrims, and the film projected on the three walls at once. “It was rewarding,” says Morrison. Indeed, Decasia succeeds in both creating and preserving film history.
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