Decasia: The State of Decay - DVD Review

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Terry St, Feb 13, 2004.

  1. Terry St

    Terry St Second Unit

    Jun 21, 2002
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    [c]Decasia: The State of Decay[/c]


    “Like the film, our bodies will eventually be reduced to what essentially forms us. What they contain is who we are: our thoughts, dreams, and memories.” – Bill Morrison

    [c]The Film:[/c]

    Decasia is the sort of film that will probably never find much of an audience. It came as no surprise to me when its recent DVD release came and went completely unheralded in any of the sources I normally scour for DVD reviews. I felt this was a bit of an oversight, so here is my feeble attempt to rectify that.

    Decasia was originally intended to be a visual accompaniment for a symphony by Michael Gordon. The relationship goes a little deeper than that however, since the symphony and film were developed in parallel, each influencing the creation of the other. While the film was cut to flow with the music, the concept for the film greatly influenced the nature of the music. What eventually came into existence was a film about film, or more specifically, how film decomposes.

    Decasia is comprised entirely of stock footage, mostly nitrate based, found in varying states of decay. The footage covers many diverse subjects ranging from boxing to mining to sufi dancing. The one theme that ties everything together is the half decomposed state of the images. Nitrate film is infamous for it’s flammability, since it generates its own oxygen as it burns. The stuff will actually burn under water! Interestingly enough it also decomposes in more diverse and fascinating ways than the safety film that has since replaced it. As difficult as it may be to believe, Bill Morrison claims that absolutely no processing or special effects were used to produce Decasia. The only thing he did was slow down the footage so that the decay doesn’t simply blur into an incomprehensible mess. The result is a completely organic acid trip of surprising beauty.


    I must admit that when I first saw this film I was actually bored stiff for the first 10 minutes or so. Many of the shots Morrison selected are long and of mundane subject material. When slowed down they positively crawl along at an excruciatingly slow rate. It was then that I realized that I was doing something dreadfully wrong. I watch a lot of obscure older films, so film damage is something that I am used to mentally filtering out. I was looking through the decay when I was supposed to be looking at the decay! I was ignoring the heart and soul of this film to watch a camel walk across the horizon in slow motion! When I focused on the damage instead of ignoring it I suddenly found what I was watching to be highly kinetic and varied.


    The symphony itself is highly unusual. Michael Gordon used an ancient and decrepit piano, hopelessly out of tune, as a musical metaphor for the film. He actually had his orchestra detune their instruments. The music that results is strangely dissonant, but still beautiful and compelling. (Although probably not to everyone’s taste!)

    The final effect of Decasia reminded me greatly of the Qatsi trilogy, directed by Godfrey Reggio and scored by Philip Glass. (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi) Indeed, Glass and Reggio are both credited with thanks in Decasia’s credits, so it’s possible they had some influence on the project. I strongly recommend Decasia to fans of the Qatsi trilogy.

    [c]The Transfer:[/c]

    Decasia had to have been a problematic film to transfer. Most films are cleaned and filtered extensively for DVD in order to eliminate as much film grain and damage as possible. This isn’t done simply to please videophiles, but also to reduce the amount of information that must be put through MPEG compression. Excessive grain and damage often leads to nasty MPEG artifacting. Decasia must have been an encoding nightmare since there were huge differences in nearly every frame. Cleaning up Decasia would functionally destroy the film. You simply couldn’t do it. Despite this, I still feel that the transfer could have been better.

    First of all, there is some video noise and artifacting, although it’s not that obvious due to the nature of Decasia. There was also a reasonable ammount of edge-enhancement used, although some scenes appear to exhibit far more than others. Some of the film exhibited a halo effect due to decay however, which should not be confused with EE. (This effect is far more pronounced) What did strike me as unusually bad about this transfer was a set of diagonal lines that crawled across the screen. I can’t recall witnessing something like this in any other DVD I’ve seen. These lines were very faint and only visible in the darkest portions of the screen. Overall, the impression the transfer gives isn’t very film-like, which is unfortunate. The credits in particular were absolutely hideous. They were so much worse than the rest of the film I found myself wondering how the heck this happened!


    To plexifilm’s credit, they did use a fairly high bitrate that is well into the same realm as Superbit DVD’s from Sony/Tri-star. However, Decasia is a rather short film and there was more than a gig of empty space left on a DVD-5!!! There is definitely room for improvement here. Still, even if transferred perfectly Decasia will never by “reference” material. It’s just not the nature of the film. If you’re looking for a reference disc, keep looking.

    [c]The Sound:[/c]

    Michael Gordon’s symphony was performed by the Basel Sinfonietta and is included here in a Dolby 5.1 track. Given the nature of the film and the quality of the video transfer, the audio was actually a surprising treat! The sound is excellent. All channels were surprisingly active and the bass-heavy composition gave my sub a real workout. Concert DVD fans might find the track to be a little gimmicky since it essentially places you somewhere in the middle of the orchestra, but I found it to be quite enjoyable. I suspect that a less compressed source would sound even better, but that’s difficult to judge without a frame of reference. If Decasia is ever released as a DVD-A or SACD I’ll be glad to pick it up. (Yes, I feel the music is good enough to stand alone.)


    [c]The Extras:[/c]

    A 7 minute radio interview is included, but nothing else. Not even trailers, which definitely do exist. (You can download atrociously compressed trailers from the film’s website.)

    Decasia may well be an experimental art-film of the sort that many will hate, but it simply hasn’t gotten even a fraction of the attention it deserves. Highly Recommended to the adventurous!



    Review System:
    Sharp PG-M20X projector
    HTPC with M-Audio Revo and Radeon 9600XT
    Anthem AVM20 Preamp and Bryston 9BST Amp
    Onix Rocket RS750’s x 4 plus RSC200 center
    Paradigm Servo-15 Sub
  2. Hans M.

    Hans M. Stunt Coordinator

    Dec 5, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Excellent review, Terry. You are much too modest. Well done, especially in going into the technical aspects of the film’s conversion to DVD.
    I had the luxury of seeing this film on the big screen. It definitely made my top ten of last year. What an amazing work of art it is! And that's the way one should look at it. Those with short attention spans beware! But if you are the type that likes to go to art museums and understands that observing a piece of art can take more than 45 minutes (the movie's a little over an hour long), then this film will give you amazing visual as well as aural pleasure. The music too deserves credit to making this film work. It was originally projected with the orchestra playing live! What an experience that would have been!
    I will reiterate: this is not a boring film, if your open your mind, as our reviewer suggests. The range and variety of decay is incredible. The director was on-hand at our screening, and he took lots of great questions. One thing I found interesting is that he did not know why the decay varied so much. There’s lots of wondrous and surprising imagery that boggles the mind.

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