Spring, 2003. I was a student at Rochester Institute of Technology, where I had recently defected from the School of Film and Animation in the hopes of pursuing a degree in English elsewhere. Even after leaving SOFA, however, I would often attend departmental events and film screenings (I was particularly fond of the end-of-term student film critiques, which were open to the public and which stretched on for days). So when I saw a flyer publicizing a program of short films by Bill Morrison, introduced by the filmmaker, I was intrigued and ended up going with my then-roommate. I was immediately struck by the panache of Morrison’s work, most of which utilizes found footage from the early twentieth century. My roommate had a more difficult time with it; I can remember him turning to me halfway through Morrison’s The Death Train and saying, “I can’t watch anymore of this—sorry!”, and splitting. I stayed for the rest of The Death Train, though I was more taken with two of Morrison’s shorts from the early 1990s, Footsteps, a woozy mélange of footage from old jungle adventure movies, and the elegiac Photo Op, which evokes an eerie post-war Europe.
It wasn’t until this week that I finally saw Decasia (2003), Morrison’s magnum opus, a paean to decaying, unidentified, and/or abandoned film footage. Decasia is a kind of bird’s nest of a film, assembled as it is out of wasted scraps and fragments of other films that have been cast off, forgotten, and left to rot. Spliced together, they become fascinating curiosities. Taken out of context, these silent images—many of them badly damaged—are like the flickers of a half-remembered dream; some of them are poignant, others arresting, still others surreal, baffling. What’s interesting about Decasia is that even as Morrison seems to lament the loss of these unremembered and unpreserved films he also makes their decay into something beautiful in its own right. Those splotches and burns and disintegrations create visual patterns that recall the work of a very different experimental filmmaker, Stan Brakhage, for whom painting, scratching, or attaching organic material onto the negative became a way of creating mesmerizing abstract compositions. Morrison’s mutilated images are the archive of cinema history, a faint trace of what has been left behind, and a reminder that there, too, lies a curious kind of beauty.