10 April 2010
I got my love of film from one of my very odd great-uncles, a lovely man who always regretted the switch to talkies in the 30s. “They just stood around all the time,” he said, contrasting them with the great action and adventure of the silent era. Thus, it was a terrible thing during World War II when the only job he could get was in a factory, destroying reels of silent films to extract the silver nitrate for use in the war effort.
Film scholars guess-stimate that 83% of films from the silent era have been lost forever — and it wasn’t just during the war that old silents were destroyed. Many companies saw film as so transient that it could be jettisoned after it had left the theaters. At one point, companies like Paramount and Universal dumped archives of films into the Pacific or blew up old reels for special effects on their sets. Some of the flammable stock simply exploded on its own; or the celluloid has degraded so much that it’s hard to see what’s going on in the original scene.
That’s what makes Bill Morrison’s “Decasia: A Symphony in Decay” (2002) all the more eloquent. He took reels of partially-degraded silent film stock and reproduced it in slow motion, tying together loosely-related scenes and backing it with a sometimes-dissonant score. A boxer appears on one half of the image, throwing punches at what now seems to be an evolving extraterrestrial blob. Scenes at an amusement park show a monstrous chaos that belches out the cars on a roller coaster. Whirling dervishes twirl with their eyes closed and, to enhance our understanding of their religious transcendence, the men flash back and forth from positive to negative. It’s utterly transfixing.
This is so worth watching. You start out trying to see through the decay to the story onscreen; eventually you start watching the decay itself. It tells us something larger than a story about film and loss: you can’t help but imagine new narratives emerging from it. Take a look at a clip, at least.