Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Art of Elegant Abstraction

In the decade I have spent teaching graduate art students, I have witnessed certain prevailing (if occasionally annoying) themes. Among them, a delirious fascination with the everyday, the banal, the flâneur; an abiding interest in skewing perception and challenging temporal conventions; and perhaps more than anything else, an almost pathological attraction to exposing detritus of all kinds. (Indeed, in recent years I have seen students filming asphalt, cataloguing dryer lint and producing exhaustive photo essays on expired bread tags.) Yet more troubling to me than any of this is their almost evangelical resistance to historical sources, calling them boring, or dated, or worse: nostalgic. Having come of age in an era characterized by technology-enhanced experiences of all kinds, there is a tendency among many 20-something students to harbor a deep skepticism about history of any kind. Such skepticism frequently evidences itself in a resistance to sources that pre-date, say, 1990.

Then along comes a film like Decasia, with its arrestingly black-and-white palette, its hauntingly mournful score, and its wondrous celebration of excavated film footage. Historical, global, multi-dimensional (in every sense of the word) and, although composed of source material that predates 1990 by nearly a century, truly novel. Decasia challenges our expectations about what a film should be and catapults us into an entirely new theatrical territory.

And that, of course, is just the beginning.

Decasia is painterly, if monochromatic. Organic, but frenetic. But mostly it is new: a new way of filming, a new way of editing, a new way of visualizing a story. The sheer tactility of the medium - something we consider in painting, but never in filmmaking – becomes itself a kind of provocative visual language, comprised of bubbles and blips and scratches and striations, a kinetic Rorschach test in which the visual tension between foreground and background, between negative and positive space (amplified not only by the score, but by the speed and sequencing of the footage as well) creates a kind of meditation of pure form. In this way, Decasia recalls the circle paintings of Eva Hesse or James Turrell's light sculptures. It's a body of work that engages the mind and enraptures the eye. And the stunning result is that we see something in an utterly new manner.

Throughout this film there are tensions – some formal, others perceptual or even emotional – which both sustain the work and frame the viewer's experience of it. Slowless versus speed. New versus old. Ugliness versus beauty. Life versus death. As one becomes swept up in the fleeting narratives, so, too, do the visual permutations repeat and intersect, collide and recombine. Whirling dervishes and watery landscapes. Rope ladders and film sprockets. Births and baptisms. An eerily solarized courtyard at dusk. Did Morrison deliberately choose moments that lent themselves to such elegant abstraction? Indeed, the graphic reality of the decomposing surface itself – and its haphazard intrusion upon the narrative(s) – raises the idea of graphic storytelling to an entirely new level.

And arguably, it is precisely this that makes Decasia so uunforgettable: the idea that the physical erosion of the film itself is a formal catalyst in the unfolding of its narrative. In this context, the film's decomposition becomes an intrinsic part of its identity, much as sand and dirt enshrine a recovered archaeological specimen. Meaningful, too, is the idea that such decomposition is completely random: such lack of control lies at the core of contemporary media, in the sense that user-directed experience is typically removed from the artist's steadfast guidance. Artistry, in this context, is less about creative choices and more about curatorial judgment, an editorial rather than an aesthetic conceit. This is a sentiment deeply felt by most art students. (And it's the flip side of growing up in an age of technological privilege.)

Finally, Decasia's value lies not merely in seeing the film, but in reading Lawrence Wechsler's thoughtful essay that accompanies it. Wechsler's penetrating insights escort the reader through both a process and a product that revel in their uncertainty. Journalistically, the writer deftly explains the evolution of Decasia in all its oddity: yet from a literary perspective, he crafts a text that is as richly textured as the film itself. As a writer and a designer, I find his essay as compelling as the film – perhaps more so, because I have always believed that words can cue the visual imagination faster (and further) than images can. Surely this Wechsler's intention when he writes of "transports of sublime reverie amid (such) pangs of wistful sorrow," and indeed, such "transports" are Decasia's greatest and most enduring asset. No doubt this is the sort of experience readers would encounter, especially combined with images taken from the film itself.

Further Information from the Sundance Channel site:

Although film deterioration is a serious threat to the cultural legacy of the 20th century – 50% of all American films made before 1950 have been lost – filmmaker Bill Morrison proves that even from tragedy, profound art can result. Compiling scenes from badly deteriorated archive films, Morrison has created a highly original experimental film in which the subjects on screen live in a world of shifting shapes, blobby monsters and ubiquitous clouds of debris. Likened by one critic to an antiquarian KOYAANISQATSI, DECASIA is a beautiful, challenging and mesmerizing meditation on time, mortality and man's longing to transcend his physical existence. The hypnotic minimalist score was written by Michael Gordon, one of America's leading young composers and co-founder and co-artistic director of the new music festival Bang on a Can.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [1]

Wechsler’s NYT Magazine essay is on the Decasia site.

The film is one of the first DVDs from Other Cinema Digital. Though see it in a theater if possible (I saw it in the spring at the San Francisco International Film Festival).
Steve Rhodes

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