Jean-Luc Godard once pointed out that we never talk about "old books", only "old films". It's as though what cinema gains in its properties of immediacy, it pays for in an ephemerality that other arts escape. This phenomenon is poignantly evoked in Decasia (U), American film-maker Bill Morrison's extraordinary contemplation of what it means for images to be old. Morrison's wordless film - set to an insistent, chilling score by Michael Gordon - assembles archive footage that, because of the inherently unstable nature of the once-standard nitrate stock, has suffered extreme decay and degradation. Sometimes the images are barely readable under textures that are not so much distressed as agonised, with faces, figures, sometimes mere blurs of movement discernible under the amorphous shudderings and fracturings of the medium. At other times, the image itself decays: a ship seems to be heading directly into a storm of seething light, while a boxer fights for his life against a swirling pillar of entropy. In another shot, a parade of young schoolchildren passes; one child turns and looks straight to camera, and it feels like a last farewell on the way to the afterlife. These images have been given a metaphysical twist not just by their age, but their condition; pictures of the past are glimpsed as palimpsests, barely readable among the burns and scratches.
All the people we see are long dead, and suddenly film has lost its power to bring the deceased back to life. The dead return only as faded, mutilated revenants. Their faces flare up in puffs of ectoplasm, or distort into skulls for the length of a few frames. At these moments, Decasia becomes a horror film, a diagnosis of the cancer of the image. Without using a single word, Morrison gives us an eloquent and haunting philosophical investigation into memory, death and the moving image. JR
Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888), to 7 DecReuse content