The best way to see Bill Morrison’s Decasia: The State of Decay (Plexifilm, $24.95) would be in the post-apocalyptic rubble of the world’s last movie theater, with the celluloid pooling in a puddle of flame as it sputters out of the projector. A movie constructed entirely of images on decomposing film stock, Decasia seems like a transmission from cinema’s grave. It illustrates the principle that nothing lasts forever, especially pictures etched in chemicals on a strip of brittle plastic.
That makes it a curious plaything on DVDbasically, a painstaking digital encoding of rot. But even on disc, Morrison’s 67-minute feature is a marvel, a reminder that much of the most visceral and exciting work in movies today is being done in experimental film. Calling it a horror movie isn’t far off the mark. The melting, distorted images, reminiscent of Stan Brakhage’s hand-doctored films, produce a simultaneous fascination and repulsionthe queasiness of quickening death.
Morrison made Decasia after scouring archives for old stock footage that had either been corroded by age and neglect or damaged. (Some was ruined in a flood.) The nitrate used to create the film image disintegrates with time, leaving the picture faded, scratched, or streaked with blobs and smearsone reason so few films still exist from the silent era. The movie’s first image is among its most legible: a Sufi dancer whirling in slightly slowed motion. Even then, pops and scratches flicker across the surface.
From there Decasia turns its scraps of ruined film into a kind of entropic animation, in which the blobs and scratches scuttle across the screen like hostile bacteria attacking their prey. A boxer hammers away at what looks like an electrified tornado, a blotchy, quivering column that absorbs all his blows. Nuns watching a procession of schoolchildren become lightning rods in an indoor thunderstorm of strobe-lit flickers. Paratroopers leap from airplanes into a dogfight with the surrounding void, a sky pocked with artillery-like bursts of scars and smudges. The subjects are long forgotten, their images sometimes barely visible.
Thus Morrison’s movie becomes yet another elegy for the era of film as a recording mediumor at least for the delusion that movies will last any longer than man’s other fleeting bulwarks against eternity. The strips of celluloid in Decasia once documented anything from faces to momentous events. When these fragile chemical facsimiles disappear, so does a trace of their subjects’ existence. Decasia is nothing less than a graphic display of the onslaught of mortality. The accompanying orchestral score by avant-garde composer Michael Gordonperformed on instruments carefully detuned out of whackbuilds to something like the last bellow of some wheezing, shuddering beast.
Yet watching Decasia is more dizzying than depressing. No two films deteriorate in quite the same way, and the tension between an image’s content and its particular dance of death produces effects that verge on hallucination, as with the boxer and his phantom opponent. Once in a while an image will fight past all the accumulated crud, the blizzard of damage and disrepair, and when it does the impact approaches pure elation. When a woman’s face struggles into view, surfacing like a submarine from a murk of blurry chemical distortion, it appears to have won a temporary reprieve from time. It rages against the dying of the projector’s light.
Issuing these decayed fragments in digital clarity may seem a little perverse, even contrary to the movie’s point. Even in an edition as fine as Plexifilm’s, DVD can only hint at how stunning Decasia must look on film. The wilder Morrison’s disintegrating images get on disc, the more they resemble something wriggling under glass. Still, that’s ultimately the fate of all movies, especially those like Decasia made outside the commercial mainstream. They can be enshrined on disc, entombed for the ages in digital codeor, like the Sufi dancer who reappears at the end of Morrison’s film, they can unreel on celluloid until they finally fly apart into dust.
Also on disc: The only thing the Hong Kong actioner So Close (Columbia, $24.95) has in common with Decasia is that it never played Nashville theaters in release last year. Our loss: This stylish trifle about a dogged cop (Karen Mok) chasing a lithe contract killer (Shu Qi) and her apprentice sister (Zhao Wei) plays like a dream hybrid of TV’s Alias and Kill Bill. It was directed by veteran fight choreographer Cory Yuen, whose work has a distinctive elegance and physical wit: the movie’s all gleaming surfaces and cool moves, from the opening of smokin’-hot Shu taking down a high-rise full of thugsand in stiletto heels, no less. It makes a terrific Friday-night rental for action lovers; if it’s checked out, try Yuen’s knucklehead classic The Transporter, with Shu on the other foot as a kidnap victim.
♦ If you’re stumped for Valentine-weekend entertainment, several recent DVD titles should go nicely with a box of candy. Just released this week, the grandly entertaining 1990 remake of Cyrano de Bergerac has a swashbuckling lead in Gerard Depardieu and an intoxicating spirit of courtly romance. John Milius’ adventure The Wind and the Lion may have been too classical-Hollywood for 1975, but it’s a rousing old-school epic with chemistry to spare between Sean Connery’s desert warrior and Candice Bergen’s not-unwilling captive.
Francis Ford Coppola’s musical whatsit One From the Heart, a notorious dud in 1982, has just been released in an acclaimed two-disc special edition from Fantoma, giving contemporary viewers another shot at Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle’s lovely songs. And while Joel and Ethan Coen’s screwball farce Intolerable Cruelty may be one of their weakest films, it has George Clooney’s delightful matinee-idol mugging as a divorce attorney who falls prey to his own tactics.
If none of those work, you can’t go wrong with Say Anything, Amelie, Notorious, The Awful Truth, either version of The Thomas Crown Affair, or a pair of Ernst Lubitsch jewels, The Shop Around the Corner and Trouble in Paradise. Or you can just skip the niceties, grab a couple of King Cobras and head straight for Two Moon Junction.