In 2002, Bill Morrison, a 38 year-old New York-based filmmaker, emerged from two years spent scouring film archives to present Decasia, a haunting, 70 minute tapestry of decaying, nitrate-based footage. Set to a symphonic score by Michael Gordon of the Bang on a Can ensemble, Decasia was a festival hit and garnered rapturous critical plaudits, including the endorsement of filmmaker Errol Morris who called the film ‘a definitive work of art and a new kind of documentary. A documentary documenting the decay of itself’. Now released on DVD by the British Film Institute, Decasia was accompanied on its UK release screenings by Morrison’s 1996 short The Film of Her, a homage to the archivists who retrieved the paper print collection of the Library of Congress and transferred it to celluloid. Here Morrison reflects on what lies beneath the nitrate iceberg.
Chris Darke: When did you first become conscious of the quality of melancholy and mortality in decayed film images?
Bill Morrison: I grew up in Chicago, a place that was rife with decay, so I was certainly aware of it around me. As I became more interested in painting and the classic image, the idea of detritus, of a surface in transition appealed to me aesthetically. When I was studying in Amsterdam, a Professor gave me the Roland Barthes book (Camera Obscura) which sort of articulated things that I was already dealing with in film. I saw Peter Delpeut’s Lyrical Nitrate (1991) in 1992 and realised the potential in organic nitrate decay. I’d been involved in what I called ‘subtractive animation’, capturing images and applying my hand to them, distressing them in order to make every frame different. Around 1992, I was pouring bleach and all sorts of solvents onto film. I was really taken by a particular scene in Lyrical Nitrate, towards the end, when Eve gives Adam an apple and the world melts away. I found that moment very rich in content. Any bit of naturally destroyed or water-damaged film I found would go into my archive. When I found this huge cache in South Carolina with a limitless supply of deteriorated images, coupled with the directive from the Festival which was commissioning Michael Gordon’s piece that I come up with something 70 minutes long, it seemed like all these things coalesced and the time was right to make Decasia.
CD: One of the levels at which it’s possible to react to the decay in the film is as ‘time made visible’.
BM: Certainly. I was looking for these iconic images, like the boxer, where it was clear that the man was fighting decay. Somebody made the observation that it also worked with more mundane images of people simply waving – that they were staring through time. Clearly, the subjects were dead and they were being resurrected again on film, and the decay refers to the fact that they’re on film and that they’re looking through this screen of mortality. In that respect, it’s referencing the passage of time and the passage of these subjects once again being conjured up for us by the light of the projector.
And then, because of the patina of the decay, the surface fluctuates from frame to frame, which gives you the constant reminder that you’re watching a film that is passing through a projector and isn’t freezing on any one of these beautiful stills we see associated with Decasia. That’s been common in the viewing experience, that people are being made aware that they’re watching a film constantly; most films have the intention to obfuscate that. Decasia sets up a strange meditation between the viewer and the screen. You’re not going to concentrate on a camel crossing the screen from right to left for two and half minutes, you’re going to start thinking about other things and you’re invited to do that. In that way, it also sets up an interesting relationship with the length of time we’re in the theatre.
CD: I never felt alienated by the fact that you know you’re watching a film which may have something to do with the power of the music and the rhythm. It brings an immersive quality to the film that, for me, completely overcame any alienation effect.
BM: I don’t mean to say that it alienates you so that you feel distanced from the film so as not to return, but that it constantly invites you to explore your own thoughts and to return to the film. There’s no underestimating the epic power of Michael Gordon’s music, but people who reject the music are going to reject the film. The film’s met with a lot of hostility, people either loved it or hated it. Some of the most common complaints – that it’s led by the music, that the images aren’t allowed to breathe on their own or that the edit follows the music – makes the film dismissable by some members of the avant-garde. Luckily, the film is its own hazing process – people who really take exception to it don’t usually last through until the Q&A!
CD: Given that there’s not a single image that can’t be made up from pixels these days, Decasia has a quality that’s almost reassuring about it, as if to say that ‘this is – or was – for real’.
BM: The journalist Laurence Weschler wrote that, even though these are images of the past, this is a film of the moment, because it took exactly this long for these images to look this way. At screenings, I only make the single introductory remark that I didn’t do anything to these images; this is what time did to these images. Otherwise, people are going to wonder if this is the newest software gizmo that can stretch things in a psychedelic way and here this guy has really gotten off subjecting us to it for seventy minutes.
CD: The Film of Her has been described as an ‘imaginary romance’ about the preservation of the paper print collection in the Library of Congress. How did you come to make it?
BM: Howard L.Walls had been working as a clerk in the Library and somebody told him that these rolls existed. He bought them up, decided they were valuable and showed them to the Librarian, who saw the value in them, and from that was born the Motion Picture, Broadcast and Recorded Sound division of the Library which, to this day, is responsible for choosing which films will be preserved. They (Walls and his superior Kemp Niver, who won an Academy Award in 1954 for restoring the paper prints to celluloid) had a really antagonistic relationship in their limited dealings with each other and Niver essentially took the collection away from Walls and the whole project of restoring was done under his auspices. Neither of them could remember the other guy’s name, they just remembered they hated the other guy.
Those parts of the story are factual. I introduced this muse, this kind of comical amateurish porn star in the bad wig. She was a narrative device for me. I needed some kind of inspiration that was going to get Walls into the vault to discover these things again. I wanted it to be something deep in his childhood that was calling him back. As I was looking for this narrative device, I came across these old rolls of stag footage from the 30s in a thrift store in New York. So it seemed it was a sort of gift, and then there’s this whole issue of the role pornography has taken in the development of cinema. It probably was a great commercial incentive to develop cinema, as pornographic photography was such a great seller.
BM: La Jetée was certainly an inspiration for The Film of Her and probably for most of my work. That a story could be told in stills and that the stills could lead up to a single moving image and then back away from it into stills again. So that was an inspiration for the film, as was Alain Resnais’ Toute le mémoire du monde (1956), which is a spectacular work, a tour of the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale. That was how I approached the Library of Congress, with the idea that it housed all memories and the paper prints were a particularly forgotten memory that needed the synapse of a clerk to conjure it up for the national consciousness (we recreated the whole scene in which we go into the vault and see a clerk spooling through the stuff). In the end he says – and this is a direct quote from him and it’s me imitating his voice – that he wasn’t able to socialise it but he got it to where it could be socialised. He’s always had a certain amount of pride in that.
One of the things I like about The Film of Her is that in these 12 minutes there’s a shot representative of every decade of the 20th century in it; the shots from the 90s, of course, I shot. In this way, it’s sort of a love letter to the 20th century. The birth of cinema and the 20th century coincide so neatly together. If you think of all of the things that happened in the 20th century, cinema was there to record it and how it’s changed us, how we don’t see things the same as we did 100 years ago, because of cinema. We probably don’t even dream the same as we did.
Writer and critic Chris Darke has published extensively on all aspects of moving image culture, especially on work produced on the dynamic threshold between cinema and the gallery. His collection of essays Light Readings is published by Wallflower Press and his short film study of Chris Marker is available on the DVD featuring Sans Soleil and La Jetée. His monograph on Alphaville will be published early in 2005. He is currently working on a novel.