Spoleto overview: Decasia. Never again

Thank god it's over


  • Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA
Last night I saw the second of the two films that Spoleto's brought to us this year, Decasia. It's an experimental, found-footage film consisting of clips from black-and-white movies (mostly silent, but not all) that are in a physical state of decay — as in, the film itself has warped, or been damaged. It's a little more than an hour and set to an original score in which the orchestra plays out of tune with itself, and which the Spoleto Festival USA performed on stage  

I purposely gave myself some time between seeing the film and writing this post in case my reaction to the film mellowed or changed, but it hasn't. And so: With all due respect to filmmaker Bill Morrison, whose genius I do not dispute, I have to say that I agreed with the sentiment, though not the conduct, of the man sitting two rows in front of me who shot up out of his seat as soon as the film was over and yelled "Thank god that's over!" directly at the stage. 

I cannot imagine voluntarily sitting through that entire film had I not been worried about disrespecting the world-class orchestra in front of me, playing that terrible, grating music to the best of their abilities. If I had seen that in a typical movie theater, there's no way I'd have made it to the end. 

To back up a bit: the event opened with a performance of [Kamakala], a recently discovered symphonic piece by the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. I really didn't like the piece, either, although I suppose it was musically, and certainly historically, interesting. It was cacophonous and dark — conductor John Kennedy pointed out to us at the start that there were no violins, oboes, or flutes in the score. To me, it sounded as if someone had a piano that made all the sounds of the orchestra and was banging on the keys with very little rhythm. 

After that, Decasia started with an opening, intact shot of a whirling dervish. From there, we go through what looks to be a movie studio film processing room, where huge machines roll and soak film strips as a disembodied hand reaches in to some kind of chemical bath and pulls out a film strip to show the camera. It looks like an old educational video. 

And this is when the really trippy stuff starts. We get a scene where the film's blisters and bubbles move on the screen at hyperspeed, almost totally obscuring whatever image was originally there. It was sort of like watching amoebas swim around, but way sped up. It's weird enough on its own, and enough to give you a headache after a few minutes, but combined with the music it becomes something really dark. 

That's the thrust of the entire film: we watch scenes, mostly with people in them, that have been transformed by time, age, and neglect into something spooky or unsettling. People are outlined in metallic halos; the blacks and the whites are switched and metalicized, which results in images like a woman whose skin and body are dark, but whose laughing lips are bright white; and in the some of the strangest images, people's heads seem to come apart and dissolve into smoke. That's some nightmare-worthy stuff right there.
  • Courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA

The music is, as I said, terrible and grating, in my opinion. It screeches and whirrs and drones — you know you're really in for something when the orchestra members put in earplugs before they begin playing. I haven't asked John Kennedy about this or anything, so I'm only speculating, but I'm guessing the earplugs are because at some points, the music becomes so shrill it could kill a dog. 

Now, I am not saying that this isn't a valuable work of art (although I think 30 minutes would be a much more appropriate length). Morrison's devised and communicated a coherent artistic vision here, and it's one that has merit. I get that by watching these destroyed scenes, we are — at least I was — forced to think about mortality, temporality, how everything from the people we love to the planet we live on will one day die. Even film, which we always say "immortalizes" people, is not immortal. It falls apart like everything else on earth.

The whirling dervish begins and ends the film — in my take, that's a kind of foil for the rest of the scenes of the movie, since dervishes are supposed to be achieving some kind of infinite, perfect spiritual state when they whirl. It's something timeless, of the mind and spirit rather than the physical body, or the physical film that captured the dervish. There's poetry there, for sure. 

But then there were moments that I actually had to laugh at, like the damaged scene of what I'm assuming was a C-section. Damage-wise, it looked like the film had been exposed, maybe — after a second of looking at it, you could tell that there were all these hands wearing gloves digging into somebody's body. In a nice touch, the music got really crazy and loud just as a baby's head is being pulled out of the mother. And since this is damaged film, the baby looks like a devil spawn or alien or something. It was so arthouse horror film I couldn't help but laugh in ... disbelief? Shock? Horror that I was actually in for another 40 or 50 minutes of this sort of thing?

There were several scenes that I felt just went over the top in combination with the droning music, like one in which a man is pulling another man out of some body of water to safety, dragging him onto a swampy beach. Suddenly they see something in the water and their eyes get huge and white and they scream (no sound, of course, except for the wailing music). 

There's also a whole amusement park sequence in which you see people riding old-timey ferris wheels and carousels and roller coaster-type things — the film looks to have been shot in the early 1900s or 1910s — as they're eaten or destroyed by film blisters and bubbly holes. Again, there's a moment that struck me as so over-the-top that I had to laugh a bit: a couple of people, kids I think, are riding a carousel and having a great time, while the music shifts into this dread-inducing, terrifying cacophany. At the time, the phrase that came into my mind was "death cannons." Make of that what you will.

All I could think was, really? Was I really watching people smile and openly, blatantly have fun while simultaneously hearing music that could score the slow advance of the most horrific monster as he came to kill a person with absolutely no hope of escape? Those were the moments when I felt I could see the filmmaker donning his avant-garde sunglasses and really showing them off. It was simplistic, cheap. Silly, even.

There were two scenes that I found really beautiful, both of which had been greatly slowed down. One was of a silhouetted camel caravan crossing a sand dune — the damage here was pretty minimal, and the footage was striking all on its own.

The other was at a convent or girls' school, and showed a nun leading a long line of girls, who ranged in age from very small to teenaged, along a kind of colonnaded pathway. The line was very, very long, so this shot was on the screen for quite a while. Every now and then a blister would obscure one of the girls' faces, which was interesting and sad, somehow. Toward the end, one of the older girls looked back at the camera once, twice, three times, breaking the fourth wall in a way that was very moving. It made her seem very alone in that huge group. 

But that's about all I enjoyed, because it was that beauty that I felt was missing from the rest of the film. There was strangeness, yes, uniqueness, certainly, discomfort, absolutely. Yet if there was some grander beauty there, whether it came from death or loss or whatever, that would have made me get to the end and say, "OK, that was worth it." As it was, I got to the end and was just so thankful it was finished. 

I think the music was the real clincher for me; it was honestly very difficult to listen to. I have to give props to the man to my right who was sleeping through it. That must have required a real, concerted effort. 

As for whether this was a Spoleto-worthy event? I don't know. I guess so — I certainly wouldn't have had such a strong reaction to Decasia if it weren't artistically powerful in some way. Art has a way of showing you things about yourself, after all. Apparently, I really don't like thinking about death. 

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