Finding Meaning in Decay: Bill Morrison’s DECASIA
In his book on the Origin of the German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin writes about the practice of the baroque allegorist, who, in conceiving allegories, attempted to link a certain meaning to a figure. He did that by assembling requisites around said figure that should, as a result of that process, symbolize the intended concept — peace, justice, truth — and fix the relation between concept and object once and for all. By thus resolving the problem of universals, he’d be able to found meaning in the material world once and for all. But, as the frustrated look at old collections of allegories will prove to the curious viewer, the connection fades, or at least appears artificial; bearing the allegorist with the task of continuously renewing it by conceiving new allegories over and over again, by surrounding the figure with new succinct requisites.
The loss of meaning is the fundamental experience of vanity, an experience that itself became reflected in allegories, as in Dürer’s Melencolia I, an allegory about the failure of allegories; an experience that has become closely associated with for the baroque epoch.
The fading of photographs, particularly of photographed people, as attempts to fix a figure on a piece of paper, freeing it from its perpetually decaying body, leads to a similar experience of vanity. The material of the image, tamed and invisible in a fresh shot, will soon cover the figures with a thick curtain that will not even grace us with a bottomless abyss — try to scratch off the mould and dirt off a marred photograph, you will end up with a hole in the paper. The photographic portrait and the baroque allegory can in that sense be understood as attempts to overcome the experience of vanity.
But the baroque allegory fixes meaning by uniting things with concepts; a photographic portrait fixes meaning by separating the material from the figure, by opening up the curtain of the surface and letting us see through it to a thing that elicits meaning, that speaks to us. Deterioration, on the other hand, is the approximation of the figure to its material foundation; faces that become blotches, textures that become random patterns. Time lets it all sink into indifference. Decay itself bears no meaning, leaving neither trace nor hope — or does it? Can this process only be overcome by a celebratory act of renewal, as conducted by cultic and religious rituals (or, as we’ve seen above, by the baroque allegorist), or can becoming itself bear meaning, fundamentally altering the seemingly universal experience of vanity?
A destructive form of the experience of vanity lets us perceive the things around us as ruins: the face of the other as a skull, one’s actions as forgotten, one’s relations as necessarily ending with death. It is what Kierkegaard calls seeing the present as already past: seeing all things from the vantage point of their ending. Such an experience paralyzes us, because it renders all action futile, it leads directly to absolute silence. If that was all, the baroque allegorist wouldn’t even have started conceiving allegories and the whole epoque that was affected by such an experience would have remained silent — there would be no baroque to speak of. Is there another way to comprehend vanity then?
An alternative to seeing things from their ending is to see them as becoming. We might think here of examples from the visual arts depicting youth or aging. But while in such a case the image expresses becoming, we don’t perceive the image as becoming itself. When we see a picture by Hodler in a museum, we hope that future generation will see the same picture, unchanged. The traces that time leaves on the image are hidden and we rarely perceive them in masterpieces because conservators work hard on undoing all the damage of time — only in the cracks that run through the oil paint we might perceive its age. Throughout the 20th century, artists became interested in other modes of expressing the temporality of things, as for example did Jean Tinguely with his auto-destructive art. Interestingly enough though, the act of destruction was itself captured on film, opening up the small window of hope, of escaping temporality.
Bill Morrison’s Decasia shifts the theme of becoming in a significant way; it is neither art that depicts change, nor art that undergoes it (watching the film doesn’t deteriorate the file). It is not so much a film about becoming or a becoming film, it is a film of becoming. The images that were selected from archives for this found footage film are images in the process of decay (hence the name), meaning that the depicted figures and the founding material are no longer indifferent to each other. But instead of a one-sided dissolution of the figure by the material, as in the experience of vanity, where the indifferent material world undoes the meaningful (con)figuration, the images of the film depict decay as a dialectical progress. What does that mean?
Let us look at the image shown above. It starts out with an abstract ornamental mishmash that slowly transforms into the figure and the ornamental dress of the Japanese lady, while the figure itself dissolves into the abstract dance of material decay. The two levels intertwine, oscillate, bearing witness to a certain sympathy between material and figure.
In the following image, the depicted waves are sympathetically reflected in the undulating material — the surface of the image itself becomes a wave in a strange act of mimesis.
The film is filled with such images, thematically altering the concept of decay — from a one-sided dissolution into undoing to a dialectical oscillation between form (figure) and material. Does the boxer hammer at the material that threatens to devour him, or his opponent who is hidden behind the material? We are experiencing an inherent ambivalence, where the material can be a curtain veiling a figure just as much as the figure, like the boxer on the left, can act as a curtain rendering the material invisible — we don’t see the silver nitrate in a perfectly preserved film image. After all, both the boxer and his dissolved opponent are essentially the same thing; hyle and morphe are one, they are differentiated in an act of transfiguration.
A preserved image might depict waves and preserve them the way they were while being filmed, giving their recurring breaking on the cliffs a semblance of immortality. But just as, at some point, the depicted waves will stop breaking due to the decay of filmic material, so will the ‘real’ ones disappear one day, even though we can barely imagine such a point in time. If meaning results from de-temporalization, then it fades and fails in the very moment when time finally catches up. In such a case, the material (morphe) is experienced as a purely destructive force, even more so in its indifference towards the living.
Within the allegorical ‘mindset’, then, only the figure elicits meaning, and it only elicits meaning, as long as it is, while the material acts as a negating and perpetually undoing force. But it is not the depiction of waves that makes Decasia’s images meaningful, and strictly speaking not even the depiction the fading images of waves. Neither the figures (i.e. the depicted waves) nor the material (i.e. the filmic material) emanate meaning, but the incommensurable interplay of both. It is the experience of an irreducible ambivalence that becomes meaningful, out of which a new understanding of the material (morphe) can arise, namely of a sympathetic materiality.
The dualistic differentiation between body and soul, between thing and meaning (problem of universals), the ancient suspicion against everything carnal and material leads to a discordant conception between the two spheres. It results in a concession to subjugate the body, to control the empirical world and to transcend the worldly realm. But just as necessarily does it lead to the skewed experience of vanity sketched up above: All attempts to subdue the material, to fix certain meanings to certain concepts will fail, because materiality will always win, because in a world of change there is no space for unchanging concepts or an unchanging soul.
Normally, films are presented as ‘timeless’ images, images in perfect condition that aspire to remain unchanged once and for all. After all, Psycho, looks as good as it did more than 50 years ago; neither (the depicted) Janet Leigh has aged, nor the (filmic) depiction of her. Time comes into play as film forms linear series, following the ‘classical’ arrow of time. One might say that it follows the husserlian conception of retention and protention, meaning that the image receives its meaning from its position within the series. Instead of each image autarkically containing all its meaning within itself, it pre-frames the (potential) meaning of the next one and feeds on the information that was fed to it by the previous images. In film studies, this is known as the Kuleshov effect and lead to the insight that in film, montage is the leading force behind the construction of meaning.
Soviet director Lev Kuleshov combined an actor’s image (on the left) with a certain contextualising image (on the right; food, a coffin, a woman), and each time the audience interpreted the actor’s expression differently, depending on the image that followed it. Hence, his expression gained meaning through the other image(s). This can result in a structuralist conception of meaning, in which each instance gains meaning negatively from its paradigmatic and syntagmatic position. During film projection, then, each image continues the narration and hence builds upon what came before it and frames our future expectation; the shock of Psycho’s famous shower scene is precisely because of our expectation of Janet Leigh being the protagonist (and hence surviving till the end) that now needs to be readjusted, while, on the other hand, a murder scene in itself perfectly follows the genre convention of the thriller.
In short, series are formed by atemporal, positioned points of reference that are set within a certain structure and receive meaning through it. But because Decasia is not made of such fixed ‘Lego bricks’, and rather of elements that are themselves fluid, it needs to be understood within another dynamics of inter-pictoral meaning generation.
So let’s look at the film again. The theme of becoming is not only reflected within the images, but also between the images. For example, the image of the dervish appears three times throughout the film: in the beginning, in the middle and in the end of the film — but in a progressively worse state. The circularity of the dervish dance is intertwined with the linearity of decay. Again, there are two levels that begin to oscillate dialectically: circularity and linearity. This is further reflected in the juxtaposition of images of film development with a carpet factory, with the further parallelization of film coil and quill. The association is obvious — on the one hand, the film coil unites circularity in its form and linearity in the film projection, on the other hand the linear thread will lead to an areal carpet, just as the linear sequence of images leads to a textural plane of themes. The series of images in the ‘ordinary’ film is therefore replaced by a thematic texture, in which different levels and elements refer to each other and form a dense ornament of interrelation, instead of a linear narrative that is only unilateral. This leads to a different, non-husserlian understanding of time: Instead of a linear logic of evolution or devolution, where meaning is only created negatively, each and every instance reinterprets the meaning of the whole, which itself changes and situates the image in an ever-changing texture. Again, two seemingly separate levels begin to oscillate in a state of irreducible ambivalence. Just as youth, instead of just being defined as no-longer-childhood and not-yet-adulthood (retention/protention), it is in a state of constant reinterpretation, where the importance of certain events relates to the ever-changing subject. After all, one’s childhood might be a time of folly and embarrassment for a young adult and a time of paradisiac nostalgia for old age.
This short sketch left many interpretative aspects of Decasia underdeveloped; but its only aspiration is to sharpen the eye of the potential viewer to its reflexion of vanity that might circumvent the baroque desperation. This occurs both on the level of the single image, and on the level of editing — the succession of images. The oscillation of material and figure in the former is mirrored in the oscillation of circularity and linearity in the latter. Two elements that are usually considered incommensurable and indifferent to each other are thereby set into a ‘sympathetic’ relation. The world is thereby no longer empty and devoid of meaning, but traversed by textures, configurations, ambivalences, reverberations, intricacies — no longer to try to establish something eternal in an ever-changing universe, and rather to lay open the creative potentials of change itself. It is not a comfortable or easy film, and I invite the viewer to reflect on their reaction to these images that at least try to find meaning in decay.